"It was what was right by us as human beings. I mean, we would often work really long hours—we didn’t get paid by hour here. And quite frankly salaries are low. It’s not like everybody was paid per hour and putting in overtime by staying in that workshop on a Saturday and a Sunday. But we did it with joy because we knew the need for this community to be protected—rightfully so, because they qualified—and to be empowered....So, no, none of us—from the caseworkers in the district office, which we had great, great staff, to Luis Gutiérrez, the Congressman himself, and all of us in between—none of us ever, ever, ever, ever waivered."
—Jennice Fuentes, December 20, 2018
Jennice Fuentes started her career in the House of Representatives as a caseworker for Puerto Rican Resident Commissioners Jaime B. Fuster and Antonio J. Colorado and rose to be chief of staff for Illinois Representative Luis V. Gutiérrez. In this oral history, she describes her role helping constituents, advocating for Puerto Rico, and working on a diverse array of legislation throughout her time on Capitol Hill.
Fuentes discusses the challenges facing staff in the Resident Commissioner’s office. Created in 1901, the position of Resident Commissioner has a circumscribed role in the House that differs from a U.S. Representative. While they are elected, serve on committees, and can introduce legislation like their colleagues, Resident Commissioners cannot vote on the House Floor. In her interview, Fuentes recalls the office’s strategies to overcome these limitations, including efforts to educate House Members about Puerto Rico and its relationship with the mainland.
Fuentes also highlights the fundamental differences in priorities and possibilities for staff employed by a Member who can vote on the House Floor. After joining the staff of Representative Gutiérrez, who was of Puerto Rican descent, Fuentes concentrated on legislation related to immigration rights and reform. She recalls picking the Congressman up after his arrest at a protest for immigrant rights and the treatment of Puerto Rico by the U.S. government. She also remembers assisting migrants with the naturalization process during “citizenship days” in Representative Gutiérrez’s Chicago district. As a woman of color, Fuentes hopes her work on Capitol Hill opened doors for other women seeking a professional career in Congress.
Jennice Fuentes’ career in the House of Representatives spanned from the late 1980s to 2013. She worked for Puerto Rican Resident Commissioners Jaime B. Fuster and Antonio J. Colorado, as well as Illinois Representative Luis V. Gutiérrez, becoming his chief of staff in 2003. During her career, she developed a detailed knowledge of legislative strategy, helped constituents as a caseworker, and brought the concerns of the Puerto Rican people to Capitol Hill.
Born in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, Fuentes is the daughter of Rafael and Jenny Fuentes. She graduated high school from Colegio Puertorriqueño de Niñas and traveled to the mainland for college. She earned a bachelor’s degree in government and foreign relations from Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, and a master’s degree in international relations from New York University in New York City.
In 1988, Resident Commissioner Jaime Fuster hired Fuentes as a caseworker in his office and promoted her to legislative assistant in 1989. In this position, she focused on the revision of the 1982 Coastal Barrier Resources Act, which identifies and protects coastal areas from overdevelopment. When Fuster resigned from the House in March 1992 to serve as an associate justice on the Puerto Rican supreme court, Fuentes continued to work for the new Resident Commissioner, Antonio J. Colorado, as she looked for a new job.
That fall, she saw newly-elected Representative Luis Gutiérrez of Illinois speak at a conference on Puerto Rico. Impressed by his speech and excited by his ideas, she introduced herself to the Congressman and expressed her interest in working for him. After an interview, the office hired her.
Gutiérrez represented a predominantly Mexican-American district surrounding Chicago, Illinois, with a large immigrant population. Many constituents worked within the legal system to gain U.S. citizenship but were often victims of fraudulent services. In response, Fuentes and her colleagues registered the office as a community-based organization with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. This designation allowed Gutiérrez’s staff to work one-on-one with constituents to complete their applications. Fuentes often traveled to Illinois to help district residents with the naturalization process, holding “citizenship days” in local schools and churches.
In 2003, Gutiérrez promoted Fuentes to chief of staff. Her responsibilities increased as she took on administrative duties and coordinated with the district office. With permission from the Congressman, Fuentes pursued an acting career and appeared in several TV shows during her time in the House.
In 2013, Fuentes retired from the House of Representatives. She now works for advocacy organizations and is a frequent guest on TV and radio news programs to discuss issues related to Puerto Rico.
Politics in Puerto Rico
Jennice Fuentes explains the two main political parties in Puerto Rico when she was growing up.
Start on the Hill
Jennice Fuentes recalls her path to her first job in the House of Representatives with Resident Commissioner Jaime Fuster.
Being a Caseworker
Jennice Fuentes describes her experience as a caseworker in Resident Commissioner Jaime Fuster's office and what it revealed about her personality.
No Delegation: Part One
Jennice Fuentes outlines the difficulties Puerto Rican Resident Commissioners face in the House of Representatives.
No Delegation: Part Two
Jennice Fuentes explains the close relationship she witnessed between the Office of the Resident Commissioner and the Puerto Rican Governor.
No Vote on the House Floor
Jennice Fuentes recalls the Resident Commissioner finding ways to remain influential in the legislative process without being able to vote on the House Floor.
Meeting Luis Gutiérrez
Jennice Fuentes remembers introducing herself to newly-elected Congressman Gutiérrez at a conference on Puerto Rico.
Jennice Fuentes recalls her experience during district "citizenship days," when members of Representative Gutiérrez's staff assisted immigrants with their legal paperwork.
Right Thing to Do
Jennice Fuentes details what motivated her when working on immigration.
Congressman Gutiérrez as a Mentor
Jennice Fuentes recalls how Representative Gutiérrez prioritized pay equality and career development.