'You can't let stereotypes hold you back:' Q & A with Carmen Ortiz
There are 89 U.S. Attorneys in the United States and Puerto Rico. Of the 84 appointed by the President, four are Latinos; two are women. One of them is Carmen Milagros Ortiz. She is the first woman and first Latina to head the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s Office. The late Senator Ted Kennedy and former Senator John Kerry (now Secretary of State) recommended Ortiz. President Barack Obama nominated her. The United States Senate then confirmed her by unanimous consent. Kennedy and Kerry described her as a “standout.” And she is for a reason: Years of hard work and life experiences have given her a penchant for challenge.
Appointed in November 2009, by December 2011, the Boston Globe Magazine had named Ortiz “Bostonian of the Year,” saying she had “sent an unambiguous message to the Massachusetts political class to behave.” By 2012, Ortiz’s office had secured grand jury indictments of a former state commissioner, a former state senator, and other public officials. It also led the investigation of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, and the office's latest victory was the July 24 conviction of Massachusetts Probation Department Chief John J. O’Brien, found guilty of racketeering.
Ortiz's office acknowledges that "for all the praise for investigating public corruption, terrorism and organized crime cases, there will always be criticism. It comes with the job,” and last year the office came under fire after two individuals her office prosecuted, or helped prosecute — Delours Price and Aaron Swartz — committed suicide.
Prior to her appointment to the federal bench in Mass., Ortiz prosecuted financial crimes, homicides, sexual assaults, and robberies, among other felonies, and was engaged most by the challenge of putting the pieces of the prosecutorial puzzle together. It’s a taste she developed at a young age.
Ortiz is part of her family’s first generation born in the United States. She was raised in Spanish Harlem, New York. “I grew up in a very Puerto Rican household,” she says, “we ate a lot of rice and beans.” The thought still making her chuckle. “We also listened to Latin music like salsa and merengue.”
Her 30 years living in Massachusetts are evident in Ortiz’s slight Boston accent, but her Latino background seeps through her rolled “rs” in “Puerto Rico” and “merengue.” She grew up as the oldest of five siblings, expected to help with household chores and at the family gift shop. She also had to maintain good grades to earn scholarships, so she could attend college. And, when she chose a career, she chose one that allowed her to help others.
This summer, Ortiz delivered the commencement speech at the graduation of the 2014 Class of La Esperanza, an all-girls charter and private middle school in Lawrence, MA. The graduates were the same age as Ortiz when she religiously watched Perry Mason on TV, the 1957-1966 hit series that inspired her to become a lawyer.
AL DÍA: How do you use your own life experience to talk to young girls?
I always talk about a cycle. Two years ago, I visited Lawrence, where the dropout rate in high school is very, very high. At La Esperanza Academy a significant number of students are Latinas, so I talked to them about my past, how I got to where I am, not only as a lawyer, but as a mom, and a woman, and I could see the inspiration in their faces; they saw that if I could do it, they could do it too. And they inspired me too because I felt that I was reaching out to young girls that don’t have many positive role models. Last June, I went back for the graduation. All the girls had gotten into great high schools, so I told them they were well on their way to achieving their goals, that what they set their minds to they could accomplish through hard work, and by surrounding themselves with people who supported them.
We grow up listening to our parents’ stories, stories that sometimes have an impact on our choices. Can you recall any that had such an impact on you?
Yes … my mom told me how when she was a young girl, her dad took her out of school to do things at home. He didn’t think it was necessary for her to have a full education. She didn’t finish high school and she really regretted that. She thought that she was cheated out of life. She thought that education was important to be more knowledgeable of the world, and accomplish your goals. Being an educated woman helps you to be more independent and self-sufficient as you mature in life. My mom certainly wanted that for me, so she became one of my key mentors and motivating factors.
You are the first Latina and first woman to become U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts. Which firsts do you recall from your childhood in New York?
I am the oldest of five children and I was the first one to attend college. Before that, I went to school in the city, and when I was 16, my family moved to Long Island. I was the only Hispanic, the only Latina, in junior and then in senior year in high school.
How did that feel?
It felt a bit isolating. For the first time I realized that my ethnic background generated a different perspective … of me. When I was growing up, I didn’t view myself as being different, as a minority, but when I went to high school and I was the only Latina young woman — my sister, also Puerto Rican, was a freshman in high school — it made me realize that there was a difference, and I felt like I needed to really prove myself.
What was it like growing up Latina in New York?
As the oldest in my family, I had to take care of my brothers and sisters. I could cook by the time I was 10 years old; I helped clean the house. My mother raised me that way, [with] responsibilities to fulfill. I grew up in an area, like a housing project, where it was easy to go to school, to the library, and eventually to work, [but] children had significantly less freedom. I was very cloistered. In the 1970s, once I got older and was in high school and college, it was very challenging culturally. My father, being a Puerto Rican man, was very, very striiiict. There was a lot of conflict and tension regarding what I saw as living the American life, where girls could go out after school and have lots of friends, have boyfriends. My father raised me with the perspective that I couldn’t hang out. I would go from home to school, from school to home. I was expected to and I did work on weekends and during the summer at his little gift shop. I wasn’t going off to camp. At night, I helped my mom at home.
How challenging was that?
I felt like I had a lot on my shoulders. It was a challenge to do what I needed to do, so I could excel as I went from one level to the next, to try to get into law school. Once I got into college, after my first year, I was able to get extra funding from school, and as a sophomore and through the rest of college I lived at school, which really helped me live more what I perceived as the American life.
You once said that you decided to become a lawyer after watching Perry Mason on TV. What in the show moved you to the point of making a career of it?
Initially, I wanted to be an actress, believe it or not, but I didn’t think it was in the cards for me. Then, as I watched Perry Mason in middle school, going into high school, I thought of being a lawyer as I saw all the drama in the court room, as lawyers put cases together, and I learned more about what a lawyer does, helping people to work out their problems, helping victims of crime, doing defense work, helping people who had committed crimes because they made the wrong choice, and so forth. There were concerns [in my family] about being able to afford law school, but I earned scholarships, got financial aid, and student loans that helped me. Also, I liked to study. I liked school, so I thought that becoming a lawyer could be interesting and challenging. I could do a little bit of acting in the court room, help people, and it would also provide me with a future that would be financially secure.
Before becoming a U.S. Attorney, you thought of yourself more in terms of your professional achievements than your accomplishments as a Latina woman. Why?
I felt that I had proven myself in my skills, work ethic and experience as a lawyer. I have worked very hard in each job that I’ve had. It wasn’t because I made an impression in terms of “Oh, she is a woman,” or, “Oh, she is Latina.” It was more, “wow, she is a really good lawyer,” or “a good trial lawyer,” or “a good prosecutor,” or “a good defense attorney,” when I did defense work in private practice. I felt that I had achieved certain successes in my career based on my skills.
In a public appearance you once said “we are all indebted to every suffragist and advocate leader that came before us.” To whom do you feel indebted?
To all the women who have paved the path for us. There was a time when women felt they had to choose between getting married and having kids or a career, and there have been women before us, the feminist movement, that established that you can do it all if you set your mind to it. It’s not easy to raise a family and have a career where you are moving up the ladder. But you can do it if you surround yourself with people who will help you to achieve those goals. You pick a partner or a husband who will support your ambitions and dreams, and is going to help you at home, and is really going to be a partner in raising the kids and not expect you to be at home cooking and cleaning and feeding the kids while he works. The women succeeding and having a balanced life are the women who I am thankful for, and I am part of that process. I feel a lot of pride in being the first U.S. Attorney [in MA] who is Hispanic and a woman, and I hope that I can demonstrate to others that they can do it too, that they can break the glass ceiling.
What impact have your achievements had on your two daughters?
I think they feel a tremendous pride in their mother and appreciate all the hard work that it has taken for me to get here. I think that they now forgive me for certain things that I didn’t do, a couple of meetings that I didn’t make, or when I bought cookies at the supermarket instead of making them, or bought cupcakes for birthdays instead of baking them. I think they can forgive me for that and ...They realize how much work it took to raise them and focus on their health, and happiness, especially after their father passed away 12 years ago.
How did you pull through your loss while being a single mom?
Quite frankly, for single mom, or moms in general, it’s easy. You focus on your children. We all love our children. We all want more and better for them than what we had. So, even though it was very traumatic for me to lose my husband after a lengthy illness that was very emotionally draining, and tragic, I had my two daughters. And I couldn’t quit. I couldn’t give up. And I couldn’t be a failure in their eyes because I wanted them to be happy and healthy, and to have a fulfilling life, and how could I accomplish that if I just gave up? The fact that I had them in my life made me work even harder. I think that instead of focusing on your own self and your losses, and what isn’t working for you, or what struggles you have, you need to think of someone else, and for me it was my girls and making a life that would help them establish their own.
What do you bring from your background to the job as U.S. Attorney?
I bring my experience in law enforcement, my personal experiences, and the hope that in this position I can tear down certain stereotypes. I think that when some people think of Hispanics, they think that we are lazy, that we commit crimes, that we are not that smart, that we may not be that hard-working, or that women might not be that committed to the job, but more to family and kids. Hopefully I have dispelled that by leading an office that does tremendous amount of complex, rewarding work, in our cases and community outreach efforts.
Do you perceive stereotyping of victims or defendants in law enforcement?
I have not perceived that directly, but I still think that racism exists, even though we have an African-American president. We still have a long way to go. One way to overcome it is by having much more diverse individuals in positions of power that can be role models and mentors.
When you first took office, were you ever treated as a stereotype?
There was some talk that perhaps I had been put in the position because I was a woman, an affirmative action type of thing, but I focused on highlighting my professional experience. I had been a lawyer for well over 30 years. I had been a state prosecutor for close to 10 years. I had been a federal prosecutor for 12 and a half years, and had done criminal defense work and civil litigation. There are always stereotypes, but when I speak especially to young women, or minorities, I always say, “you can’t let stereotypes hold you back, or let people’s perceptions of you stop you.” At the end of the day, you prove yourself with the quality of work that you do.