Maricela Rodriguez ’03
An advocate for immigrant families in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration.
By Jessica Weber
Raised in the small agricultural community of Woodlake in central California’s Tulare County, Maricela Rodriguez ’03 is familiar with growing up in a place that is often overlooked.
“I noticed that I didn’t have access to public transportation, or there were big potholes on my way to school,” she said. “You learn to live with those kinds of conditions.”
Rodriguez, 39, has carved out a successful career in government and public service, using her position to give a voice to underserved communities like her hometown. In December 2018, Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed Rodriguez to serve as director of civic engagement and strategic partnerships for his office.
Originally interested in journalism, Rodriguez double majored in political science, with an emphasis in administrative studies, and Spanish, in hopes it would open a door to the field. But through a chance internship opportunity with UC Riverside’s governmental relations office, Rodriguez found her true calling.
“I remember doing an interview for a higher education administration internship, but Robert Nava — who ran the governmental relations office at the time — said, ‘I think you might be more interested in working in my office,’” she recalled. “I got the chance to work on UC Day in Sacramento, and I remember thinking this is where a lot of positive changes happen in California.”
After graduation, Rodriguez returned to Sacramento as part of the Capital Fellows Program, a public policy fellowship run by California State University, Sacramento. In 2004, she interviewed for a position as scheduler for then-California First Lady Maria Shriver, who hired her on the spot.
Over six years, her role evolved into director of program development and policy liaison. She helped create WE Connect, an initiative connecting low-income families to important programs such as CalFresh and Medi-Cal, which support health and financial security.
In 2011, Rodriguez joined The California Endowment, a nonprofit focused on expanding health care to underserved communities. There she spearheaded #Health4All, which raised awareness about the importance of expanding access to affordable health care to undocumented Californians, as well as Asegúrate, a public awareness campaign developed in conjunction with the Affordable Care Act rollout, which contributed to the now over 4 million people enrolled in Medi-Cal across the state.
“In regard to #Health4All, we were focused on giving a platform to undocumented Californians who pay into a number of different programs but don’t have access to them,” she said.
In the governor’s office, Rodriguez provides strategic communication support on issues including immigration, safe drinking water, and affordable health care for undocumented Californians. She also helps oversee major state public awareness campaigns — the 2020 census topping the list. She noted the potential for a citizenship question has had serious consequences, as many immigrant communities feel the need to go back into the shadows.
“Even though the question is not included, the damage has been done,” she said. “Early education and raising awareness about why the census is important are going to be critical.”
Rodriguez credits her time at UC Riverside for not only putting her on the path toward public service, but also with introducing her to her husband, Joe Flores, whom she met in her first year at UCR while they both lived at Aberdeen-Inverness Residence Hall. The two have been married since 2008 and have a 6-year-old son.
“When I graduated from high school, I earned a scholarship, and I was in an article in the Visalia Times,” Rodriguez said. “Somehow, (Flores’) aunt got a hold of it and said, ‘You should go find her when you go to college,’ as a joke. I didn’t learn about this story until maybe two years after we met, and it’s just a very interesting coincidence.”
Rodriguez hopes to keep building upon all she’s learned to continue her journey in public service.
“The folks I feel I’m serving look like my family,” she said. “That’s always been my barometer; I ask myself, is this a campaign that’s going to resonate with my mom and dad or brothers and sisters?”