Our American Dream: Under Secretary Maria Otero, Highest-Ranking Latina in State Department’s History

  • Courtesy of María Otero

     (Courtesy of María Otero)

  • Courtesy of María Otero

     (Courtesy of María Otero)

  • Courtesy of María Otero

     (Courtesy of María Otero )

Across the United States, in all fields of endeavor, Latinos are working to uphold their place in American society. Fox News Latino is proud to present "Our American Dream" – a series of snapshots and profiles of Latino success stories. 

When Under Secretary of State María Otero left La Paz, Bolivia with her family to live in Washington D.C., she could have never imagined she’d be working down the hall from Secretary Clinton one day.

Otero remembers her childhood in Bolivia with joy. Despite it being, according to Otero, “a poor, underdeveloped country with enormous political instability,” it was her home.

I noticed I became a sort of bridge between two cultures.

- Maria Otero

But it was also a home where women were not expected to study past high school. “Instead,” Otero said, “they were to begin looking for a husband and then have children.”

When she was twelve, her father, a lawyer, moved the family to the U.S. to become one of the founding members of the Inter-American Development Bank.

Otero remembers the difficulties of the transition: “We didn’t know any English and had no sense of what the U.S. was like. We had lived a very sheltered life in Bolivia.”

The children were quickly immersed in American schools and struggled to learn a new language and culture.

Yet Otero’s mother was more concerned with her nine children maintaining their sense of Bolivian culture. “My mom hired a teacher to teach us the Bolivian folk dances,” Otero shared with humor as she remembers her teen angst, “English lessons would have been more helpful, mom.”

But Otero shares with fondness how years later she danced the cueca with her father at her wedding.

“It was really a smart thing my mom did,” she says, “she gave us a love of our own culture and everything it stood for. It was one of the best gifts she could give.”

Otero would return to Bolivia every summer, and live there for a few years after college.

“I noticed I became a sort of bridge between two cultures,” Otero shares as she remembers a recent conversation she had when she met Mick Jagger at an event in New York: “I told him how I was trying to translate his song “Satisfaction” to my friends back in Bolivia. We laughed and I realized how I had had one foot in each culture.”

Despite this bicultural immersion, Otero still experienced an identity crisis in high school. She went to school at a time when there were very few Latinos in her classroom. “There was this one other Latina girl, Eliana,” she remembers, “but she changed her name to ‘Pat.’ We were all trying so hard to fit in.”

Otero decided to study British literature and become an English professor. However, while she was pursuing her Master’s degree in British Romantic Literature, she also became more and more involved in Latin American politics and issues.

Otero remembers how the involvement changed her: “Once I finished my Master’s and was about to move on to my doctorate, there was a point in my identity crisis where I thought, what am I doing studying British literature?”   

The week after she completed her Master’s in literature, she began her first courses in international economics and completed a Master’s degree in International Relations from Johns Hopkins SAIS.

“Eventually it became clear to me,” Otero says, “that I could retain my cultural roots and retain my love for Bolivia, and also eventually become a more global citizen. I realized that making a contribution was more important than making a career.”

Today Otero is most inspired by the people she meets in her work: “There are so many people around the world who are dedicating their lives to making it a better place. Whether their work is in climate change, human rights, modern slavery, refugees, or in any of the other areas I work in, I am constantly inspired by their courage.”

Otero is the first Latina Under Secretary in the State Department’s history, and credits her success to her mother and the many great mentors she’s had in her life: “My inspiration comes from a spectrum of people, from Secretary Clinton, who is just the mentor I needed in this stage of my life, to the young fourteen year old girl who is trying to build her life after being sexually trafficked.”

Otero’s advice to young Latina women: “Work hard. You can’t always see the end of the road, or where your career will be in twenty years. Instead, find people to mentor and guide you along the way, and be intentional about asking for help. Help other young women as you go, see yourself as a leader, and never think that you have to do this alone.”

Isa Adney is a Fox News Latino Education and Community Columnist and the author of Community College Success (NorLights Press, 2012), available on and She advises students across the country on how to break socio-economic barriers and build positive educational communities. You can connect with Isa on Twitter, Facebook, and

For story ideas e-mail isa at

Follow us on
Like us at