I always knew Cathy Kissee-Sandoval was going places.
A lawyer specializing in business litigation for a Los Angeles law firm, Kissee-Sandoval, 32, is leaving this week to join the Clinton Administration as deputy director of the Federal Communications Commission's international division. She'll be in charge of FCC policy for Latin America and the developing world.
Although a high-ranking federal job is the crowning achievement of a lifetime for most folks, this is just another stop on an inspiring journey that began on the Eastside.
Kissee-Sandoval will probably emulate her political mentor, county Supervisor Gloria Molina, who took a post in the Jimmy Carter Administration for several years before returning to L.A. and running for elective office. "I am certainly very interested in public service," she said the other day.
I first met Kissee-Sandoval on a sunny late-December afternoon in 1983. She had just been named a Rhodes scholar, becoming the first Chicana ever accorded the honor of studying at Oxford, England. She was an honors student at Yale, a pretty difficult task for a Latino away from familiar surroundings, and those who knew her said the Rhodes scholarship was no surprise.
"She's the brightest person I know," one of her friends said.
That was clear enough when I went to her parents' home in Montebello to interview her about her Rhodes selection. Among the first things she told me was of being 5 years old and having a burning desire to learn how to read before entering kindergarten. Her father, a court stenographer, helped her realize that goal by spending more time reading to her.
"I guess I've always been determined," she told me back then.
Her parents were beaming as Cathy, the second of three daughters, answered my questions about her plans. I beamed listening to them. It was an affirmation of the commitment and pride that so many Latino parents have in education.
I came away very impressed with her, but there was one question she couldn't answer. She reminded me of it the other day.
"Do you have any heroes?" I had asked.
"I didn't have a good answer then," she recalled the other day, "but I have a lot of heroes. I don't think of the typical heroes. Of course, there's my mom and dad, my sisters, (Los Angeles lawyer and civil rights activist) Vilma Martinez, (federal appeals judge) Dorothy W. Nelson; Martha Chavez, who was a counselor of mine in college."
Cathy and I kept in touch over the years since that first meeting, chatting about the big issues of the day and the small ones of everyday life. I remember sending her a card when her mother passed away in 1985, after battling cancer.
It was a terrible loss that tested Cathy's character.
"She was diagnosed with cancer in my last year at Yale," she remembered. "She made a list of things that she wanted to happen. 'First, Cathy going to Oxford. Then, (sister) Barbara going to UC Santa Barbara.' She believed so much in education that she didn't mind sending us away from home to have better opportunities, even if it meant that she might pass away while we were at school.
"My mother's selflessness taught me what to do with my free time."
Since graduating from Stanford Law School and passing the State Bar in 1990, Cathy has been involved in several local nonprofit organizations to help the disadvantaged. Among them are Comision Femenil, a professional group of Latinas that offers scholarships and mentoring to young women; a corporation that is preparing to build a 24-unit, affordable housing project for the disabled in East L.A.; a county commission on judicial procedures, and the Los Angeles YMCA.
She's also worked on behalf of several Latino candidates in recent years, being a strong believer in Molina's brand of grass-roots politics.
Cathy isn't the only Latino from L.A. who is going to work for Clinton in Washington. Among the others are UCLA professor Fernando Torres-Gil, who is assistant Health and Human Services secretary; former South Pasadena Mayor Evelyn Fierro, who was appointed as a top assistant in the Department of Transportation, and Tony Gallegos of Pico Rivera, who is chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
"I was thinking I have enough degrees, but I'm just getting a degree in government," Cathy said of her upcoming stint in the nation's capital. "I'm just learning the ropes about how to serve."
When she gets back to L.A., she'll be able to teach us a few things.