The first Hispanic woman elected to Congress, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, was born in Havana, Cuba on July 15, 1952. In 1960, she and her family—including her parents and a brother—fled to Miami from Cuba, a year after political leader Fidel Castro’s revolution rocked that tiny island nation. Almost immediately, Ros-Lehtinen’s parents became involved with other recent refugees in plotting the downfall of the Castro regime. But after the failure of an invasion attempt by anti-Castro forces at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs in 1961, the possibility of returning to Cuba became more and more remote, and Ros vowed to raise his children as loyal Americans.

She studied at Miami-Dade Community College, where she received an A.A. degree in 1972. She subsequently studied at Florida International University, where she earned a B.A. in 1975, and an M.S. in 1987. She is a candidate for a Ph.D. in education at the University of Miami. Before embarking on her political career, Ros-Lehtinen worked as a teacher and was principal for ten years at Eastern Academy, a school she founded. Her love of politics came as a legacy from her father who had concentrated so much of his life on the hope of restoring democracy to his native land. He is said to have been the chief architect of her political career and was at her side when she announced her victory in her U.S. Congressional race.

In 1982, Ros-Lehtinen began her political career when she was elected to the Florida House of Representatives, becoming the first Hispanic woman elected to Florida’s State legislature. She served until 1986, when she became a State Senator. As a state legislator she supported legislation to promote drug-free work places and a tuition assistance program for Florida college students. She served as State Senator until 1989, when she was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in a special election to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Claude D. Pepper (D-FL). She represents Florida’s 18th District where, according to the 1990 census, sixty-seven percent of the population is Hispanic. She has been reelected three times, and ran unopposed in the 1994 election. In Congress she has continued her support of legislation dealing with education. She serves on the Foreign Affairs and Government Operations Committees. Her seat on the Foreign Affairs Committee is of particular importance to her Cuban-American constituency. In her second term, she played a key role in the discussion of the Cuban Democracy Act, which became part of the 1993 defense authorization. It specifically prohibits subsidiaries of U.S. corporations from trading with Cuba. In the 104th Congress, she became the Chair of the Africa Subcommittee, becoming the first Hispanic woman to chair a subcommittee, and was designated as Vice-Chair of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee.

The ethnic pride Ros-Lehtinen inherited from her father remains strong in the politician, and perhaps because of this, she is very conscious of her position as a role model for Hispanics. She also values the achievements made by other Hispanic women, and when presented with a special award from Hispanic magazine in 1992, she praised their successes. “[The Hispanic woman] is an accomplished writer, or a computer programmer, or an attorney, or a doctor, as well as a loving wife and mother.” She also believes that Hispanic women will continue to make contributions in the future. “Now, more than ever,” she wrote in Vista, “we Hispanic women must re-energize and refocus our efforts to realize the vast potential that lies within our grasp.”

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