A Manassas Park resident and former child janitor made news this week after having a verbal toe-to-toe with Newt Gingrich over his stance on child labor laws during a presidential campaign event at Georgetown University Wednesday.
Hector Cendejas, an alumnus of Georgetown, said he was compelled to forget his shyness and tell Gingrich that he was offended by the comments he made earlier on the campaign trail in which he called child labor laws “truly stupid," according to a Huffington Post report.
The 23-year-old told the former Speaker of the House in a packed auditorium that he had to work afternoons as a janitor at the private school he attended in Oklahoma to make up for the tuition his mother couldn’t afford.
Gingrich said in November 2011 that low-income children should work in their schools as janitors, as both a cost-saving measure to get rid of unionized adult workers and to give the students money and "pride in the schools," according to the Huffington Post.
“My mother wanted us to go to a private school because she wanted us to have the best education," said Cendejas, as he sat at a small restaurant back home in Manassas Park on Thursday, one day after the publicized exchange with Gingrich.
“I must admit, it was embarrassing holding a mop in front of your classmates. They were well off … one of them had parents with a plane. My brother had to do it, too. There were like, 10 of us, it was mostly Latinos and blacks who had to do it.”
Gingrich’s comments brought back memories, Cendejas said. He did custodial work his entire freshman year before moving to Manassas Park and attending the local high school where he graduated as one of the top five in his class.
“It made me reflect about my past. I never talked about it until (Wednesday). Not even my girlfriend knew about it,” Cendejas said.
Cendejas said he has a keen interest in politics and decided to attend the event after his girlfriend, who attends Georgetown, told him about it.
Gingrich’s comments had bothered him since he read them several months ago, but expressing his thoughts to the candidate himself was an encounter of David and Goliath proportions for Cendejas.
“In the Latino community you are taught to respect those in power,” he said. “I was upset about it. What I did was powerful. I think I gave power to those who are powerless; no one would stand up to someone of his status.”
“He tried to say his daughters cleaned up at their Baptist church, but that was more like a charity thing,” Cendejas said. "He tried to make this argument that it was with dignity … there’s a difference in being a janitor in your own school where you have to face your classmates.”
His mother, who is from El Salvador, worked long hours as a certified nursing assistant in Oklahoma after moving with her two sons from Los Angeles where Cendejas was born.
The family lived with a friend and he and his brother slept on a floor because there was no space for them, he said.
He remembers his schoolmates giving him “weird” looks when they saw him cleaning. “When you’re poor, you really realize the difference between being rich and being poor. You all might be wearing the same uniform, but it’s different,” he said. “When people asked, ‘Why?’ I’d say I couldn’t afford the school. I wish I could have joined a club or an organization, but I worked in the afternoons.”
The packed auditorium filled with mostly Gingrich supporters booed Cendejas during parts of his dialogue with the candidate.
“It made me upset and it made me sad that these so-called Georgetown students were being ignorant,” he said. “It’s different when you are talking to someone who doesn’t share your views … the audience was pro-Gingrich. A lot of them were elitist, most were wearing suits.”
At times, his alma mater can be a segregated place, Cendejas said, with the Latinos and blacks on one side and the whites on another.
Cendejas attended Georgetown University on a full scholarship. He was the first Manassas Park High graduate to be accepted and attend Georgetown, his “dream” school since he was 4 years old, he said. That's when he became fascinated with an uncle’s Georgetown sweatshirt. He liked the bull dog, he said with a smile and a hint of coyness.
Yet he found his studies difficult because he still worked 25 hours a week to support his family, including a younger brother who was attending the University of Virginia at the same time and later graduated.
He would send his brother money to buy books and then explain to his Georgetown professors that he needed to borrow books because of his situation, Cendejas said.
Often the professors would just give him the books after the course was over, he said.
Cendejas still spends nights at the campus library, studying. He's working online toward a master's degree in social work from the University of Southern California. His days are spent mentoring and substitute teaching at Manassas Park High.
“It was a blessing. The education I got at Manassas Park High prepared me for the future. I really love this community," he said.
His mother came into the country undocumented because of the war in her home country, like many other young people his age, he said. His biological father is from Mexico, but he never really knew him. As for Cendejas, he considers himself very patriotic and very American.
“People’s parents come here, they work hard at the airports and other places cleaning up after everybody, not because they want to, but because they want us to do better,” he said. “My step dad is a landscaper. I can not be a landscaper.”