Wearing a form-fitting indigo Chanel-style suit and in high heels, her dark hair framing a tan face and brown eyes, Susan Santana bounds up from behind the massive wooden desk in her large, sunlit office on the ninth floor of the AT&T building in DC. She offers me coffee, a seat on a sofa, and her complete attention, leaning forward on a chair. Her legs are crossed, her hands clasped, her fingernails manicured in enamel red.
Santana has Sofía Vergara looks, without the actress’s silly batting eyelashes and puckering lips, and Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s intense focus. She’s tightly wound, telegraphing executive confidence and impatience with small talk. A series of nervy decisions have landed her in the upper levels of the corporate world.
Her marriage to Bert Gomez, a Cuban-born senior vice president for government relations at Univision, brings together a bipartisan couple—he a moderate Republican, she a middle-of-the-road Democrat. They wine and dine stakeholders and colleagues several times a week at Mio, Charlie Palmer Steak, Fiola, and Central Michel Richard; contribute to congressional campaigns and serve on the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute; and live with their seven-year-old son, Eric, in McLean, where they entertain friends on weekends.
But they’re not trust-fund babies. They’re up-from-the-ground, self-made overachievers with advanced degrees.
“I am probably one of the highest-ranking Cuban-American lobbyists,” Gomez says over lunch at Charlie Palmer. He’s looking sporty in an Italian-cut dark-brown jacket and crewneck sweater his wife picked out for him. His office, a set of contemporary minimalist rooms where no noise penetrates, is several floors up in the same building, a three-minute walk from the Capitol.
Gomez and his parents left Havana on a Pan Am flight in 1970. “We came to Miami because you always go where you have relatives. My father didn’t have the resources to start a business, but he knew mechanics and became an auto mechanic, spent 30-plus years at Miami Lincoln Mercury.” Gomez’s parents, now retired, still live in Miami’s gritty Hialeah area.
“They sacrificed everything to get me through college,” he says. Gomez made it through the University of Miami, answered a newspaper ad, and became a sales rep for Dow Chemical Company: “I started working my way and learning corporate America.”
After five years with Dow Chemical in Florida and South Carolina, he quit and started a big job, lobbying for R.J. Reynolds. After nine years, he drove a U-Haul north to work for the company from Washington. His office was at the Willard hotel: “Imagine, a little Cuban at the Willard!”
He knew what he had going for him. “I was a networking kind of person and had good instincts,” he says. “Lobbying is all about good instincts. You know when walking into a room who are the Democrats and Republicans. You can’t learn that.”
From R.J. Reynolds, it was on to Univision.
• • •
How Susan Santana got to this point is something of a telenovela. Her father was born just outside Guadalajara, in western Mexico, her mother in the western state of Sinaloa, a place now best known for drug cartels. Somehow those two found each other after they both arrived in Chula Vista, California, a border town south of San Diego. He had only a high-school education but enlisted in the Army and got training in electronics and his naturalization papers.
Her father repaired TV sets; her mother was a beautician. Susan didn’t lack for anything and considered herself middle class. All that changed upon her parents’ divorce when she was 13. Her mother had to scrape to support three children. Susan helped at home and bagged groceries for a few dollars an hour, but school was her salvation.
“I knew I was different,” she says. “I was pulled out of regular classes since I was in fourth grade and put into special classes.” Principals, teachers, and her mother encouraged her to apply to some of California’s top public colleges, including Berkeley and UC San Diego. Her mother expected her to stay in San Diego, but to her surprise she was accepted at Berkeley, the best school.
She was smart and lucky. While many of her girlfriends stayed in Chula Vista, she was headed to Northern California and, she dreamed, law school. She first knew she wanted to be a lawyer when a Latina attorney gave a speech at her high school. “There was this Latina woman. She looked like I could be her. She really was a turning point.”
Berkeley was a second turning point.
Santana was enrolled in a weeklong “bridge program” to help prepare disadvantaged minorities. “A lot of it was mentoring and setting up study groups,” she says, which helped her maneuver around Berkeley. But she got pressure from militant Chicano students to join their protests. When she refused, they questioned her. “Was I poor? Did I come from the barrio?” They doubted she was Mexican enough.
“I didn’t grow up with wealth,” she says, “but that wasn’t my thing. What do you join at a huge university? I joined a sorority.”
She pledged Alpha Gamma Delta, a mainly Anglo group that had approached her: “It was the first time that I learned about the different classes, and that was another turning point—for the first time, I was involved in elite circles. I even learned etiquette, on which side of the table to put the forks and the spoons.”
She spent her junior year in Madrid, studying Spanish literature and political science and traveling through Europe. The girl from Chula Vista had transformed herself.
After Berkeley, she worked as a bilingual teacher in San Diego for two years and applied to law schools—UCLA, San Diego, Berkeley, Michigan. Berkeley waitlisted her, and she chose UCLA. She was 24 and could not have imagined the changes in her life—and the success—the next 20 years would bring.
“Bert and I are lobbying in the halls of Congress, we are helping manage McLean’s Little League teams, and we are mentoring the next generation of young people,” she says. “We are a new breed of Americans.”