After beginning her career working for two Puerto Rican Resident Commissioners, Jennice Fuentes later served as chief of staff for Representative Luis Gutiérrez. During her 25 years on the Hill, Fuentes assisted individuals seeking U.S. citizenship, became adept as a legislative strategist, and advocated for issues important to the Puerto Rican community.
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.
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.