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Being a Latina in a sea of white political power doesn’t deter this native Puerto Rican. ¡Al contrario! It inspires her to work harder for inclusion.

As Nellie Gorbea took the podium to accept her victory in the race for secretary of state of Rhode Island, making her the first Latina to be elected to statewide office in New England for the second time, the crowd of supporters screamed a joyous chant of “¡Sí se puede!”

To the former deputy secretary of state, who was sworn in as Secretary of State on January 6, 2015, becoming the first Hispanic to hold statewide office in New England was a testament of the power of the people.

“I was the candidate who wasn’t supposed to win. I was up against someone who had a long family history in Rhode Island and the endorsement of the Democratic Party,” Gorbea told The Americano. “Many times I heard ‘I didn’t think you were going to win, but I voted for you.’ It proves that your vote matters.”

Boricua de pura cepa

A native of Puerto Rico, Gorbea moved to Rhode Island 20 years ago. But her path into politics began early in life.

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“In seventh grade someone came to school and explained what student government was, and I said ‘Okay, that sounds reasonable, I can do that.’ And so I ran for student council at my high school in Puerto Rico every single year I served. So I guess you can say it started there.”

From there she attended Princeton University, where she focused on public policy and international affairs, and was involved in starting the Latino Alumni Association.

“And then I came into the real world, to New Jersey, and I thought, ‘My family’s all in Puerto Rico, what am I going to do with my free time?’” she said.

A Turning Point

The answer came when she realized that one way to feel more engaged in the place where you live, is to volunteer. So she started volunteering in nonprofits like ASPIRA of New Jersey, and Hispanic associations. The young woman fresh out of college may have not known it then, but by the time she was married to a university professor and moved to Rhode Island, she was on her way to her historic win.

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“I kept networking, meeting people, saying ‘Yes, I can do that, I can help you,’ and eventually created a Latino action committee that helped support not just Latino candidates, but candidates we thought would do right by the Latino and urban communities,” said the mother of three daughters.

“I Have to Listen to Salsa, Plena or Bomba”

Gorbea credits her “up and at ‘em” spirit to her Puerto Rican roots, and says that to this day, she has very vivid memories of her “tropical island.”

“My parents are both Puerto Ricans. We are multigenerational army family,” she said. “My childhood was very stable, just like the weather; it was very fun.” And even though she moved far from la isla, she carries it in her heart.

“I have to listen to salsa, plena or bomba at some point during the week,”  she said with a smile. “I love cooking Puerto Rican food. When I go to Puerto Rico, my favorite is mofongo. I’m really good at flan, and then I’ll do rice and beans, plátanos… My daughters’ favorite, though, is yucca fries and mojo isleño, the mayo-ketchup sauce.”   

The Power to Effect Change

Of course, despite her stable upbringing, Gorbea has not been immune to life’s obstacles.

“There are always obstacles in life. But the biggest are the ones in your head that keep you from doing what you are going to do,” she said. “I’ve learned over time to just push through it.”

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That is why being a Latina in a sea of white political power doesn’t deter her; quite the contrary, it has inspired her to work harder.

“It means that you have the power to change things and to show how things can be different if more of us are elected,” Gorbea said. “We’ve worked every single year while I’m here at the department of state to make the agency a model of inclusion, to making sure that voting is more accessible and more secure for people, and to be a support system for entrepreneurs coming out of the Latino community or other immigrant communities.”

The First, But Not the Last

Making history is important in more ways than just the personal achievement. Gorbea is aware that many are looking up to her for inspiration.

“I would love my legacy to be a lot more inclusion and diversity in the policy making table. As I believe Vice President Kamala Harris said, ‘I am the first, but I won’t be the last.'”