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Councilwoman and hotel housekeeper: Latina lawmaker redefines public service

Carmen Castillo, re-elected to the Providence City Council, has defied political odds as a working-class candidate, say experts.
Providence Councilwoman Carmen Castillo at City Hall.
Providence Councilwoman Carmen Castillo at City Hall.Stephanie Alvarez Ewens / Time Travel Productions

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — By day, Carmen Castillo works as a hotel housekeeper, making beds and cleaning rooms. By night, she's sitting on committees and voting on decisions at City Hall — she was recently re-elected to the Providence City Council.

Sitting at her kitchen table, Castillo laughed with her friend and assistant Martha Siddique when recalling her re-election campaign.

“This was headquarters,” Castillo said, gesturing around her home. “We moved the couches in the living room, hung up charts on the wall, and all the volunteers came over. We would go out knocking on doors in the rain, and then stay up working until 3 a.m.”

“We were always tired,” Siddique added, “because we had to go to work the next day.”

Providence City Councilwoman Carmen Castillo with her friend and assistant Martha Siddique.
Providence City Councilwoman Carmen Castillo with her friend and assistant Martha Siddique.Raul A Reyes / NBC News

Originally from the Dominican Republic, Castillo immigrated with her three daughters to the U.S. in 1994. After working in a factory, she took a job as a room attendant in a downtown Providence hotel, a job she has held for 24 years. At the hotel, she helped organize a union and became an activist for workers.

After being active in her community and her union for many years, she was elected to the City Council in 2011, then re-elected in 2014 and 2018.

At the local level, Castillo embodies the trend of political candidates becoming more diverse in terms of gender, class and ethnicity.

Working-class politicians? 'Almost never'

According to Nicholas Carnes, associate professor at Duke University and author of "The Cash Ceiling: Why Only the Rich Run for Office — and What We Can Do About It," it is atypical for a working-class person to run for and win elected office.

“Manual, clerical and service jobs make up a little over a half of our labor force, and working people are still the backbone of our economy,” he said. “But working-class people almost never go on to become politicians.”

Carmen Castillo at work at her hotel housekeeping job.
Carmen Castillo at work at her hotel housekeeping job.Nikki Bramley / Time Travel Productions

In Carnes' view, people like Castillo and former Wisconsin congressional candidate Randy Bryce are exceptions to this rule.

Although many working-class people are qualified to run for office, Carnes noted, there are structural barriers in the political system working against them. A great deal of money and free time is usually needed to run for public office. And the gatekeepers who recruit candidates often pass over working-class people in favor of business professionals.

“Our election process was not created to keep working-class people out,” Carnes said, “but it does have that unintended consequence.”

Castillo is used to being asked why she doesn’t quit her housekeeping job at the hotel. But being on the City Council is a part-time job that pays only $18,000 a year, and Castillo is proud of her work.

An upcoming documentary, “Councilwoman,” examines how she navigates her working-class life and the political world.

It hurts Castillo's feelings when commentators mock her occupation; in the documentary, a radio caller derides Castillo as a “servant … who only knows how to vacuum.”

Castillo responds, “People who make beds in hotels also have brains and can make decisions.”

From 2011 to 2014, the director/producer of "Councilwoman," Margo Guernsey, trailed Castillo with a camera crew, shooting hundreds of hours of footage. Guernsey was interested in the question of whether public policy would be different if policymakers reflected their communities.

“This is a unique story about a new voice in American politics,” Guernsey said. “It is so rare that working people are making public policy decisions; this is a journey of a woman who is doing that.”

Carmen Castillo with a campaign volunteer, in a scene from "Councilwoman."
Carmen Castillo with a campaign volunteer, in a scene from "Councilwoman."Stephanie Ewens / Time Travel Productions

Castillo’s election to the Providence City Council mirrors the growing influence of the state’s Latino voters. She represents the Ninth Ward, a diverse neighborhood with a significant Dominican population.

Natalia Rosa, the state director for Dominicanos USA, told NBC News that Castillo is well-known among the state’s Dominicans and Dominican-Americans.

“Through her career she has demonstrated that she genuinely cares about issues facing Latinos and the Dominican community,” she said. “Castillo serves as a good role model for our youth, too, because she shows that it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from … you should just engage politically.“

Rhode Island is home to 148,000 Hispanics, making up 14 percent of the state’s population. Besides Castillo, other Latino political figures in Rhode Island include a former mayor of Providenc, Angel Taveras; the city's current mayor, Jorge Elorza; Central Falls Mayor James Diossa; and Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea.

In January, USA Today reported that Rhode Island ranked 10th on a list of the worst states for Hispanics. Income inequality between Hispanic and white workers is larger than almost any other state. And a 2017 report by the Casey Foundation ranked Rhode Island’s Latino children last in the nation based on 12 areas predictive of success.

“The situation sounds dire, but we are on an upward trajectory in terms of representation, issues, and jobs and education,” said Diony Garcia, chair of the Latino Policy Institute advisory board. “In Rhode Island, we have Latinos across the board pushing the ball forward, especially among the younger generation.”

Garcia sees Castillo as an individual who has been willing to put in the time necessary to break barriers. “To simply get your name on the ballot is difficult, and there is an audacity to running for office. It is very commendable for her to put herself out there, with all the scrutiny that comes with being a politician.”

Providence City Councilwoman Carmen Castillo displays a campaign sign.
Providence City Councilwoman Carmen Castillo displays a campaign sign.Raul A. Reyes / NBC News

“Councilwoman” will premiere at U.S. film festivals in early 2019, and then have its broadcast premiere on World Channel in the Fall.

For Castillo, seeing herself onscreen was an emotional experience, as “Councilwoman” documents moments of pathos in her life. She recounts how she left her oldest child behind in the Dominican Republic because he had developmental brain problems and she could not obtain a visa for him. Intending to return for her son, Castillo never saw him again, because he died within a year. Castillo’s public profile took a toll on her marriage; on one Election Day, her then-husband refused to help with the get-out-the-vote effort. Instead he stayed home, playing video games.

For now, Castillo is adamant that politics will not change who she is. “I am going to continue to be a mom, a grandmom and a hard worker. No matter what I am doing, I will be the same person with the same values at the beginning and at the end of my life.”

And even though some people have advised her to quit her hotel job, she has no plans to do so. “When I decided to run for City Hall, I was a housekeeper, so why quit now? Hey, I am sorry if someone has to sit next to a housekeeper in the council chambers, but take it easy, baby.”

Raul A. Reyes is an NBC Latino contributor. Follow him on Twitter at @RaulAReyes, and on Instagram at @raulareyes1.