After 30 years of service, a Congressional trailblazer and much-beloved politician is about to retire — but not before she receives the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, as well as the Leadership in Public Service Award and the Leadership in International Relations Award from the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute.
To many in the Latinx community and beyond, these recognitions serve as a mere percentage of everything Representative Illeana Ros-Lehtinen has accomplished. The average age for Americans to retire is 63, but Ros-Lehtinen has stayed a couple of years longer for good measure. It’s likely safe to say that her proponents are thankful she did.
Ros-Lehtinen’s service has been marked by many firsts and fundamentals. Although Ros-Lehtinen’s name is often followed by the fact that she was the first Latina and the first Cuban-American to ever serve in Congress, her supporters — of which there are many — are quick to point out that her additional achievements are just as astonishing. She’s a Republican representative, but she’s also one of the biggest LGBTQ advocates in the entire party. In 2015, Ros-Lehtinen introduced a bill that would keep schools from discriminating against students based on their gender identity or sexual orientation. Much of her support stems from the fact that her son, Rodrigo, is transgender — and the first openly trans child of any sitting member of Congress.
Ros-Lehtinen’s emphasis on the importance of family is reflected in both her professional and personal life. Even when being interviewed by a reporter for NBC, Ros-Lehtinen had to balance questions with her responsibilities as grandma, sharing her granddaughter’s tech device and helping dress up a Latina Barbie. But while the average American now spends 10 hours and 39 minutes each day looking at screens and consuming media, Ros-Lehtinen’s focus has never strayed from what truly matters.
The sentiment that every person is entitled to basic human rights has been echoed in just about every move Ros-Lehtinen has made throughout her tenure. In fact, she’s the only Republican in Congress with a 100% rating from the Human Rights Campaign. She’s supported human rights in Tibet, pushed forward sanctions on humans rights violations in Venezuela, and argued for a better immigration system and protection for Dreamers here in the United States. She plans to continue her efforts to fight for families, equality, diversity, and human rights in the private sector following her retirement.
Ros-Lehtinen’s retirement will create a big void felt by many, particularly due to the sweeping backlash against the Republican party following President Trump’s election. While some Republicans feel the party will move towards greater inclusivity, others are worried about losing their votes as younger Americans turn 18 and exercise their rights. Although no one is certain what will happen once her seat is vacant, most are certain that the next representative will have a lot to live up to.
Eduardo Gamarra, director of the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University, told NBC News at a recent event: “She’s really an icon in the community for a number of reasons. Not only is she a Republican congresswoman, but she’s been able to transcend the rigors of just being [known as] a Cuban American woman.”
Gamarra added, “I vote Democratic, but I have great admiration for her. I disagree with her on just about everything, but she’s been able to be a very, very effective voice.”