First Hispanic woman ambassador dies at 91

Mari-Luci Jaramillo

From her humble and impoverished upbringing in Las Vegas, New Mexico, Mari-Luci Jaramillo knew education was the key to success in life. She earned advanced degrees and later became an educator, university teacher and regent, advocate for Hispanic civil rights, an author and the first Hispanic woman to serve as a U.S. ambassador.

Jaramillo died Nov. 20 in Albuquerque. She was 91.

The daughter of a Mexican-born shoemaker/musician father and a homemaker mother descended from a pioneering Spanish family, Jaramillo excelled at school, encouraged by her parents and teachers who recognized her intelligence and her drive.

The career she carved out for herself focused on helping poor families and children through education, policy, leadership and diplomacy.

Longtime attorney Jesus Lopez said, “I knew Mari-Luci since I was a little kid. Her family knew mine, and she was a very dear friend of my mother.”

As he got older, Lopez followed Jaramillo’s career and her growing reputation. “I was very admiring of her many accomplishments,” he said. “She was ambassador to Honduras under President Jimmy Carter, and she had wonderful stories to tell about that experience. She wrote her first book, ‘Madame Ambassador: The Shoemaker’s Daughter,’ which was the story of her humble origins. It was just a pleasure being around Mari-Luci because she was so lovely and decent. She never lost her sense of humility or forgot where she came from.”

Jaramillo graduated from New Mexico Highlands University in 1955 with an undergraduate degree in education. She gained attention with her novel approach of teaching bilingual education, an approach she used on her limited English-speaking students when she taught in the San Miguel County and West Las Vegas public schools.

U.S. Ambassador Jaramillo, second from right, prepares to descend into the El Mochito Mine, an underground zinc and silver mine in northwest Honduras.

She subsequently taught at Highlands, where she earned her master’s degree in education in 1959, graduating magna cum laude. After moving to Albuquerque, she continued to teach and earned a doctorate in curriculum and instruction from the University of New Mexico in 1970, where she later became a member of the faculty at UNM’s School of Education. It was at UNM that she became an outspoken advocate for civil rights and social equality.

In 1975, she served on the board of the School of Education at Harvard and the following year she worked as a professor of early childhood education at the University of Salamanca in Spain.

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed Jaramillo as ambassador to Honduras, the first female U.S. ambassador of Hispanic descent. She was instrumental in helping the government of Honduras institute democratic reforms and ease the country’s military dictatorship.

In an interview years later, Jaramillo recalled the phone call she got from then Secretary of State Warren Christopher, informing her that President Carter had reviewed her credentials and nominated her as ambassador to 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.’ ”

Jaramillo served as ambassador from 1977 through 1980, then became the Pentagon’s U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, helping to build democracy in other military-run countries.

Returning to UNM in the early 1980s, Jaramillo served as special assistant to the university’s president, associate dean for the College of Education, and vice president for student affairs.

In 1992, she was again pressed into government service by President Bill Clinton, who named her as assistant secretary of defense for Latin America.

Jaramillo shakes hands with President Jimmy Carter, who in 1977 appointed her as ambassador to Honduras, the first Hispanic woman to hold a U.S. ambassadorship. (Courtesy of National Hispanic Cultural Center Archive)

She subsequently served on numerous boards and advocacy groups across the country and in New Mexico, including the Board of Regents at Highlands, and the National Hispanic Cultural Foundation.

In addition to her first book, “Madame Ambassador: The Shoemaker’s Daughter,” written in 2002, her second book, “Sacred Seeds: A Girl, Her Abuelos, and the Heart of Northern New Mexico,” was published earlier this year. She coauthored “Sacred Seeds” with Cecilia Navarrete.

Among the numerous awards she received during her life were the Distinguished Citizen award from the U.S. Pentagon, the Order of Francisco Morazan Medal and Dual Citizenship Award for extraordinary achievement in Honduras, the Anne Roe Award from the Harvard School of Education, and the Elizabeth Payne Cubberly Scholar Award from Stanford University.

U.S. Ambassador to Honduras, Mari-Luci Jaramillo, holds pottery made by local potters in La Campa, Honduras. Jaramillo served as ambassador from 1977 though 1980.

Mari-Luci Jaramillo is survived by her children, Ross Ulibarrí and wife, Kristin; Rick Ulibarrí and wife, Dr. Rose Hessmiller; and Carla Ulibarrí and husband, Mike Youngman; four grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and one brother.

A rosary will be recited Dec. 3, at 10 a.m., followed by a Mass at 11:15 a.m., at John XXIII Catholic Community, 4831 Tramway Ridge NE.

The family requests donations be made to NMHU Foundation, P.O. Box 9000, Las Vegas, NM, 87701, or to the U.S. Ambassador Mari-Luci Jaramillo Endowed Scholarship at UNM, 2 Woodward Court NE, Albuquerque, NM, 87102.

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