Raised in New York City’s Spanish Harlem by her Puerto Rican parents, GW Law School alumna Carmen Ortiz’s Massachusetts residence isn’t too far up the coast from her hometown. But that doesn’t mean the journey to her current position hasn’t taken her far from her modest roots.
Ortiz made history in January when she was sworn in as Massachusetts’ first female Hispanic U.S. Attorney. The late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., recommended that President Barack Obama nominate Ortiz to the position, based on her work as a prosecutor in the Middlesex County District Attorney’s office and her work in the U.S. Attorney’s office for the past 12 years in the Economic Crimes Unit.
Ortiz is best known for her work at the Center for Criminal Justice at Harvard Law School in 1990 when she investigated allegations of sexual harassment against members of the New England Patriots.
“I feel very proud, and I feel very grateful that I have been fortunate enough to have these accomplishments. I think that it is very important for people in leadership positions to reflect on the community they are representing,” Ortiz said of her Hispanic background.
She added that she does not shy away from the added responsibility of being the state’s top prosecutor, and a groundbreaker to boot.
“For me, it’s really exciting that I can be sort of a role model to others… the fact that I am a source of strength and encouragement,” she said.
While the move from D.C. to Boston might be a common one, Ortiz’s real journey began in the low-income housing complex on W. 103rd St. in New York City, where she grew up with her family. Her parents, having immigrated from Puerto Rico, worked to earn a better life for the family, eventually earning enough to move to Long Island when Ortiz was 16.
She earned a bachelor’s degree from Adelphi University in 1978, and after interning in a congressman’s office, she decided to stay in D.C. for law school. She attended GW Law School – then called the National Law Center – on a full tuition scholarship for minorities, and eventually worked in the admissions office reviewing other minority applicants before earning her law degree in 1981.
Ortiz said her experience at GW “absolutely” impacted her career, adding that her defining experience was in her practical courses and clinical programs.
“I did a legal aide clinic when I was at GW. I think the course that really helped me decide [to become a prosecutor] was the student prosecutor course during [my third year of law school]… By the time that I had graduated from GW Law School, I had done two misdemeanor trials. It really gave me a feel for what a prosecutor’s job was really all about,” Ortiz said.
Though she has left Foggy Bottom for prosecuting in Massachusetts, Ortiz’s relationship with GW has not ended. The younger of her two daughters, Alisandra, has enrolled in the undergraduate class of 2014 having after been accepted under the early decision option.
“She immediately fell in love, the day we spent at GW,” Ortiz said of her daughter, who will pursue a bachelor’s degree in the School of Business.
“It’s in a place where it’s wonderful to be a student,” Ortiz added, recalling her own days in Foggy Bottom.