Ortega, Katherine Davalos

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Katherine Davalos Ortega

Hispanic American government official Katherine Ortega (born 1934) faced much job discrimination before she co–founded her own business. It began a journey that led to the U.S. treasurer's position under President Ronald Reagan. Ortega also delivered the keynote address at the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas. "I forced myself to look at these discriminations as unfortunate instances that must be gotten around," Ortega told Marian Christy of the Boston Globe. "My dad always told me disappointments, those closed doors, can put you in a place where another door opens."

Early Years

Katherine Davalos Ortega, a descendant of pioneer families, was the youngest of nine children born to Donaciano Ortega and Catarina Davalos Ortega. She grew up in Tularosa, New Mexico, a tiny community with heavy Hispanic roots. "Since 1928, when my father opened a blacksmith's shop in New Mexico, the family has been working together," Ortega said in 1983, upon her treasury nomination. "For at that time my older brothers, who were then 8 and 10 years of age, were already helping my father."

"People expected me to be spoiled because I was the 'baby.' That was an image I didn't like," she told Christy. "Early on, I decided to carry my own weight." Originally Spanish–speaking, Ortega learned English in the local public schools and advanced well in mathematics, a prelude to an accounting and banking career. By age 10, she was working at the family restaurant and trusted with cash register duties. In her late teens, she worked as a teller at Ortero County State Bank and earned enough money for college.

After graduating from Eastern New Mexico State University at Portales in 1957 with a bachelor's degree in business and economics, she had envisioned teaching, beginning with high school level typing and shorthand. "I've been discriminated against both as a woman and an ethnic," she told Christy. "I was told by the chairman of the business school that I need not apply in the eastern part of New Mexico, where such a job was open, because of my Hispanic background." Figuring her teaching career would not materialize, she and a sister, who was a certified public accountant, launched an accounting firm in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Also in the late 1950s, when she worked for an independent oil driller, she experienced housing discrimination. A would–be landlady greeted her at the door and said her neighbors would object to a Mexican American tenant in the neighborhood. "I thought: 'If I own property, maybe, I, too, would want that right,' " she said to Christy. "My father had allowed only the people he wanted on his property. I was not bitter. I was hurt. But I kept on looking, and I got a better apartment."

Rose Through Accounting Ranks

Ortega held a variety of accounting positions in New Mexico and California in the 1960s and 1970s. She was a tax supervisor at Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Company, and vice president and cashier at Pan American National Bank, both in Los Angeles. In 1975, Santa Ana State Bank made her the first woman president of a California bank. In 1979, she returned to New Mexico to run the family accounting business, which evolved into the Otero Savings & Loan Association. She got married and divorced, but guards the details of both. In her interview with Christy, she said she likes to be called "Mrs. Ortega," her maiden name.

Meanwhile, Ortega became more active politically, starting at the local and state levels. She later worked on the campaign of Pete V. Domenici, who in 1972 became the first Republican United States Senator from New Mexico in 38 years. Domenici, elected to a sixth six–year term in 2002, has had the longest Senate tenure ever from that state. Serving as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee in the early 1980s, he recommended Ortega to Reagan for the treasury vacancy. Ortega at that time was a commissioner on the Copyright Royal Tribunal, a five–member federal commission that determines royalties cable companies and jukebox operators pay for copyrighted material and one of ten members of the President's Advisory Committee on Small and Minority Business.

Appointed During Hispanic Week

Reagan announced his appointment of Ortega on September 12, 1983, amid National Hispanic Heritage Week ceremonies at the White House. "She is symbolic of the values the Hispanic community represents, and I am honored that she is to become a part of this administration," Reagan said, according to a text of the speech. Chronicling her achievements, Reagan said: "You can see that she's being nominated not just because she is Hispanic, but because she is highly qualified." The president added: "Nothing is a better influence on America than the strength and decency of the Hispanic family." Ortega said at the same ceremony, according to the transcript: "I have often said I was born a Republican. I am the product of a heritage that teaches strong family devotion, a commitment to earning a livelihood by hard work, patience, determination, and perseverance. And in this great country of ours, it is still possible to achieve upward mobility and success through our economic, social, and political system."

Her appointment surprised some Republicans, who thought a more visible woman, such as Senator Nancy Kassebaum from Kansas, would receive the nomination. Ortega became the second Hispanic U.S. treasurer in a position women have mostly held. Though considered largely ceremonial, the position involves oversight of the U.S. Mint, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and the United States Savings Bond Division. Ortega was also the government's chief mouthpiece for U.S. Liberty Coins, which helped raise about $40 million for the renovation of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island in New York. She also handled the nation's budget, straightening out claims for stolen or counterfeit government checks, and burning worthless currency.

Addressed Republican Convention

The Republicans, responding to the buzz Democrats had created during their 1984 national convention by selecting Geraldine Ferraro as the first female vice presidential nominee, pegged Ortega keynote speaker for their own convention in Dallas one month later. "Everywhere, there are women. And, everywhere, there are Republican officials pointing out the fact that women are everywhere," Maureen Dowd wrote in the New York Times. "Katherine Ortega is giving the longest speech at the convention and Jeane Kirkpatrick [former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a Reagan cabinet operative] is giving the second longest," Newt Gingrich, then an up–and–coming Congressman from Georgia, told Dowd.

Ortega dismissed comparisons of her pending speech with that of the Democrats' keynote speaker, New York Governor Mario Cuomo. "I am not a Mario Cuomo, and I will not pretend to be one. I'm not a Barbara Jordan, either," she told Susan Rasky of the New York Times. Jordan, a Texan, addressed the Democrats in 1976 and was the first African American elected to the U.S. House from the South. "She is quite an orator too, you know. Why, all of a sudden, is there all this comparison of keynote speakers? I don't recall anybody making comparisons in 1980."

Essentially a private person, Ortega had improved as a public speaker throughout 1984, when she traveled nearly 60,000 miles addressing Republican and Hispanic groups. A Treasury insider told the National Review her speaking style had improved "1,000 percent." He added: "Her low–key authenticity works magic with an audience." Still, she prefaced her keynote address saying there were more eloquent Republican speakers available.

"But what I have to say tonight, I say from the heart and with the deep conviction that our country's future lies not in the empty rhetoric we heard in San Francisco last month, but in the courage and vision of a President who in four short years has restored America's faith in itself," she told the convention. "To those millions of Democrats abandoned by their national leadership in San Francisco—Democrats who were shut out of their traditional party home—we Republicans here in Dallas say: We welcome you to our home. Nuestra casa es su casa. Our home is your home." Most Republicans praised Ortega's speech and the move by their party to feature more women. "Unlike Democratic women, these more conservative Republicans do not cast their aims in terms of women's issues," Dowd wrote. "They think of economic issues as women's issues. Some support the equal rights amendment, but most do not." Reagan campaign press secretary James Lake told the Wall Street Journal that while "It's foolish for us to try to attract the Gloria Steinems," given Reagan's opposition to abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment, other Reagan stances on taxes and the economy bode well, as did putting the first woman on the Supreme Court.

Feminist women within the Republican Party and Democrats, however, criticized what they saw as window–dressing. "The Republicans are very good on properties and scenery and this is a classic example," Democratic campaign consultant Robert D. Squirer told the New York Times. "They have gone over the checklist for the convention: 'Do we have the balloons, the bunting and the women?' But it's not substantive. It's very much in response to Ferraro. They don't care about making women equal. They are just shoving women out as props."

Ortega's Legacy

Reagan easily won re–election, trouncing Democrat Walter Mondale in the Electoral College vote, 525–13. After six years as U.S. treasurer, Ortega left in 1989, at the end of the second Reagan term. She worked again for Otero Savings & Loan and for the family–owned business into the new millennium. Ortega has also served on the boards of directors for supermarket chain Kroger Company and animal food company Ralston Purina. Her other involvements include her being an alternate representative for the United Nations, and she maintains advisory work for such nonprofit organizations as the National Park Service and Executive Women in Government. She has also received honorary degrees from such institutions as Kean and Villanova Universities, and her alma mater, Eastern New Mexico State.

Ortega, a descendant of pioneers, was one herself. She scoffed at discrimination in employment and housing to become U.S. treasurer; soft–spoken and given to little fanfare, she became a keynote convention speaker for her party. She became a highly visible measuring stick among women and Hispanics. "Right now I think of myself as a role model for my people," she told the Boston Globe's Christy. "Maybe I'm an inspiration to them. I hope they see me and say: 'Hey, there's hope. We can accomplish.' "


Boston Globe, November 24, 1985.

National Review, June 29, 1984.

New York Times, August 21, 1984.

Wall Street Journal, June 19, 1984.


"Katherine D. Ortega," Biography Resource Center,http://galenet.galegroup.com (December 15, 2004).

"Remarks at a White House Ceremony Commemorating National Hispanic Heritage Week and Announcing the Nomination of Katherine D. Ortega to be Treasurer of the United States," Reagan Speeches, www.reagan.utexas.edu/resource/speeches/1983/91283b.htm (December 15, 2004).