Carmen Milagros Ortiz’s parents never got to finish high school, but they stressed education while raising their daughter in the Spanish Harlem section of Manhattan.
Ortiz did not disappoint, graduating from Adelphi University and getting her law degree at Washington University, before achieving a career milestone – in 2009 she became the first female and Hispanic United States Attorney in Massachusetts history.
She is known to be a tough prosecutor, a quality that many have lauded, but others have criticized. Her office was the top-ranked nationally in the collection of civil and criminal fines in 2012, getting $8.8 million, or more than 65 percent of the total collection by all 94 U.S. Attorneys.
Late U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy and then-Sen. John Kerry, who is now Secretary of State, pushed for President Obama to nominate Ortiz to the job, saying of the many candidates they vetted for the post, she was the “standout.”
“She has lived the American Dream,” they said in a statement at the time, “worked hard for every accomplishment she’s achieved, and will ensure that the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Massachusetts is a leader in our community and around the country.”
Now, Ortiz, whose parents were born in Puerto Rico, finds herself at the center of the investigation into the Boston Marathon bombing that killed three and left nearly 180 injured.
On Tuesday, at a press conference about the explosions, Ortiz, who is 57, struck a note that seemed to aim to be both firm and assuring.
"I want to repeat this is an active and ongoing investigation, but rest assured we are bringing all the resources necessary to help Boston recover," she said. “I ask for your patience and your understanding as we pursue leads and gather evidence to get to the bottom of who did this and why.”
Ortiz also recognized the selfless acts of people who ran to the aid of victims.
"What happened yesterday was a terrible tragedy, but it was amazing to see how people helped one another, running toward the blast to help those in greater need," Ortiz said.
She's had her share of controversy.
She came under fire over her office's aggressive prosecution of Internet activist Aaron Swartz, who made national headlines in January when he committed suicide. Many supporters of Swartz blamed his suicide on what they saw as the overzealous pursuit of prosecutors in his case.
In 2004, a federal appeals court in 2004 admonished Ortiz for advocating a harsher jail term for a defendant than she had promised him in a plea-bargain agreement.
Ortiz often speaks to school children, urging them to chase after their dreams.
“I worked really, really hard because I wanted to have a better life than my parents had,” Ortiz said to students during one visit to an urban school.
She also sees herself as role model for young women, she told a local news station in Massachusetts, adding that they would look at her and think “if I can have a successful career and personal life, that they can too. And sort of try to inspire them to make the right choices."
Many in Massachusetts had viewed her as a possible future gubernatorial or U.S. Senate candidate, but in January Ortiz dismissed the notion.
“I’m thrilled at doing the job I’ve been doing,” she told reporters. “I love being the U.S. Attorney.”