The California Department of Veterans Affairs hit a trifecta last month when Governor Gavin Newsom appointed Xóchitl Rodriguez Murillo to be the agency’s deputy secretary for minority veterans affairs.
Murillo is a minority veteran and a U.S. Army reservist who is well-versed in the machinations of the military, having served in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
She’s worked in state government, most recently in Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon’s office of protocol, and held other legislative jobs as she moved up her career ladder.
And she is currently the mayor of Woodland, the town where she grew up.
“She knows very well the populations she serves, and how to navigate the inner workings of government,” said CalVet Secretary Vito Imbasciani MD. “She has great passion for the mission of our agency, and already is very confident in her ability to work with different veteran groups.”
The daughter of farmworker parents and the eldest of six children, Murillo said her parents worked hard to give all of their kids opportunities to succeed in life.
“We grew up in affordable housing,” she said. “My parents let us be kids. They let us soak it all in, to go to school while they worked hard. In 1999, they bought their first home and took us out of affordable housing, away from the gang activity. My mother taught us kindness, which in turn instilled patience. My father always challenged us to set goals, and focus on getting the mission done.”
She graduated from Woodland High School in 2001 and became the first in her family to attend college, enrolling at UC Davis. Murillo didn’t declare her major for the first two years, and after her sophomore year learned that her college funding would be cut in half.
“I needed a reset,” she said.
So she enlisted in the Army Reserves, became a culinary specialist and found herself cooking on a boat at Mare Island in Vallejo.
“I wanted to be on a ship,” she said. “That was not a ship. It was a flat-bottomed boat.”
Next stop, Fort Lewis in Washington. From there, in November 2004, she deployed with her unit to a naval base in Kuwait, delivering supplies to American forces and oil platforms in the Persian Gulf.
Murillo returned to UC Davis in 2006 – where she met her husband Antonio Murillo, also an Army Reservist – and graduated in June 2008, majoring in Spanish and international relations, with a minor in Chicano studies. She quickly found a job as an assistant file clerk in the California State Assembly. It began a rapid career climb that has included positions with three state Assembly speakers – John A. Perez, Toni G. Atkins, and Anthony Rendon. Amidst all of that, Murillo earned her master’s in Spanish from Sacramento State in 2010; did reserves assignments in 2012 in California and 2013 in Hokkaido, Japan.
Murillo returned to the Sacramento Valley for good in October 2015, working in succession as a legislative clerk in the State Senate: for Assemblymember Anna Caballero as a legislative and communications aide, and then for Assembly Speaker Rendon as an appointments consultant before her CalVet appointment.
Running for public office herself wasn’t an immediate goal, but became one when she decided she wanted to give back to Woodland, her home town.
“I was interested in joining the planning commission,” she said. But Woodland had just changed from open council seats to districts, and she was asked to run for the District 5 seat, representing the city’s southeast side, in 2016. She did, and won. She became mayor pro-tem in 2017-2018, and rotated into the mayor’s seat in December 2018. In doing so, she became the city’s first Latina mayor and second woman mayor.
Last summer, she applied to the governor’s office for an appointed position. Early this fall, she got a call from the governor’s appointment secretary who told her, “‘We have the perfect slot for you,’ ” Murillo said. “She walked me through it, and it was the Minority Veterans Affairs slot at CalVet.”
As deputy secretary, she plans to advocate for minority and underrepresented veterans by “reaching areas where we have a gap,” she said. “The Central Valley, from Fresno to Redding, is an area where we need to identify and reach out to them. Why aren’t we getting more minority veterans applying for benefits? Our hope is they will become more comfortable in working with CalVet for their earned benefits.”
She has the charisma, leadership skills, and understanding to accomplish all of that and more. Which makes the deputy secretary for veterans affairs the “perfect slot” for her, and she for it.
She is a minority and a veteran, just like the veterans for whom she’ll advocate. She understands how government works at the state and local levels. And she’s not afraid of new challenges and to break new ground, as she’s done as her hometown’s first Latina mayor.
A trifecta, indeed.