Repping P.R. in D.C.
How Ivelisse Bonilla got the chance to help her home island
Published in 2023 Southwest Super Lawyers magazine
By William Wagner on April 4, 2023
Ivelisse Bonilla has always wanted to contribute to the greater good—particularly for her home, Puerto Rico. “I’ve always been passionate about politics and public service,” she says.
She got her chance in 1999 when she was a young employment attorney at McConnell Valdés, the island’s largest law firm. A colleague of Bonilla’s had just been appointed head of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration in Washington, D.C.—the agency that represents the Puerto Rican government in connection with U.S. institutions—and he came to her with a rare opportunity.
“He and I used to talk a lot about politics and the future of Puerto Rico,” Bonilla says. “So, he said, ‘Now’s your opportunity to do something about it. Why don’t you come with me and be one of my deputy general counsels?’ And that’s what I did.”
Having previously earned a degree from American University in D.C., she was familiar with life in the nation’s capital: “I love D.C. Being there, you can’t escape talking about politics.”
The work, meanwhile, was invigorating. In addition to hobnobbing with political movers and shakers and handling duties such as providing ethics training to her constituents who had offices in the United States, she relished advocating for fellow Puerto Ricans.
“Basically, my main job was to make sure everything we were doing was for the benefit of the Puerto Ricans in the United States,” Bonilla says. “And making sure that whatever we were doing in our office complied with the law. For example, with contracts we issued, I had to look at them to make sure everything was correct and legal.”
One memorable experience was attending a congressional hearing on the status of Puerto Rico—an issue that is always top of mind for her and her fellow islanders.
“We always have this uncertainty about whether we should become a state, remain a commonwealth territory or become independent,” she says. “It’s a topic that all Puerto Ricans are extremely passionate about. I didn’t have to provide testimony at the hearing, but it was thrilling just being there.”
Bonilla’s life and career took another unexpected turn not long after she finished her assignment with the FAA in 2001.
“Within a year and a half, I met someone who’s now my husband,” she says. “We met at a furniture market and felt the need to talk to each other immediately. After that, we’ve talked to each other every day for the rest of our lives.”
She broke one of her steadfast rules (“I always said, ‘I’m never moving for a man,’” she says with a laugh) by packing up for Tucson in 2004; she now practices employment law at Awerkamp, Bonilla & Giles.
“Tucson embraced me,” she says. “I have to say that it’s an amazing place. I feel very respected by my colleagues here.”
That passion for the greater good is also still there. “There’s always this little part of me—in my heart—that goes back to public service,” Bonilla says. “There’s always a part of me that continues being passionate about public service. When am I going to do it again? I still don’t have an answer.”
And while she’s set down roots in Tucson, Puerto Rico isn’t far from her thoughts. For Bonilla, statehood is a worthy goal. “I’ve always been extremely passionate about justice,” she says. “I personally believe if we were a state, we would have more power and control over what is in our best interest.”
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