Remarks by Under Secretary Maria Otero Upon Receipt of the Graciela Olivares Award

Maria Otero
Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs 
National Council of La Raza (NCLR)
Washington, DC
July 26, 2011

Thank you so much. I want to thank Janet Murguia for her leadership as the President of La Raza and Daniel Ortega for his dedication as the Board Chair. I especially want to thank my family, some who joined me here tonight – my mom and my dear husband, Joe Eldridge.

It is an honor to receive this award, and an even greater honor to walk in the footsteps of Latina leaders such as Graciela Olivarez. The theme of this year’s conference “Embrace Now,” is fitting particularly for this award.

As I think about the trailblazer Graciela Olivarez, I know she must have embraced the opportunity of now. She made her mark on the world as the first Latina to graduate from Notre Dame Law School, the lead advocate for gender equality on La Raza’s board, and one of the highest ranking Latinas in a Presidential Administration.

She must have embraced every moment in her life as an opportunity to change the world.

Indeed, you know that Latinas are making progress when they shatter glass ceilings without even knowing it. I was personally shocked when I learned that my appointment makes me the highest ranking Latina in the State Department's history. True to their commitment to appoint diverse and qualified individuals, President Obama and Secretary Clinton have appointed numerous highly qualified Latinos to lead our diplomatic engagement across the world. Jose Villarreal, Commissioner General to the World Expo in Shanghai and another honoree tonight, is only one of the many Hispanic diplomats implementing our U.S. foreign policy agenda. Mari Carmen Aponte, a former recipient of the Graciela Olivarez award, is another diplomat serving as the U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador – and I’m not surprised when I hear that they love her in El Salvador. And of course, La Raza’s very own Raul Yzaguirre, serving as U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic.

Even here in Washington, DC barriers are broken – my sister, Deputy Mayor BB Otero, is the highest ranking Latina in the District’s history. These barriers are broken down, day by day, Latina by Latina.

I am proud to help pave the path for future generations, and I embrace the responsibility to address critical issues affecting the Latino community.

Today’s Pew research revealed that Hispanic families have been hit the hardest during the economic recession. Unfortunately, it does not come as a surprise that minority communities are on the frontlines of adversity. We know that Latina mothers, daughters and sisters across the nation are struggling to put food on the table and ensure their children receive an education.

It’s during these difficult times that women seek to maximize every opportunity to improve the lives of their family, neighbors and friends. I’m often reminded of a time when I took a group of business school professors to Guatemala to see some of ACCION’s projects.

We visited one microentrepreneur, Esperanza, who welcomed us warmly into her home and proudly showed us her business, which probably produced 20 pairs of shoes a week. After a few minutes, one of the professors asked me to translate “Can you ask her what her unit cost of production is?” I refused, “she won’t know and will be embarrassed in front of her two daughters.” He insisted, so I asked her: “Doña Esperanza, this professor from the north wants to know what your unit cost of production is.”

She looked up at him, answering with a strong, assured voice, “Of course I know. It is 18 quetzales a pair, and please come and I will show how much it is at each step of production.” I felt humbled and also thrilled. With no formal training but a little working capital, Esperanza was a model business woman. And even though Esperanza was in Guatemala, we know that Latinas here in the United States are working just as hard with determination and vision. To this day, I imagine her mentoring other young women in her community, speaking up for herself and asserting the abilities of empowered women.

So I accept this award tonight on behalf of Esperanza and Latinas everywhere who are leading our community into the 21st century with great hope, respect and dignity. Let them remind us every day to embrace the power of now.
Thank you.