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Mari-Luci Jaramillo: Shoemaker’s Daughter to Madame Ambassador

Mari-Luci Jaramillo, U.S. Ambassador to Honduras from 1977-1980, rose from poverty in New Mexico to a life of diplomacy and advocacy of civil rights for Hispanics.  With a husband, three children and a factory job, she completed an undergraduate degree at New Mexico Highlands University with the goal of teaching elementary school.  In 1977, President Carter selected her to be ambassador to Honduras, making her the first Hispanic-American female Ambassador and the first woman to head an embassy in the Western Hemisphere.  Ambassador Jaramillo drew upon her personal experiences with poverty and discrimination in her public service as U.S. ambassador and civil rights advocate, adhering to and respecting the values of her Latino family and community throughout her life.

Since her time in Honduras, she worked for the Education Testing Service, on the board for the Children’s Television Network and as a member of the League of United Latin American Citizens.  She was interviewed by Ann Miller Morin in February, 1987.

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“She thought I was just going to set the world on fire”

I liked all [my teachers], but there was one that was really influential… Her name was Nell Dougherty and she was my high school English teacher in my senior year. She thought that I was just going to set the world on fire. She just knew I was going to do something great; and she encouraged me right and left.

I was now in college and had one more semester to finish, and she had heard via the grapevine that I wasn’t attending school. She came to visit me and she asked me why I was not going back to school. I said, well, I had decided I was going to work at the parachute factory one more semester or something…

Miss Dougherty said, “Mari-Luci, I don’t want you not to finish. You need that education. First of all, you know you’re going to do something great with that education. Secondly, I know you’re happily married, but some day you might need to have that degree, and you only have a semester to go.  Tell you what. How much does it cost you to go to school?”

I hadn’t said I didn’t have the money, but that’s the reason why I wasn’t going. I said, “It would cost $200.”

And she said, “I’ll lend you the $200.”

I said, “No, Miss Dougherty. I don’t have any way of paying the money back. I can’t.”

She said, “Well, this is what we’ll do: It will be a loan; I’m not giving the money to you, but you will repay me if you can someday, you’ll give me the money back. And if you can’t, some day through your education, you’ll help somebody else that needs help.”

So I thought about it and I said, “Okay. I’ll do that, because I don’t think I can pay you in cash now.”

So she gave me the $200 and I went to school that semester and finished. By the time I finished the semester I had a job offer, and the first paycheck that I got, I gave her her $200…

I was a senior in high school. Most seniors–that was the end of their careers; they were going to go to work in the five-and-dime and these kinds of things, and she was encouraging me. So, I think I’ve had wonderful teachers. I could just go on all day about them, but probably she’s the one that stands out as the greatest…

“That’s the only money I ever got from anyone”

When I graduated from high school, there were three awards given and I got the three awards. At that time, there were no scholarships. One of the awards was–what do you call those–Daughters of the American Revolution awards? They would give you an award. And then a fancy scholastic fraternity of some kind. The Reader’s Digest gave you something–a year’s subscription. And if you went to a fancy college, you would be a member of some fraternity or sorority; I’ve forgotten.

But those were the three awards. I was valedictorian of my class–the whole bit. When I graduated–the night that I graduated, don’t ask me why, my father had never participated in these activities, he showed up at my graduation. And that night, of course, I was on center stage.

In fact, to this day, I remember when they were giving the second award, I was perspiring so much I cleaned my hands on my robe and everybody laughed. There I was in the middle of the stage; kept going back for my awards. Well, we were coming out when it ended.

The people were just unbelievable, you know, with my mother; “What a brilliant daughter!” and all this stuff; and all the school kids saying, “You did it. You did it!” And it was kind of my night, the graduation night.

And my father was there. And he said, “You’ve got to go to college.” That night, when we got home, my father said that he was going to help me go to college. He said, “I will give you a hundred dollars.”

I’d thought of [going to college] but I’d thought, “There’s no way we’re going to make it.” I’d think, “Where am I going to get the money?” Miss Dougherty kept saying, “You have to go.”

And some of the other teachers kept telling me I had to go. They were all encouraging me, but I think I was a realist. I kept thinking, I want to go so badly, but I don’t know how I’m going to do it.

So, that summer I worked with [my father] full time in the shoe shop, and he gave me the $100. And that’s the only money I ever got from anyone, because the $200 from Miss Dougherty I paid back. I have paid for every bit of my education myself; not my husband–me. Every single penny.

I would work at a parachute factory in Las Vegas [New Mexico] and then they’d be in-between contracts and I’d go to school a semester. I’d work at night; I’d write other people’s term papers; I’d clean houses; I’d waitress; I did everything, and I went to school.

So, that $100 that my dad gave me was the only free money that I got, ever, in my education. There weren’t scholarships and things like that, or grants, or loans– none of that. I already had my master’s when the financial aid picture came into place, and I was one of the first ones invited to go on a pilot study to learn to teach English as a Second Language at the University of California in Los Angeles.

So, one summer I had a fellowship, and that’s it. That was at the graduate level, to start work on my PhD, and the rest of it is all that I earned. I didn’t get any help.

 “What’s going to happen to us, if I were the breadwinner?”

… I’d like to share a little bit about becoming an ambassador. I never aspired to be an Ambassador; I don’t think I really, basically, understood what an ambassador did, other than in very general terms. The day that I received a call — as you recall, I’ve never been active in politics and I’m not rich — and I had always thought those were the two qualifications for a presidential appointment.

I had a call, and I do believe that it was from Mr. [Warren] Christopher from the State Department, in my office where I was a professor. As usual, I had a number of students in my office that I had to shoe out of the office when the phone rang.

And on the phone they said that it was a call from the State Department. I thought there was a mistake, because in those days I had a lot of calls from Health, Education and Welfare because I pestered a lot of people looking for scholarships for students. But, nevertheless, it turned out to be the State Department, and this voice on the phone was telling me that President Carter had reviewed my credentials and was very impressed and wanted me to be his ambassador in Honduras.

I couldn’t believe it. First of all, I didn’t know how President Carter would find out about me. I didn’t have any political connections. My reaction was: “Who? Me? No.”

Mr. Christopher was very, very understanding. He was a genuine diplomat and said that maybe I’d like to think about it over the weekend, and to please call him collect if any questions came to mind.

He told me that they wanted me in a hurry but that it would be quite a long process because the FBI would have to check me out, and then I would have to go through the hearings and finally the day would come. But he wanted me to know that President Carter was very impressed with my credentials.

So I hung up and thought about it for a little while. Was that a legitimate call? Was I hearing things? What was going on? I was terribly excited. Oh, he told me that I could talk to no one about it, that the only one that I could tell was my husband.

Later on, I was going to get a lot of forms, and I could talk to my doctor about it. But other than my doctor and my husband, I was to talk to no one. So I immediately got on the phone to call my husband and I tried to talk for the first time in code. Well, needless to say, my husband didn’t understand what I was talking about, and so he said, “Meet you in the car in a few minutes.”

We both worked in two separate buildings, but on campus, and we shared cars. I got in the car and he tried to calm me down because I was all excited, trying to say everything that had happened that I had been told, and he was saying, “Slow down. Slow down.”

He made me go to the beginning: “Where was I sitting? Who was there when the phone rang?” to try to calm me down. We lived about seven minutes away from campus and I was telling him all this and he was driving.

When we got parked in front of the house, and he said, “And what did you say?” “I said,‘No.’”

He took the key out of the ignition, turned around and said, “You said what?!”

“I said ‘no’.”

He said, “I don’t understand you.”

And I said, “What’s going to happen to us, Heri, if I were the breadwinner? I know that you would just feel awful.”

And he said, “I know who I am; I’m a very secure person. I think it’s common courtesy for you to tell your President that you’d be delighted to be considered.”

So, I think that the diplomat in my family was him. He said that it would not bother him; that he thought that I should get back and say that I was interested. It didn’t mean that I was going to be named; it was just to show an interest; and that he would be wholly supportive.

From that day forward, I never mentioned it again. I knew that he would support me regardless, although in the back of my mind I kept thinking, “In three or four months, after he has to sit around all day, he’s not going to like it.” But I decided to take my chances. And he was just wonderful; he lived up to it.

So they got back to me from the State Department, and at that time I said I’d be delighted to be considered. I practiced it the whole weekend. And from there on, it just became a matter of waiting while I was being checked out, and my health exams.

It was very difficult because I am a member of an extended family where we have always shared everything and it was very difficult for me not to tell anyone, even my mother, of this wonderful thing that might happen to me. I could share with no one and that was a difficult thing.

“They’re going to find out I’m a red, white and blue American”

You have to wait until you have the Senate confirmation because even then you might not become [an ambassador], so you have to wait ’til the very end. So, I decided that this was a test; that they were probably checking me to see if I’d tell somebody. [Laughter]

And I right away got into the whole thing of “keep your mouth shut.” It bothered me greatly, especially when one friend called me and said, “What have you been up to? I told you not to get so involved with this Hispanic movement. The FBI is checking on you. “And I had no way of saying, “They’re going to find out I’m a red, white and blue American.” I’d just have to say, “I just don’t know.”

I had another that called me and said, “Did you know that the Carter Administration is considering you for some high post?” And I said, “High post?” you know I was trying to see how I could learn to respond without lying, and yet not give anything away.

And they said, “Oh, yes. We think they’re considering you for a post in the Department of Education.” So I said, “Well, who knows?” and just kind of let it go. But it was very, very difficult because close friends were very concerned that something was happening to me, because why was the FBI checking?

I was delighted when the papers were collected and they told me that I was ready to at least go to Washington and start studying. Then the whole issue of the Panama Canal came up, and so I was bumped off, and over and over and over from when I’d be scheduled. I’d be unofficially scheduled, and they’d think, “Well, maybe Tuesday you’ll get on,” and then this continued.

It just went on forever. But meanwhile, it was very good for me because I was studying about Honduras like crazy. I had started studying from the present back, as opposed to getting a historical perspective. I started going back and studying as much as I could about the country and just preparing myself mentally for it and meeting with a lot of people in the State Department.

Well, finally the day came and I had the Senate hearing and the confirmation. I was very excited about it. It was at the time when most of us, and me for sure, had been wearing only slacks for a number of years. We wore slack suits all the time, and I didn’t own many dresses.

I only had one really nice navy blue dress, which was a little too short for me because now the dresses were a little longer. And I remember tugging and tugging on that dress to save my life, and especially after, when you have the party that you have at the State Department. Well, I understand that now they’ve cut that out, but we used to have a party in the State Department.

I had my one navy blue dress, and everybody wanted pictures of me sitting here, and me sitting there; and I’d yank on that dress constantly. And I’d think, “Oh, my goodness; in order to be an ambassador I’m going to have to get a lot of new clothes.” Then they asked us to go down to Honduras as quickly as possible. Then there really was no time for anything else…

I did not go to the ambassador’s course and I did not go to something about diplomacy. They do something with protocol and all this–none of that. They wanted me to go immediately because they were having problems in Honduras–not with the country but within the embassy itself. It appears that, because they had been without an ambassador for quite some time, there was an uneasiness amongst the staff.

The embassy needed someone there to help them and so we were asked to go down as quickly as possible. So, during all that time, which had been very hectic and had turned out to be almost three months of waiting, and yet we had been told, “You can’t rent your house. You can’t let anybody know that you’re doing anything,”

We were cleaning our house like mad and telling people it was spring cleaning, but we were trying to think through what we would do, and then how we would tell our family right at the very last minute, and those kinds of things.

As it turned out, we were very fortunate that we were able to get everything squared away in record time. I remember the day that there was a leak; and it wasn’t a leak, but they had put on the President’s pile what he was going to talk about, and it was there that they were announcing it, but they hadn’t been able to reach me, so they weren’t able to pull away the paper from his desk and he told the nation that I was his ambassador–that I was his selection for his ambassador to Honduras before I knew about it.

People ran to my office and said, “Carter has named you an ambassador.” I had to pretend that I didn’t know and I had known for three months. That really was very, very bothersome. And I got in the car and I drove home, and I called my contact person and I said, “There’s been a leak.” She said, “It wasn’t a leak. The President announced it. I wasn’t able to get hold of you. I hope this hasn’t caused any inconvenience.” Well, I was very polite and said, “No, it hasn’t.”

But it did, because I thought all along that if I talked, then that spoiled my chances. I certainly thought that an ambassador, above all, would need to be able to be discreet enough that you wouldn’t give away things that you were studying or discussing, or high-level kinds of information.

I just didn’t want somebody saying, “See, it can’t be a woman, because she talks too much.” I had that in the back of head all during this time. So, we were able to get ready. My family was very happy. Friends from all over sent me bouquets of flowers and wires and telephone calls. It was just–it was like a New Mexico celebration. . . one big fiesta…

“That boiled down to, I was going to be a failure”

So we left. At that time you couldn’t go to Honduras quickly. We had to spend a night in Houston and then the next day we had to go to Guatemala, stay in Guatemala that night and the following morning get to Honduras. So it was a long, long time for a person that was as nervous as I was to get on with it.

I had heard a lot, in a lot of indirect ways–nobody ever telling me directly, but in a lot of indirect ways–I had picked up that, number one, the media was going to eat me alive because I had no experience with the media; number two, the military weren’t going to pay any attention to me because I was a woman.

That boiled down to, I was going to be failure. And I had heard that many, many times. Never directly, but a smart person putting two and two together; that was there. But I knew a lot of things. I knew that I had studied like crazy during those three months and I knew Honduras well.

Number two, I knew I was bicultural completely and I knew that Hondurans were going to understand me, and I knew that I was going to show them that I would be the best that I could possibly be. In every job I’ve always taken it like that: “I don’t know much about it, but I’m going to do my very best.” That’s my motto.

… Just being a woman was an advantage; it wasn’t a disadvantage. It was an advantage. Look, in the diplomatic corps, you remember how all the ambassadors stand by — in the reception line — by how long they’ve been in the country? So you come in, and you’re way at the back, right? Okay, I’m the American; I just arrived; so Brazil and I are at the tail end. I’d been there a couple of months–do you know that those ambassadors keep pushing you? Pushing me?

They’d turn back and then, “Oh, no, no, no, Ms. Ambassador.”

They’d stick me in front of them, and I’d say, “You’re breaking all protocol.”

“The heck with protocol.”

They wanted me to be in the front of the line. That happened so many times. I’d always go to the back and stand in my place, and I was so correct. It was just a neat thing, and that was because I was a woman.

I think if I had successes, they were a combination of things. It was because, as a woman, you have special skills; because, as a minority person, growing up where there’s a major culture, you pick up skills; because I, myself, am a people-person; because I had the skills and knowledge of a professional; and because I am an educator and have dealt with masses of different people in trying to convince them that the way I see the world is the right way to look at the world; and that’s what a teacher does. And so then you take those skills and you package them to fit the occasion, and you’re off.

It’s a combination. I don’t think that just being a woman, or just being an Hispanic, or just being a minority, or just an educator, but when you combine those–boy, I was at the right place at the right time.

“I did exactly what I had always done”

I got involved. If there was a sick child, I got on the phone and called directly: “I heard that so-an-so was sick. How is he? How’s he getting along today? I’d do the kind of personal things that I think this is about. Not only did I do that with the embassy staff — I did it a lot with them at the beginning — but as I paid my courtesy calls, the same thing with the others. To me, it was just an extension of my campus.

I already had all these people skills on campus and all I was doing was using them in another setting. These are the same skills that I’ve had since I was a first-grade schoolteacher. I learn people’s names; I learn what troubles them; I learn what pleases them.

I personalize everything. I thank people for good work. I frown a lot if you don’t do good work; you know if I’m pleased. I’m an easy person to read. I was very complimentary of good work and people knew it, you know.

I went to work at 7 and 7:30 in the morning. People were shocked. Ambassadors are supposed to show up at 9 or 10 or whatever. I showed up; so pretty soon everybody else was showing up at 7:30–never said a word. That’s just my work style. [Laughs] And I worked right through the noon hour, just like I do on campus.

I did exactly what I had always done; be a people person and cram my day with work, get as much work done as I possibly could. Then I started, you know, doing a lot more entertaining at noon. But at the beginning, I used that to set my tone.

My tone was: work in a friendly atmosphere. That’s what I wanted; productive work, but in a human environment; in a place where people want to work and work hard, and they’re going to get a pat on the shoulder when they do good work.

And everybody was just wonderful with me. We could go into each single division and people just stand out, people that went that extra mile to get work done. Then with the Hondurans, it was the same thing.

In my courtesy calls, I got to know people. I was a novelty; I was the first American Hispanic woman that had gone any place, so they felt that they were honored. Many of them told me, “What an honor it is for us to have the first woman Ambassador.” So that worked nice for me, too; you see?

I’m telling you; I just have a lot of good luck. I quickly made friends with everybody across the board–the military, the church people, the business people, the campesinos, the media. By the way, the media, I guess, became my real friends. They were just wonderful. I know that many times I didn’t say things as eloquently as it came out in the newspaper.

Oh, they were wonderful. And on television, they learned that I take horrible side pictures, and that if I look into the camera, they would capture it–it was obvious to me; it was just obvious. They went out of their way to be nice and to ask me questions that I could really expand on, ’cause if they had wanted to, they could have asked me all kinds of questions that I wouldn’t have known a thing about. So we became friends instantly. It was just wonderful.

“I saw it even in the most desolate places out in rural Honduras”

From a Hispanic woman’s point of view, I think the [woman’s rights] movement has been very good, but it’s not as influential as it could have been if ethnic minority women had been involved in the beginning movement. I think that it was very Anglo-oriented at the beginning…

The strategies that they used at the beginning to call attention were not acceptable to the Hispanic woman, and so it took a long time for the Hispanic woman to come aboard. I think now the Hispanic women that have come aboard are middle-class, professional, working women.

I think there’s been tremendous change in the Hispanic home regarding women because of the women’s movement, but it’s not a big, overt thing that you can say, “this has changed,” but little subtle things, like the tasks were so divided between male/female roles and those are blending now, and people doing each other’s roles, and that kind of thing.

So I think it’s been very helpful, but, as a whole, Hispanics don’t see that much help from the women’s movement in jobs, because what has happened to many Hispanic people, Anglo-males have retired and Anglo-females have taken the job.

So you don’t see the kind of movement that people, say, Anglo-women see, because they see themselves up there, but there hasn’t been that much for the Hispanic women.

However, like I say, I think it is making a tremendous difference for Hispanic women in the home in subtle little ways. Definitely, for middle-class Hispanic women, there’s a lot of movement. I see university women studying subjects they would have never studied before.

But, again, most of those Hispanic women at the university are middle-class already; their parents already had an education. So maybe, just the tenor of the times, they would have been studying these new things. You don’t know. But whatever, I’m glad the women’s movement came.

I saw it even in the most desolate places out in rural Honduras. I saw women talking about the rights of women. It is this worldwide movement and sometimes we tend to think that it’s an American movement. It’s a worldwide movement and American women were kind of Johnny-come-latelies, really. There had been so much movement in Europe already about women. I think it’s wonderful. I’ve participated much more in the ethnic movements than I have openly in the women’s movement.

“Everywhere we went he was always made the center of attention”

… I tried, at the beginning when I went, to hire a young Honduran lady to supervise the staff because I realized it was going to be terribly hard for my husband, who hadn’t done any of that stuff before, to try to do it.

He was going to be in charge of supervising the buying of the liquors and what was needed; he was going to do all that. I hired a Honduran woman who was up high in the Honduran society and so knew what Hondurans that would be dealing with the embassy would like, and what they’d expect and all.

I don’t know how long she worked. Maybe she worked six months or so. It was the perfect thing for her to work because she allowed me to spend all my time on embassy matters and not have to pay any attention to the residence.

Although I paid attention to it because my virtue — I’m the kind that has to straighten out rugs and put flowers — that’s me, but I didn’t have to worry that the food wasn’t served attractively.

What she would do was prepare menus and she’d prepare guest lists and lots of that stuff, then she and I would sit and go through it. Then I would take my lists and the protocol officer would look at it, so it had three people looking at it…

… I do think that a woman should not have to worry at all about how the table’s going to look or if they serve the right thing. My husband was just wonderful staying on top of every little detail, trying to make sure that the staff [performed well] — the staff was trained and had done it for many years, but there were still a lot of slips. I don’t ever remember a major catastrophe, maybe a little too much liquor in something they were going to flame, but not bad; not bad…

…They must have given [my husband] ambassadorial rank because everywhere we went he was always made the center of attention. I think that that was the way of the Latins showing him that he wasn’t a lesser person, especially that he was the male.

This is the way we got our invitations: from the American community, we got “Ambassador and Dr. Jaramillo.” From the diplomatic corps and from the Hondurans, we got two separate invitations…That way my name didn’t have to be in front of his.  So you see, there’s a way around everything if there’s a will.