By John Andrews
WASHINGTON, D.C.—As she sat in the balcony of the U.S. Capitol Building waiting for the President of the United States to make his entrance, Sister Hortensia Del Villar, S.A.C., remembered the words of her sixth grade teacher at Telfair Elementary School in Los Angeles.
“She told us ‘you are part of the greatest democracy in the world, that works because there are checks and balances,’ “ Sr. Hortensia recalled Mrs. Witham saying.
Sr. Hortensia witnessed firsthand the democratic institution her teacher described all those years ago when she attended the State of the Union Speech delivered by President Donald Trump on Feb. 5. She was the guest of Congressman Pete Aguilar, who represents 31st District of California. He had met with Sr. Hortensia, who is the Director of Community Services and Outreach for the Diocese, as part of a delegation from Southern California that was engaging policy makers on a number of social issues. They were in Washington D.C. for the annual Catholic Social Ministry Gathering.
This year elected leaders have battled over immigration and border security, leading to the longest government shutdown in history. In Rep. Aguilar, Sr. Hortensia said she saw someone willing to work with leaders of both parties on legislation to address the crisis at the southern border. That seemed to be confirmed in the hours before the State of the Union Speech when Rep. Aguilar and Sr. Hortensia, while touring the Capitol, inadvertently walked into a pre-speech reception of Republican Congressional leaders, where Aguilar received a warm welcome from his supposed political rivals.
“Just to see that camaraderie is good,” she said. “I saw a different picture of what our representatives are like on both sides of the aisle.”
Minutes later they found their way to a reception of Democratic Congressional leaders where Sr. Hortensia had the opportunity to meet and share a few words with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “I was just trying to take it all in,” she said of the whirlwind experience. “I thought, ‘is this a movie?’ ”
The evening would get even more surreal hours later as Sr. Hortensia and Rep. Aguilar made their exit from the House chambers following the State of the Union Speech. As they navigated through stairs and tunnels in the building’s lower levels—taking a “short cut” proposed by Aguilar—they suddenly came upon President Trump and his security team as they were also exiting the building. The leader of the free world was just five feet away and their eyes met.
“I didn’t know what I was going to say, I just wanted to see him,” she says. “I could not believe I was that close.”
As it happened, President Trump was directed away by his security team before Sr. Hortensia had a chance to greet him.
The speech, itself, featured a combination of unifying statements, uplifting stories and more scripted partisan moments. Sr. Hortensia said she liked President Trump’s remark that “victory means victory for our country, not victory for our party.” She also said she relished the moment when he noted the all-time high number of women in the workforce and in the Congress, leading to raucous applause from the many women in attendance. Also memorable, she said, were inspirational guests at the speech—including veterans, a girl battling serious illness and two people rebuilding their lives after many years of incarceration—who reflected the American values of service, compassion and the opportunity for redemption.
While the experience was not without signs of political polarization, it was reassuring to Sr. Hortensia. “It may be struggling in some ways but it is still a government of the people. The vote in the U.S. matters.”
This view has been reinforced recently as Sr. Hortensia communicates with sisters from her religious community who are in Venezuela, a country now in the grip of political instability and unrest. “I can appreciate our democracy more.”
That includes the President, with whom Sr. Hortensia says she disagrees on immigration and some other policy matters, but “represents an office that is important to democracy.”
As an immigrant from Mexico who has pursued her vocational dreams largely in the United States, Sr. Hortensia even saw a deeper meaning to her near meeting with President Trump.
“We saw each other for a moment there and afterward I thought, I represent a group that he has difficulty seeing.”