October 3, 2012

Staff — HispanicBusiness.com

Influentials Q&A: Maria Cardona

Maria Cardona started Latinovations, the Latino strategies practice of public affairs firm Dewey Square Group (DSG), because she knew its services would be pertinent to the growing and influential U.S. Hispanic community.

Latinovations offers its clients strategic guidance on best practices on how to navigate the Hispanic community.

Prior to being a principal at DSG and founding Latinovations, Ms. Cardona was a Democratic strategist and a political contributor at CNN/CNN en Español. She spent five years at the Department of Commerce, where she served as deputy press secretary to Secretary of Commerce Ronald H. Brown, and press secretary to politicians William Daley and Mickey Kantor.

Ms. Cardona also served as a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primary in 2008, acting as a campaign surrogate and spokesperson and representing the campaign on major national TV.

She spoke candidly with HispanicBusiness, discussing discrimination and losing one of her mentors in a plane crash.

HispanicBusiness: Briefly share your upbringing, and tell about your place of origin.

Maria Cardona: I was born in Bogota, Colombia, and was 2 years old when my family came to the U.S. in search of better economic opportunity.

After a brief stint in Ohio, we settled in a small town in central Florida called Leesburg. One of the things I remember fondly was my mother sitting my brothers and me down for an hour every day during the summers to read and write in Spanish.

My parents instilled in us a love of our culture, a fierce commitment to our language, and to be inclusive and invite people in even when we are seen with skepticism.

HB: Tell about any mentors you may have had.

MC: Secretary Brown was one of the most important mentors in my life, as was Mike McCurry, who at the time was the communications director at the DNC and then went on to become press secretary for President Clinton. Oddly, I really didn’t have any Latino mentors—and I often wonder if my trajectory had been different had I had one.

I think it speaks to the dearth of Latinos in high levels of politics at the time. Hopefully, that problem has been taken care of, though we are a ways out of achieving parity of representation in government that equals our percentage of population. We certainly have grown our ranks and will continue to do so.

HB: What was it like working as the senior adviser to Hillary Clinton?

MC: Hillary Clinton certainly is a very important role model and mentor. She is an amazing woman, incredibly smart, loyal, and always focused on ensuring women’s voices are heard. It was such an honor to have been a part of a history-making, game-changing campaign. It was thrilling to have her trust me to go on TV to represent her views and her positions in the national media (in English and Spanish) during the campaign. I will always be grateful to her for that amazing opportunity. And it was so gratifying as well to have worked on and guided her Latino strategy, because I knew she knew us, cared about our community and was always on the right side of our issues. Her history with our community is what allowed her to garner 84 percent of the Hispanic vote during the 2008 primary.

HB: Have you ever been discriminated against for being a Hispanic or female? Please explain.

MC: I have never felt overtly discriminated against but I have certainly felt like I have been dismissed out of hand for being a Latina. However, that taught me to rise above it and prove myself though preparation, due diligence, smarts, and a bit of a personal touch.

When I was at the Department of Commerce, Secretary Brown put me in charge of the press offices of all the 14 agencies. There had been men who had been working in those offices longer than I had been alive and now they were reporting to me. Needless to say, some were not so happy.

More recently, I am used to getting hate mails (or more like hate tweets via Twitter) pointing out the fact that I am a Hispanic woman and therefore my ignorance is logical. I am told to back to Mexico, when I am from Colombia, and have been called an idiotic, ugly person of color. I chalk this up to ignorance and don’t let it get to me.

HB: What has been your proudest accomplishment?

MC: When I was working with Secretary Brown, he perished in a plane crash in 1996, and I was supposed to have been on the plane with him. It was a historic trip to Bosnia and Croatia right after the peace accords had been signed, and I was all set to go. But, understanding the attention the trip was getting, at the last minute my immediate boss switched with me.

I never bothered telling my friends and family that I wasn't going after all. The day of the crash, they all thought I was on the plane with him because I hadn't told them I wasn't going. My father almost had a heart attack.

Amid the heartache of having lost my bosses and friends, I had to now take on the role of press secretary to a cabinet department. I was doing the job the very next day. It taught me to reach deep inside, and that if we believe in ourselves and are always prepared and willing to step up, we can take on life's challenges and opportunities no matter how sad the circumstances might be and under what conditions we are called upon to serve.

Today, my proudest moments come when I get emails or comments from young Latinas across the country saying how proud they are to see a strong Latina on national television up against "the old white boys," not just on immigration or the Latino vote, but on issues like the economy, and Iraq, Afghanistan, foreign policy, the budget, for example.

HB: What impact is the U.S. Hispanic community making on the political world?

MC: Latinos have tremendous political power and it is only getting bigger. But it is up to us to harness it.

In every single poll that has been done in the last several years of Hispanic voters on what they care about most, the issue of jobs and the economy always make it to No. 1. Education and health care always followed a close second or third, and immigration always made it on to the list too.

Mitt Romney is currently in trouble with Hispanics, as he gets no more than 25 percent or 26 percent in polls compared to President Obama’s 68 percent to 70 percent. No Republican can reach the White House with less than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, according to GOP pollsters.

HB: Our readers like to know more about social media and technology. How do you use social media on a personal or professional level? Please explain.

MC: I use social media extensively professionally, both for the firm and for my role as a CNN and CNN Español political contributor. We find it is a tremendously valuable way to get our message out to young Hispanics, both those who speak English and those who speak Spanish. We have become the "digital arms" of many of our clients, who know it is important but don't have the bandwidth or the expertise to get it done.

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