Last June, Nanette Barragán ’00, U.S. Representative for the 44th Congressional District and a huge Dodgers fan, received an invite of a lifetime — throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at Dodger Stadium. Asking for advice ahead of time, she was told, “I advise you to throw from the front of the grass, not from the mound. You have certain challenges.”
“I wonder how many men he said that to? I was shocked, but it happens all the time,” she told a rapt crowd at UCLA’s James West Alumni Center, as part of a special discussion hosted by UCLA Government and Community Relations and the UCLA Latino Alumni Association.
As a lawyer and now Congresswoman, Barragán (D-San Pedro) is looking to inspire the next generation of women, and especially women of color, to break barriers and feel at home in male-dominated arenas, including law, Congress, and even the White House.
Life is hard enough, she mused, to find success in civic life, but add being a woman and a Latina, and you find yourself running into obstacles. For example, Barragán said she has sometimes been initially turned away from Congressional meetings when she was not wearing her Member lapel pin — did they think she was a staffer? Too young? Not fitting the traditional profile of a Member of Congress?
“You have to take a moment to just smile and think, I’m going to work harder and prove that person wrong,” she said. It’s a message she has taken to her district, all across Los Angeles, California and the nation. She is proud to be a representative of the communities of San Pedro, Wilmington, Carson, Compton, South Gate, Watts and Lynwood, and she is well aware of her ability to be a role model to the next generation. “She’s the youngest of 11 children, and attended UCLA as a first generation college student,” said Scott Waugh, UCLA executive vice chancellor and provost, as he introduced the Congresswoman. “She embodies all of our Bruin values. She is a dedicated public servant who is working for the public good, the greater good of her constituents, California and the nation as a whole… Thank you Congresswoman Barragán, for making your alma mater proud.”
UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs Dean Gary Segura, who moderated the discussion, concurred, sharing that Barragán was a public policy minor during her time at UCLA, and that in the next school year it will finally be offered as a full major. “You’ve gone onto a pretty distinguished career already, even though you are just starting out in Congress.”
Ricardo Perez, chair of the UCLA Latino Alumni Association’s community relations committee, reminisced about all of the changes that have taken place on campus since Barragán graduated from UCLA in 2000. “What has remained the same is her commitment and dedication as a Latina and an alumna to our community.”
Barragán attended UCLA as a commuter student. That didn’t allow her much time for many extracuriculars, but she was a member of the speech and debate team, which helped inspire her to pursue a law degree, and Latinas Guiding Latinas, which was committed to empowering young Latinas to pursue higher education. Her early involvement in the UCDC Program put her to work in the Clinton White House and for the NAACP, further sparking her civic engagement. “It was because of UCLA that I even applied to work in Washington, D.C.”
A UCLA Career Center advisor gave her the encouragement. “I said, ‘Yeah, right.’ My mom has a third grade education. I have no political ties. I have no money. I’ve never contributed to a campaign before,” she recalled. “How would I ever get a job there?” But she was pushed to try, and it is that kind of encouragement she tries to give to the next generation.
Working at the White House, specifically in the office of African American Outreach, allowed her to meet people who looked like they came from her own neighborhood. “What I felt there was if I go back home and work hard, maybe I, too, can serve a president some day. It’s so important getting involved early, and having an experience enjoying public service. You have to get involved, and now is a key time, if you are looking for an opportunity,” she told the crowd that included a diverse group of students.
Barragán tries not to miss an opportunity to be a role model. She recalled recently going to a McDonald’s drive through and talking to the young person at the window, which reminded her of her own youth. “My first job was at McDonald’s doing what you are doing, and I went on to college at UCLA, then I went to law school, I became a lawyer and now I’m a Member of Congress. It’s important to just be able to tell people, it’s OK you are here, but you can go anywhere.”
Now, she is looking to translate her years of experience in public policy, nonprofits and the legal field to help the people of her district. Barragán is working hard to pass gun violence prevention legislation, a clean Dream Act, to strengthen U.S. transportation systems, stop the homelessness crisis, and protect the environment.
She grew up with her father in Harbor City right by the freeway. “I thought it was the best place to live because it was so easy to get on and off the freeway,” she noted of her naivety regarding air pollution problems. Now, she knows better. “It really impacts me because I see firsthand the kids in Wilmington walking around with inhalers around their necks.”
Investing in education is a top priority for the Congresswoman. She said that only about 10 percent of her constituents attend college. Affordability is something she would like to tackle, and she believes more investment in K-12 education and STEM programs is critical. “You also have a zip code problem,” she added, noting well-funded school districts tend to produce more students ready to attend college — she herself moved districts when young, and she saw stark differences.
The discussion also touched on veterans issues (the need to fund healthcare, housing and to prevent the deportation of veterans), criminal justice reform, homelessness, living wage and Artificial Intelligence and its impact on the workforce.
In 2016, Barragán was the only new Democratic Latina elected to the U.S. House. She noted there are only nine total in Congress. “People underestimate us,” she said, but they won’t for long.