WASHINGTON (AP) – When President Barack Obama visited California to dedicate a national monument to Latino labor leader Cesar Chavez Almost a decade ago, a group of those close to the activist were invited to pose for photos with the president.
Julie Chavez Rodriguez, Chavez’s granddaughter, stayed behind. As an Obama staff member, she had traveled with the official group to the event, but did not want to draw attention to herself.
It wasn’t until Obama’s senior adviser Valerie Jarrett insisted that Rodriguez reluctantly stepped forward, barely entering the frame.
“I said, ‘Julie, you have to be up there with your family,'” said Jarrett, who was Rodriguez’s boss at the White House’s Office of Public Engagement. “And she said, ‘No, I’m on staff today.'”
White House staff are often the fiercely fighting type who seek their own shine out of the limelight or even trade on a famous name. Rodriguez is clearly an exception as she embarks on a second tour in the service of a president, this time as Joe Biden’s director of intergovernmental affairs.
Rodriguez and his team help state, local, and tribal governments, as well as Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories, meet the needs of their federal government. Lately, this has focused on tackling COVID-19 and delivering aid from Biden’s $ 1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan.
Jarrett and others who have worked with Rodriguez describe a dedicated worker who, while shaped by a famous ancestor, does not put her family first.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki recently verified the name “Julie Rodriguez” during a press briefing – dropping “Chavez” in accordance with Rodriguez’s preference.
Cecilia Munoz, who headed the intergovernmental affairs office for five years under Obama, said Rodriguez has the job now because she is “Julie” – not because she is a Chavez.
âBeing a Chavez is part of who she is,â said Munoz, âbut she’s there because she’s so knowledgeable and has such deep integrity.â
And because Biden wanted her on his team.
Rodriguez is one of a group of Latinas serving in the White House advising Biden on matters ranging from communications to politics. Latino defenders had accused Biden during the 2020 presidential campaign of not doing enough to reach those voters.
New Presidents always refresh the look of the Oval Office, both to reflect their personal tastes or to send broader messages about their values ââand what inspires them.
Biden’s updates for a while included the placement of a bronze bust of Chavez among family photographs on a desk directly behind his, giving the likeness of the late union leader a prominent placement whenever Biden was seen at his desk. The bust is now on a pedestal elsewhere in the Oval Office.
Rodriguez was shocked the first time she saw the bust of her “Auntie” in the Oval Office. Her grandfather is a hero to her, someone she hoped to emulate, she said in an interview. Rodriguez described the “deep sense of pride” she felt knowing that “the contributions our community has made are recognized in the most powerful hall in the world.”
Biden supported his grandfather’s cause to improve conditions for migrant farm workers, Rodriguez said, and both men were influenced by their Roman Catholic faith and its teachings.
âI think there’s that kind of shared history and shared support for the cause he was leading,â Rodriguez said of Biden.
The Biden family’s admiration for Chavez and his legacy is also shared by the first lady.
Jill Biden flew to California earlier this year for the March 31 commemoration of Chavez’s birth. She visited the family property of Forty Acres near the town of Delano, the first permanent headquarters of the United Farm Workers union.
A national historic landmark, the place is where Chavez led two long fasts – 25 days in 1968 for non-violence and 36 days in 1988 for the threat of pesticides. This is also where thousands of farm workers have been vaccinated against COVID-19 this year.
Rodriguez, 43, was born in Delano to Chavez’s daughter, Linda, and her husband, Arturo Rodriguez. His grandparents, Cesar and Helen Chavez, volunteered full-time for the United Farm Workers of America, and Rodriguez often went to worker gatherings with the two couples and helped them raise awareness in the community.
She grew up in the farm labor movement and has been active in campaigns, picket lines, boycotts, marches and union meetings, said Paul Chavez, Rodriguez’s uncle.
He recalled how she got off the bus when she came home from elementary school and went to the offices to see what was going on and offer her help. She was endearing and curious, with a level of maturity beyond her years, he said.
“She knew how to talk to the elderly and to children her age,” said Paul Chavez.
After graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, in 2000, with a degree in Latin American studies, Rodriguez worked for his grandfather’s name foundation before volunteering for Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign in Colorado.
She was working at the Home Office on a youth initiative when Jarrett recruited her to work on immigration and Latino outreach in the White House.
Jarrett said she wanted Rodriguez to be part of her team because of her “extraordinary reputation for excellence, hard work, skill” and “focusing not on herself, but on how we are. could engage as many voices “as possible.
Rodriguez later became Jarrett’s assistant and his portfolio expanded to include outreach to veterans, Asian and Pacific Island Americans, and gun violence prevention groups.
Shortly before the end of Obama’s term in January 2017, Rodriguez was appointed Sen. Kamala Harris from California. Rodriguez then joined Harris’ 2020 presidential campaign as political director and traveling chief of staff.
Rodriguez joined Biden’s campaign to help oversee Latino outreach following Harris’ abandonment. After Biden’s election, he appointed her as head of the intergovernmental affairs bureau.
His uncle said Rodriguez’s position with the president was an encouraging message to young people of color.
âHis presence and being is a very powerful thing for people who have not had many opportunities, and especially those who have been excluded from the political and civic affairs of our communities,â said Paul Chavez.
Kendra Barkoff, who served as Home Office press secretary under Obama, with Rodriguez as deputy, said Rodriguez was so “humble” that staff members failed to realize the family ties at the start.
âOnce we learned, we were even more inspired by it,â Barkoff said.
Rodriguez still answers Barkoff’s phone calls and emails even though they haven’t worked together since Barkoff moved into the private sector in 2015.
âShe’s pretty high up in the White House and always calls me ‘boss’,â Barkoff said.