Natalie Montelongo’s childhood story is not very different from that of many first-generation Americans in this border city.
Born in Harlingen and raised in Matamoros, as a child Montelongo would cross the international bridge every day during the early morning to go to school in Brownsville.
Now, at 34 years old, she is the Deputy Director for Political Strategy and Outreach at the White House under the Biden Administration.
“From a young age I remember having to cross back and forth from Matamoros to Brownsville to go school, that’s how I started going to school in the U.S.” she said.
“I have a lot of respect for the community. I think it’s a community that’s very resilient, it’s a community that, like myself, had to learn two languages from a very young age. There’s people like me, who grew up being bilingual, but then, there’s also people like my mom who came to the U.S. when she was in high school, started learning English when she was in high school and I feel like it’s very easy to take that for granted.”
Montelongo is a graduate of Homer Hanna High School where she was part of the medical program. Back then, she thought becoming a doctor would be the best way to help the most people, but when she started taking Texas politics classes at St. Mary’s University she knew this was her calling.
She graduated from St. Mary’s University with a degree in Political Science, after there, she moved to Paris, France, and attended the American Graduate School in Paris, where she received a master’s in International Relations and Diplomacy; the Universite Paris Sud (Paris XI), where she received a master’s in Strategic Negotiation and the Sorbonne University, where she studied Francophone Language, Literature and Civilization.
While in Paris, Montelongo was not only focusing in her studies, she was also working full-time at the International Chamber of Commerce as a coordinator for the Banking Commission. When she came back to the United States, she entered the political arena and volunteered for a congressional campaign in Brownsville. After there, she worked in the Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, in the Obama administration, in the Julian Castro’s presidential campaign and now with the Biden administration.
“I ended up volunteering in a congressional campaign in Brownsville. And I was ‘My God, this is where it is at. This is how you empower people by teaching them their rights’,” she said. “After that I ended up working in the Obama administration … but I still felt that I had the urge to learn more about my community, the Latino community and to organize. Which is where I actually decided to campaign for Hillary Clinton in Nevada, and that’s really where everything changed for me. I was knocking on doors, every single day, in 90-degree weather, but I was the happiest I’ve ever been because I felt like I was doing real work, and I was connecting with real people and I was learning about their stories. I felt that I could create change in their lives by empowering them, and by teaching them the power of voting.”
Montelongo said it feels like an honor to be working for the administration that has the first woman vice president and the most diverse cabinet. She said before she started working for President Biden, it was inspiring to see Emmy Ruiz, a Harlingen native who was appointed by the Biden administration as the Director of Political Strategy and Outreach, be elected for one of the highest positions in the White House.
She said she has thought many times that sometimes the RGV is a region that is forgotten, but to have two women from the area working in the White House should encourage young women to dream big and know they are enough.
“It feels like an honor to be working for the administration who elected the first woman vice president and how this administration also appointed the most women before the 100-day mark. It has the most diverse cabinet and it has two women from the Rio Grande Valley working for one of the most important offices. I feel honored, and I think it speaks to what the vision of this president is. It’s a vision of being inclusive and making sure that everyone has a seat at the table,” she said.
“Before I even started working for the president, it was inspiring to see that someone like Emmy Ruiz was elected to be director. It is one of the highest positions in the White House, from a place like the Rio Grande Valley and I think that’s important. As you know, I have thought many times, that the Valley is a region in the state that is almost sometimes forgotten. And, to put some people from the Valley, in the map that way, I feel it should encourage other young women to dream big, to know that who they are is enough.”
Being a young Latina woman in positions of leadership is not always easy. Montelongo said sometimes it can be intimidating to be walking into these spaces where you’re out of your comfort zone, but that she hopes that her role, Ruiz’s role and Kamala Harris’s role encourages young women to believe that they’re worthy, that they have an opportunity and that they can go wherever their set their minds to, as long as they work hard.
When asked for advice for young women in the Rio Grande Valley she said to always remember who they are fighting for, because there are people relying on them to be successful. She said it is also important to remember that they’re enough and to never be afraid to ask for help.
“Always remember who you’re fighting for and stay committed to your beliefs. I would say, remember that you are enough. Entering spaces out of your comfort zone may be scary, but you can do it, and they’re necessary,” she said.
“And the third one would be, don’t be shy to ask for help. I think for me, having mentors has been so helpful. As a young woman of color, sometimes it’s hard to ask for help, but the organizing motto that I live by is ‘you get some of what you ask for, but none of what you don’t.’ So, I would encourage young women to ask for help, for connections, for mentorship and go for it.”