WASHINGTON – Iraq war veteran Chris Gomez, a Mexican-American, was sure he was a perfect candidate for a government job. He had a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and was still serving in the Army Reserve as a sergeant first class.
For two years, month after month, he sent off applications to the Labor Department, the Bureau of Prisons and other federal agencies. They seemed to disappear. He was never sure whom to call or how to follow up.
I almost gave up, Gomez said.
With a wave of government retirements opening the way for a new generation of federal employees, Hispanic Americans, the nation’s fastest-growing minority group, remain chronically underrepresented in the government. And Hispanics say in large part that they are hamstrung because they lack the kind of contacts and networks that have helped black Americans secure federal jobs.
In the years after President John F. Kennedy tried to make government a model of fair hiring practices, black American fraternities and sororities – known as the Divine Nine – along with mentoring programs and fellowships helped unlock federal jobs and carve out a path to the middle class for hundreds of thousands of blacks.
Hispanic American advocates say they are struggling to learn from that success. A LatinoMagazine.com article put it this way: Tio Sam – Uncle Sam – has not yet been able to make any real progress.
The numbers are stark. Just 8.2 percent of about 1.9 million federal workers are Hispanic, compared with 15 percent in the private sector, according to an Office of Personnel Management report released in September. By contrast, black Americans make up 18.2 percent of the federal workforce, nearly double their percentage in the private sector. (Hispanics represent 13 percent of the U.S. population, while black Americans make up 17 percent, according to the Census Bureau.)
Our community could be way ahead financially if we were able to participate in federal government hiring the way African-Americans did, said Edward Valenzuela, co-chairman of the national Coalition for Fairness for Hispanics in Government.
Ultimately, it was Valenzuela’s group that provided the network Gomez needed.
There’s a real need for mentors to walk young Hispanics through the maze that is government culture, Gomez said. If I had that earlier, that would have changed everything for me.
Before he completely abandoned the search, he landed a government job at a veterans hospital in Waco, Texas, working with traumatized military service members.
Established at the start of the 20th century, the Divine Nine fraternities and sororities promoted leadership training, networking and mentoring programs for black Americans. The aim was to help graduates find jobs in what was considered a highly hostile mainstream environment, according to a compilation of essays called African American Fraternities and Sororities: The Legacy and the Vision.
These groups operate much the same way today, with graduate mentors assigned to pledges, guiding them not just through college life but through life after college, letting them know about job openings and holding job fairs.
Knowing no one
In the small city of Belen, N.M., Paco Perez didn’t have one relative or neighbor who worked for the federal government.
No one ever talked about it as an option, said Perez, 30.
While attending law school at the University of New Mexico, he met Martin Brennan, a former ambassador to Zambia and Uganda, who was at the school as part of the Diplomat in Residence Program.
While studying for the bar exam, Perez decided to take the highly competitive Foreign Service exam. He started meeting religiously with the diplomat and his successors at the school. They would have me for dinner and coach me. I don’t think I would have made it with out them, Perez said.
He passed the test and joined the Foreign Service as a public diplomacy officer in 2008.
There was maybe only one other Hispanic and it was like a punch in the stomach, he recalled. But then I thought, I could have real impact here.’
Forty years ago, blacks at the State Department formed the Thursday Luncheon Group, a place where they could talk openly about the workplace.
Perez and others, including his diplomat wife Stephanie Espinal, have formed the Tuesday Luncheon Group for Hispanics. They’ve come together recently to organize happy hours with other minority groups at the department. And Perez has visited high schools to talk about opportunities for Hispanics.