In the West Wing of the White House, Leah Katz-Hernandez communicates with the first couple in a way that few others, even the president’s most trusted advisers, ever do.
Katz-Hernandez, who is deaf, is the new receptionist of the United States, or what those in Washington like to abbreviate as ROTUS (a play on POTUS – president of the United States). She grew bicoastal, raised by a Jewish mother and a Mexican-American father in Connecticut, frequently visiting her father’s family in California.
After working in the Chicago headquarters of Obama’s re-election campaign, she moved to Washington, D.C., and was hired as an assistant in the first lady’s office.
“It was my first week on the job,” Katz-Hernandez, 27, told Fox News Latino. “I was having lunch at my desk when a staffer from the West Wing came by and said, ‘I want to introduce you to the First Lady.’ The next thing I know the First Lady is standing in front of me. She said, ‘Hi, my name is…’ and then she finger-spelled her name. It was really a wonderful moment. I knew I’d arrived in a great place and felt really motivated to work hard for her.”
In her new job as ROTUS, Katz-Hernandez gets to welcome all of the president’s guests to the West Wing. “I make sure that everyone is happy, and everyone feels welcome and has a nice experience when they come into the West Wing lobby,” Hernandez said through a sign-language translator. “I also manage the Roosevelt Room and Ward Room, as well – you know, managing the relationship with the Kennedy Center with regards to the president’s box.”
At the White House, Katz-Hernandez has access to an interpreter to help her do her job.
“The White House is really a model for accessibility for people with disabilities – and especially for deaf people,” she said. “I believe my story sends a good message about the abilities of people who are deaf and Latino to be successful anywhere."
Her first two weeks as ROTUS were a whirlwind. “Already I’ve had so many opportunities to meet people in the West Wing lobby,” Katz-Hernandez said. “It is inspiring to see the mix of ordinary Americans and powerful people coming in to see the president.”
“During my first week when 'Humans of New York' photographer Brandon Stanton” – who started a fund to try to raise money for Motts Hall Bridges Academy in Brooklyn –“came in with Vidal [Chastanet] and his principal, [Nadia] Lopez, I saw American people doing good work and making an impact. Just days later, I saw Chancellor Merkel of Germany come in for the bilateral meetings. Seeing the president with Chancellor Merkel – the two of them together – was really humbling. I felt honored to be there in the West Wing when world leaders meet.”
Katz-Hernandez puts her father at the top of the list of people who inspire her.
“My father was born in California, in the Los Angeles area. He grew up on horse ranches. He worked hard, put himself through college, and earned his PhD. He’s always taught me it’s very important to give back to your community,” she said.
After studying government at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., Katz-Hernandez’s passion for public service led her to join Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. It was at campaign headquarters in Chicago that she first met her future boss.
“The room was chock-full of staff,” she recalled. “The president walked in, and, as he walked by me, I thanked him. He signed, ‘Thank you’ back.”
Asked if she has been able to teach Obama any other signs working while closely in the West Wing, Katz-Hernandez laughed.
“No, I haven’t really had a chance to sign with him yet … but then again I’ve only been on the job for two weeks.”
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Pablo Manriquez works in Washington, D.C. He tweets at @vato.