Luis Gutiérrez: Congress' Rebel With a Cause

The Illinois representative reflects on his contentious career, the future of immigration reform and more

Luis Gutiérrez, Congress' Rebel With a Cause
Courtesy of Luis Gutiérrez
Luis Gutiérrez
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Almost 30 years ago, U.S. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Illinois) awoke in his living room in the middle of the night only to realize it was engulfed in flames. Someone had thrown a Molotov cocktail through his window, and it was all he could do to retrieve his wife and children from the modest house he'd managed to buy in Chicago's Bucktown neighborhood and rush them to safety. Although police investigations never solved the crime, Gutiérrez believes a testy encounter with Democratic political operatives working against the election of Chicago's first African-American mayor, Harold Washington, had something to do with it. "I can't say that the Democratic Party machine sent that Molotov cocktail through my living room window," he says now. "I can only tell you that firebomb or no firebomb, we were going to continue. I said, 'You know what, I'm gonna double down.'"

The Molotov cocktail story opens Gutiérrez's memoir, Still Dreaming: My Journey From the Barrio to Capitol Hill, out now. The book describes Gutiérrez's rise from poverty in inner-city Chicago to become one of America's most stridently progressive Latino politicians, advocating for immigration reform; the rights of workers, consumers and veterans; and self-determination for his ancestral home, Puerto Rico. While it is filled with idiosyncrasies, Gutiérrez's story is emblematic of contemporary American Latinos: bilingual, bicultural, street smart and proud of it. He's a born rebel working within the system.

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"I wish a had a nickel for every time I had to write 'I will not talk in class' on the blackboard in grade school," says Gutiérrez, 59, calling from his office in Washington. "Some people are born talkers, and I wrote this book as though you were having a conversation with me." Fully conversant in Spanglish, Gutiérrez switches from Chicago street mode to island Spanish easily because of his family's move back to Puerto Rico while he was still in high school. While the transition was a little awkward – island locals were quick to call him a "gringo" because of his imperfect Spanish – he learned something important about himself there.

"Chicago is a very segregated town, and when you're from the barrio you don't meet Puerto Rican professionals," says Gutierrez. "On the island I saw these politicians make brilliant speeches. The next thing you know, I was enrolled at the University of Puerto Rico, protesting against the Vietnam War and part of the independence movement with a Puerto Rican flag sewn on to my jeans."

Gutiérrez moved back to Chicago after college and drove a cab for three years, a skill he used both to hone his gift of gab and raise funds for his run against powerful incumbent Chicago committeeman Dan Rostenkowski in 1984. Although he lost that race, he won as an alderman two years later, in part because he spoke Spanish during a debate against another Latino candidate who spoke only in English. Gutiérrez has represented his Chicago district in some form ever since by being a rare Puerto Rican candidate who was able to gain the loyalty of a Mexican-dominant district electorate.

"It was easy getting their votes, because, look, what did they write about Puerto Ricans in the 1950s? We were bringing diseases. We were coming to get welfare and have babies," says Gutiérrez. "If you look at how [Arizona sheriff Joe] Arpaio and the other xenophobics speak about immigrants today, is that any different than the treatment my mom and dad got?" The memoir also recounts an incident in 1996 when a Capitol security aide approached Gutiérrez on the Capitol steps, refused to believe he was a U.S. Representative, told him his ID was fake and told him to "go back where you come from."

Gutiérrez's insight about the unity Latinos feel about immigration reform explains a powerful truth about the role Latinos play in national politics. Despite the fact that Puerto Ricans have had U.S. citizenship since 1917, Gutiérrez says he's always understood the plight of the undocumented. "It's the same way with most U.S.-born Latinos," says Gutiérrez. "Last November, every pundit in America woke up and said what? Latinos are powerful, and they just whupped the Republicans into shape because they're anti-immigrant. Latinos did this because Arizona's Proposition 1070 isn't just against immigrants – it angers all Latinos."

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The last 70 or so pages of Still Dreaming feature Gutiérrez's pointed criticism of President Obama, who greatly disappointed him by not acting quickly on immigration reform, as he had promised during his 2008 campaign. The taut prose recounting the acerbic exchanges between the president and Gutiérrez – who says he was the first Latino leader to support Obama during his tense primary battle with Hillary Clinton – is the book's highlight.

Despite their differences, Gutiérrez says he continues to support the president. "Obama said in 2009, 'I'm going to do it,'" says Gutiérrez. "Four years later, it didn't get done. What we had was unprecedented massive deportations – and we took the president on, because we wanted to make him a better president. He finally listened and stopped the deportations of the Dreamers. But he didn't take that action without us first making a clear unequivocal demand of him. Once he did, I campaigned for him in 2012."

Gutiérrez is still active in advocating for a solution to Puerto Rico's non-territorial – or colonial – status. A long-time foe of the pro-statehood movement, which has strong Republican ties, Gutiérrez favors a constitutional convention on the island to consider "an expanded relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico that may be short of independence." And, as a member of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, he feels the revelations of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden have led to a necessary conversation about "how our government collects information."

And despite a recent New York Times article that suggested immigration reform will be de-prioritized because of a new debt-ceiling crisis and events in Syria, Gutiérrez refuses to believe the hype. "This month, we're calling for the immigrant community to stand up in 40 cities," says Gutiérrez, who has been arrested outside the White House in acts of civil disobedience a number of times. "Look, this is a civil rights movement. We're never going to rest until we get justice. History is on our side. We are going to win this." 

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