Vilma Martinez ’67

Breaking Ground

Spring 2012

As a member of President Jimmy Carter’s advisory board on ambassadorial appointments, civil rights lawyer Vilma Martinez ’67 once described her job as working to support qualified Hispanics for U.S. ambassadorships. Things came full circle for Martinez three decades later, when President Barack Obama nominated the longtime activist as U.S. ambassador to Argentina.

Confirmed by the Senate in 2009, Martinez became the first woman ever to serve as U.S. ambassador to the South American nation. She resists the label “pioneer,” however, it is a term that has followed her ever since she became the first woman to head the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in the 1970s.

Martinez, who grew up in inner-city San Antonio amid expectations that she would go to vocational school, was awarded the Law School’s Medal for Excellence in 1992 for her influential civil rights work, including advancing bilingual education in schools and leading battles against discriminatory hiring practices. Her Law School education, she says, was crucial in preparing her for a career in advocacy and diplomacy. Being simultaneously forceful and polite is particularly important for an ambassador, Martinez adds.

“Diplomats sometimes have to deliver difficult messages,” she says. “To be an effective advocate, one must listen carefully, research the issues, articulate the facts, and then present them in a clear and persuasive manner.”

Martinez says the Foreign Service officers she works with as ambassador to Argentina epitomize this deft diplomatic touch. “I have come to realize that the Foreign Service is one of the most underappreciated resources in our government, and I am proud to work with these dedicated men and women who serve our country,” she says.