The Hispanic Employee Council of Foreign Affairs Agencies hosted a cultural event featuring various performers in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, Oct. 12, 2018. State Department photo
By Moises Mendoza
Each year, in September and October, the Department of State’s community of Hispanic* employees come together to celebrate its rich and vibrant heritage. This year is no different as the Hispanic Employee Council of Foreign Affairs Agencies (HECFAA)—the Department’s premiere employee organization for the Hispanic-identifying community—works to highlight the important contributions of Hispanic employees to diplomacy.
Even as they celebrate their heritage, it remains vital to remember how much work remains to be done to achieve true equity for underrepresented communities throughout the Department, including the Hispanic community. The numbers tell a challenging story: Among Foreign Service personnel in the Department, approximately 7% identify as Hispanic; the sum among Civil Service is only marginally better at 7.5%. In the senior ranks, just 6.9% of the senior Foreign Service and 3.7% of the Civil Service’s Senior Executive Service identify as Hispanic. Compare these numbers with the U.S. population as a whole—18.9% of Americans self-identify as Hispanic, according to 2021 U.S. Census Bureau data—illuminating how far the Department has left to go.
The good news is that, despite the numbers, Hispanic-identifying employees have a rich history of contributions to the Department’s mission. Officers have distinguished role models to look up to, including several of the Department’s leaders: Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Jose Fernandez; Ambassador to Spain Julissa Reynoso; Director of the Office of Foreign Missions Ambassador Rebecca Gonzalez; Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar; and Ambassador to Lesotho Maria Brewer. Other prominent Hispanic leaders include Assistant Secretary Julieta Valles Noyes in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration; Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Ricardo Zuniga in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs (WHA); and WHA Senior Advisor Hugo Rodriguez. Now-retired, former Director General Arnold Chacon and Ambassador Lino Gutierrez remain two of the Department’s most legendary and respected figures. There are also many up-and-coming Hispanic entry- and mid-level officers poised to move into leadership positions given the right mentorship, support, and opportunities for growth.
With nearly 700 members and a rich history stretching back more than 40 years, HECFAA remains one of the Department’s most dynamic and engaged employee organizations, well-positioned to play a key role in making the Department more diverse, fair, and equitable.
“First and foremost, we want to advance Hispanic and Latinx employees into senior leadership positions and ensure that the percentage of Hispanic employees in the Department reflects larger societal percentages,” said HECFAA President Isabel Romero. “We have to reflect the community we represent, and we know we’ll have to work hard to get there.”
Mirroring the general Hispanic population, HECFAA consists of people of every race and national origin,making it vital to work together with other employee organizations to tackle shared challenges.
“We’re all in this together, and we are working to make the Department more equitable,” said Romero.
Over the last year HECFAA members served on Department-wide diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility task forces, facilitated professional development programming featuring leaders from throughout the foreign affairs community, and spoke to countless high school and college students about careers at the Department. Further, HECFAA remains a leader in developing innovative opportunities for students. It has a dynamic internship program and works with the American Foreign Service Association—the employee union—to sponsor Departmental internships for Hispanic students each year. In 2021, HECFAA also launched the first-ever Student Foreign Policy Symposium during Hispanic Heritage Month with the assistance of the Bureau of Global Public Affairs, reaching more than 400 students.
Internally, HECFAA has done important work to become more efficient and forward-looking. This year, the organization launched a new Internet-based membership management system resulting in an influx of new members and increased financial stability for the 501(c)(3) charitable organization. In the long term, HECFAA aims to create new and innovative programming, and to continue nurturing its robust social media presence on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to showcase Hispanic voices at the Department. It is currently considering launching a small grants program to support colleagues with creative ideas at posts overseas, as well as recruiting individuals at posts worldwide to serve as representatives in the field. HECFAA is also creating merchandise for their members to show their community pride domestically and abroad.
Despite the challenges that the Department’s Hispanic community faces, HECFAA’s all-volunteer board is convinced that the future is bright. Hispanic Heritage Month is a chance to reinvigorate and get excited about that future—one where the Department is truly equitable, where all are treated with respect; where employees’ work, skills, and perspectives are valued; and where the pioneers of the past will see the fruits of the road they helped pave.
“Every day we’re thinking about how to make things better—and we continue to see great progress in achieving our goals,” said HECFAA Vice President for Civil Service Rocio Mercado-Garcia. “That’s what makes service so rewarding.”
To learn more about HECFAA, visit their website.
Moises Mendoza is the Hispanic Employee Council of Foreign Affairs Agencies’ vice president for Foreign Service and a watch officer in the Department of State’s Operations Center.
*While this article uses the term “Hispanic,” there remains a lack of consensus within the community about the best terminology to utilize. Other commonly used terms to refer to the community include Latino(a)(e) and Latinx.