One doesn’t often get a look into the personal lives of judges and top prosecutors.
Most often, one sees a federal prosecutor out front, on the podium, during major cases and after breaking news.
Such has been the case with U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, who has most recently been the figurehead in major cases like that of Whitey Bulger and former Speaker of the House Sal DiMasi.
They are the face of the law; they are consummate professionals.
But rarely does anyone get to see the entire person, or to hear what it took for them to get to that position.
On Tuesday, speaking for Hispanic Heritage Month at the Chelsea Campus of Bunker Hill Community College (BHCC), U.S. Attorney Ortiz gave a rare look into her life, the life of the first female Hispanic federal prosecutor in Massachusetts.
Ortiz revealed candid details about her life, moving some to tears at times.
She was funny, likable and human during her 45-minute talk.
She even revealed that despite being a native New Yorker, she is a die-hard New England Patriots fan – which drew applause from the audience.
After being introduced by Chelsea Campus Dean MaryAnne Miller and BHCC President Dr. Mary Fifield, Ortiz addressed the packed room full of students, Chelsea senior citizens and numerous community leaders.
Ortiz detailed how she grew up in New York City, the oldest of five children, and the daughter of parents who had come from Puerto Rico. Despite coming from modest means, she said from an early age her parents stressed the importance of education, and that she saw many opportunities out there for her.
In fact, by the time she was in law school and, later, working as a prosecutor, she was pretty much blinded to the fact that she was one of the only Hispanic women in her field.
It wasn’t until she was appointed U.S. Attorney in 2009 that she began to realize the importance of the many firsts she had accomplished.
“After I was appointed, I found myself called upon to discuss these firsts in different settings,” said Ortiz. “It caused me to stop and think. Prior to being nominated, I didn’t think much about being a woman or being Hispanic. I was just a prosecutor. I saw myself as a city girl. I had to stop and think in order to realize I had been a woman – a Hispanic woman – who had gone to law school and worked in the prosecutor’s office in environments that were mostly male and had few, if any, Hispanic people.”
She said that she has been fortunate because she didn’t have to face the trials that so many Hispanic residents face in immigrating to the country – such as the struggles with documentation and learning the culture and not being an automatic citizen.
However, she said that her parents didn’t speak much English, and that held them back. It was, however, all the more reason they taught her to work hard.
“They really taught me that through hard work and through education – education was the key for them – I would find success,” she said. “It would be the key to me having the things they couldn’t have and they were right.”
Ortiz outlined 10 pieces of advice for those in the audience, but the highlight of that list came when she unveiled a very human moment and discussed the sudden passing of her husband 11 years ago.
She explained that she was at the top of her career as a prosecutor in Middlesex County, and her husband was in private law practice – also at the zenith of his career. She had two young girls and a very happy marriage.
She didn’t think life could get much better.
“It was at that point a doctor called my husband and I and told us that they had found a mass in my husband’s X-ray,” she said. “It turned out to be pancreatic cancer. We battled that cancer for eight years and I lost my husband 11 years ago. That set me back, really set me back. I didn’t think I could get past this. I didn’t think I would ever want to see the inside of a courtroom again. I had an eight-year-old daughter and I had to raise her now all by myself…I picked myself up and I did move on. No matter what you’re going through, there is a brighter day and I am here to prove that.”
Following that, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.
Many weren’t aware of such a personal detail in the top prosecutor’s life.
She backed that up by telling about how she did move on, and how she found a way to dream again. Interestingly enough, her professional life actually took a much bigger turn that she ever could have imagined.
After working her way back, she applied for and got the U.S. Attorney’s position in 2009. She did reveal though that she leaned upon the encouragement of friends and co-workers to get through that process, as her confidence was shaky.
“I wanted to apply for the job, but my confidence wavered because I didn’t know if I could really be the U.S. Attorney in Boston, a good U.S. Attorney,” she said. “I talked to a good friend and he told me that I didn’t have anything to lose by applying…He told me I should go for it. I listened to him and look at me now. I did get the position.”
Amid a number of other great pieces of advice for job seekers and professionals, Ortiz did offer up one final, but important, suggestion.
“Be nice,” she said. “It’s important to be nice and to be pleasant. Many times we forget to do that.”
She left one challenge for all Hispanic listeners at the conclusion of her speech, as an ode to Hispanic Heritage Month.
“We are all indebted to every advocate leader and suffragist who came before us,” she said. “They are the ones that set the roots we are established upon…As we stand on their shoulders, we must now build on their work. We need to help others of Hispanic descent who are having trouble. We need to blaze new trails. In our society, the demands on all of us, especially those from ethnic backgrounds, has increased exponentially…Latinas in particular are playing historic roles in breaking down barriers…Latinos have tremendous economic and political opportunities in the near future, but it’s up to us…I believe you are the people who will make this difference.”