Polanco Fellows: A Capital Program that Changes Lives

Sept. 3, 2008
John Schumacher for Hispanic Business Magazine

090408-photoMarvin Pineda’s journey from Guatemala to the United States took two harrowing months. The trip for the 11-year-old and his family was arduous and frightening. He witnessed violence and feared for his own safety along the way.

When he arrived in Southeast Los Angeles, his ordeal was still not over. His family settled in a poor neighborhood and life was difficult. Yet, he listened when his mother told him, “Just study; that’s why I brought you.”

Mr. Pineda’s life experiences, and his subsequent degree from UC Riverside, made him an ideal candidate for a Polanco fellowship, a program which takes young, committed Hispanics who have overcome hardship and provides them with year-long, on-the-job Capitol training.

Named after former state Senator Richard Polanco, a founder and chairman of the California Latino Caucus Institute, the fellows program, which began in 2003, gives young Latinos a taste of public policy and life inside the Capitol and offers a connection with people who can open doors.

“It’s clear their experience has to be at the table,” Mr. Polanco said. “That’s part of California. That’s part of the United States. That’s part of America. Without that being present at the table, we’re left behind.”

The program is run by the non-profit California Latino Legislative Caucus Institute for Public Policy, which has six board members: the chairman, Mr. Polanco; president, David C. Lizarraga; secretary, Carmen Perez; treasurer, Angie Medina; former assemblyman Robert Pacheco and Roberta Sistos.

Fellows undergo three days of training at the Center for Creative Leadership in San Diego, a four-month placement at a state agency and an eight-month stint in a Legislative office. They are paid around $1,900 a month.

‘Genuinely Interested In Us’

The fellowship would change Mr. Pineda’s life. But first, he had to nail the interview.

After finding out he was one of 12 applicants invited to interview for six positions, he went to a JC Penney store, opened a charge account and bought a suit, a shirt, a tie and a pair of shoes. He realized he didn’t know how to tie the tie and on his drive to the interview at Burbank Airport, stopped at a Rite Aid in Maywood and asked a pharmacist for help.

“I said, ‘OK, that looks good,’” said the now 26-year-old, who spent the 2005-2006 school year as a Polanco fellow. He finished the program in State Senator Gilbert Cedillo’s office, where he plans to stay until starting law school at UC Davis this fall. “It was a great experience … The fellowship builds you professionally, personally and emotionally.”

Past and current fellows say they might have been left behind if not for the Polanco program. “You interact with a lot of high-level people,” said Alani Cridge, a 28-year-old Polanco fellow from 2003-2004, who expects to earn her master’s degree in Public Administration from USC in December. “These people are genuinely interested in us succeeding in life and meeting our goals. They’re interested in each of us as a person.”

Current Polanco fellow Felipe Perez agrees: “You always have somebody to turn to, which is really key.”

Javier Gutierrez, a Polanco fellow in 2003-2004, works as a corporate lawyer in the Riverside-San Bernardino area, near Los Angeles. Without the lessons learned in the fellowship, he said he wouldn’t be where he is today.

‘Fearlessness Comes From That Program’

“That year was just a spark,” said Mr. Gutierrez, whose fellowship included a placement in former Assemblyman Rudy Bermudez’s office. “It kind of lit a flame. I’m not afraid of anything. Fearlessness comes from that program.”

Mr. Gutierrez, 26, grew up in South Central Los Angeles, the son of a Mexican father and an African American mother who met while working together at a fast food restaurant. Sometimes there was nothing to eat in the house but Cheetos. But there was always time to study.

“My parents didn’t allow for me to make excuses,” Mr. Gutierrez said. “You get to the fellowship, no one accepts mediocrity. My parents were kind of like that.”

Alma Perez’s first taste of the State Capitol came during a Chicano Latino Youth Leadership conference, an experience that convinced her she needed to return some day. The Polanco fellowship gave her that chance.

Now she’s a consultant for the state Senate Committee on Labor and Industrial Relations. Getting there wasn’t easy. Ms. Perez, 26, remembers her early days in Michoacan, Mexico, when she would cut a piece of cardboard the size of her foot to put in her shoe so the hole wouldn’t bother her.

When she was nine, she moved to Morgan Hill, near San Jose. While a student at UC Berkeley, she worked 40 hours a week at various jobs before graduating and landing a Polanco fellowship in 2004-2005.

Assigned to former state Senator Richard Alarcon’s office, Ms. Perez recalls working some days on the state budget until one or two in the morning.

“You come home, you feel like you’re a part of history,” she said. “For me, when I was growing up, the idea of ever being a part of it just seemed like a dream. It was really a life-changing experience.”

Mr.Pineda echoes that sentiment. He left Guatemala in poverty, then met with that country’s president and vice president on a recent trip there with Senator Cedillo.

“I always say, sometimes life, it’s very hard,” said Mr. Pineda, a permanent resident who is about to become a U.S. citizen. “I say that I’ve been blessed. So far my life has been difficult. And wonderful.”

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Support for the program comes from 19 sponsors: Amgen, AT&T, Bank of America, Chevron, Chrysler, Heineken USA, Kaiser Permanente, Nielsen, Nielsen Media Research, Pepsico, Pfizer, Sempra Energy, Southern California Edison, Southwest Airlines, Telacu, The First American Corporation, Washington Mutual, Western States Petroleum Association and Union Bank of California.

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