When a Hotel Housekeeper Won a Seat on the City Council

Photo by Carol Jackson, Sanford School of Public Policy

By Hannah Miao ’21

“I am Carmen Castillo: hotel worker, representative, union member, city councilwoman. That’s me, and I want to continue being like that for the rest of my life.”

This is how Carmen Castillo begins telling her extraordinary political story. Hailing from the Dominican Republic, she immigrated to the United States in 1994. For 25 years she has worked as a hotel housekeeper in Providence, Rhode Island. After years of being a union organizer and community leader, she ran for City Council in 2011. Ever since, Castillo has served as a councilwoman, winning re-election in 2014 and 2018.

On April 15, POLIS: Duke’s Center for Political Leadership, Innovation, and Service brought Castillo to campus for a series of events with Duke students.  The day culminated with an exclusive screening of Councilwoman, a documentary about Castillo’s life and career, followed by a Q&A session featuring Castillo and Councilwoman director/producer Margo Guernsey.

Professor Nick Carnes, who has been following the councilwoman’s career for many years, moderated the discussion.

During the Q&A, Castillo said when she joined the Providence City Council eight years ago, “It was all lawyers who looked at me like ‘what is she doing in here?’” Nevertheless, Castillo always felt she belonged in city hall. Regardless of occupation or socioeconomic status, she understood the value of her voice.

“You don’t know what you’re doing more than me,” she said.

While there are more working-class people in office today, research by Carnes and others show that they are underrepresented in political life. Castillo said she often finds herself pushing back against the majority of city councilmembers, but she has maintained a friendly relationship with her colleagues. “They know when we fight it’s not personal. I still love you but I don’t agree with what you’re doing.”

“Make sure that when you are a housekeeper, you’re acting like a housekeeper. When you’re in the city council, you’re a city councilwoman. When you’re a union organizer, you need to be acting like a union organizer. When you’re a mom, you have to be a mom.”
— Carmen Castillo

Castillo admits wearing so many hats is no small task. “The only way you can make that work is to make sure that when you are a housekeeper, you’re acting like a housekeeper. When you’re in the city council, you’re a city councilwoman. When you’re a union organizer, you need to be acting like a union organizer. When you’re a mom, you have to be a mom.”

She relies on her family and community for inspiration. “I think about my grandkids growing up; I want to give them better opportunities than when I came to this country.” Castillo is Christian and said her spirituality gives her peace during difficult decision-making processes.

Even as a public figure in her community, Castillo had difficulty adjusting to being in front of the camera for the filming of Councilwoman. However, her longstanding friendship and trust in Guernsey allowed her to feel comfortable with the project.

The two originally met when Guernsey worked as a union organizer after college for Castillo’s union, “Unite Here.” After 10 years without seeing each other, they reconnected at a baby shower. Guernsey said she started the project believing Castillo’s experience would be a compelling story to tell, thinking “I don’t know what we’re going to learn, but I think we can learn a lot if we follow Carmen and stick with Carmen through her first year in office.”

Guernsey hopes that the film “generates deeper discussion about what it really means to be a politician and what it takes to shift who represents us so people in government really reflect our communities.”

Recently a city councilmember told Guernsey, “Carmen has become our conscience.” Not only has Castillo given a voice to her community, but she has also continued to hold councilmembers accountable.

Castillo plans to use her next four years in office to reflect on her experience and to consider future opportunities. For the time being, however, Castillo is perfectly content where she is.

“My passion is to help people, and I want to continue like that for the rest of my life.”

The event was cosponsored by the Center for Multicultural Affairs, Mi Gente, and the Sanford School of Public Policy.