United States Attorney Carmen Ortiz is the very first Hispanic – and woman – to be named Massachusetts’ chief federal prosecutor. Ortiz was nominated to office by President Barack Obama in 2009 and has since made it her mission to mentor students with the message that with determination, Latinos can achieve even their wildest dreams.
March is Women’s History Month and Ortiz is a Latina who believes that any woman can make history in their own right.
“I want children to be able to see themselves in me, and know if they work hard, anything is possible,” says Ortiz. She regularly travels to high schools throughout the Boston area to speak to Latino students, mentors local law students and welcomes undergraduates from nearby universities thanks to her open-door policy. It’s her way of letting youth know that “if you commit yourself to a good education and dedicate yourself to success than dreams can come true,” says the 56-year-old.
Ortiz grew up in Spanish Harlem in New York City. Her parents came from Puerto Rico while they were still in their teens, young and in love. When they first arrived, they spoke little English and neither had a high school degree. “But they worked hard to give my siblings and I future that would entail much more than they ever had,” recalls Ortiz. “And my mother, especially, wanted me to know that I could achieve a professional career through education.”
Education, says Ortiz, was her ticket out of the housing projects. “I grew up in a traditional Puerto Rican family, wasn’t allowed to go out and have a lot of friends, but I knew that education would expose me to more than what I saw and experienced in my neighborhood.” So Ortiz worked hard and graduated from her Catholic high school with a scholarship to Adelphi University in Long Island.
Law school was the next logical step for the soft-spoken Ortiz, who grew up watching the fictional lawyer character of Perry Mason on television. “I thought I wanted to be an actress, but decided I didn’t have enough talent or money to make it in Hollywood without any connections. And being a good arguer, I felt that as a lawyer, you could act,” recalled Ortiz.
The would-be U.S. attorney worked steadily through law school, and when faced with the bar exam, realized the importance of hard work and its role in relation to academic achievement. “I knew I had to work harder, because people would say ‘you’re not as smart, you have a weakness,’” Ortiz said. “I was so scared that I had everything stacked against me, and let me tell you, I studied that entire summer from morning until late at night because I wanted to do well.”
Armed with that mentality, Ortiz entered public service as an attorney with the U.S. Justice Department. After moving to Boston with her husband, she worked as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Economic Crimes Unit of the U.S. Attorney’s Office. She then worked in private practice but it was her nomination to her current position representing Massachusetts as United States Attorney, she says, that has allowed her to fully pursue her passion for mentoring students.
“I feel strongly that I have the ability to make a real impact on the community,” explains Ortiz, whose anti-corruption work and public integrity prosecution trials has made it known that she tackles the toughest of cases without hesitation.
As for the advice she most frequently doles out to students, Ortiz says it’s pretty simple.
“Life isn’t always easy and you may deal with some stumbling blocks along the way but education can open doors and provide tremendous opportunities,” advises Ortiz. “Don’t let the class you failed, the test you did poorly on hold you back.
“Try and try again and don’t let obstacles question your abilities to go far.”