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National Hispanic Heritage Month
National Hispanic Heritage Month is observed annually from September 15 to October 15. It celebrates “the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America.”
Hispanic Heritage Week began in 1968 under President Lyndon Johnson and was expanded by President Ronald Reagan in 1988 to cover a 30-day period beginning on September 15 and ending on October 15. It was enacted into law on August 17, 1988.
September 15 is significant because it is the anniversary of independence for Latin American countries Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. In addition, Mexico and Chile celebrate their independence days on September 16 and September 18, respectively. Also, Columbus Day which is October 12, falls within this 30-day period.
FreightWaves Classics also celebrates National Hispanic Heritage Month. A recent article profiled Federico Peña, the first Hispanic-American to serve as U.S. Secretary of Transportation; another focused on Henry Frederick Garcia, a U.S. Coast Guard trailblazer.
Federal Highway Administration
The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) provides stewardship over the construction, maintenance and preservation of the nation’s highways, bridges and tunnels. FHWA also conducts research and provides technical assistance to state and local agencies to improve safety, mobility and to encourage innovation.
Irene Rico earned her B.S. in civil engineering from the University of Texas at El Paso in 1984, then joined the FHWA in 1985 as a highway engineer trainee. While working for the FHWA she went on to earn her M.S. in civil engineering from the University of New Mexico School of Engineering in 1994.
Rico was a highway engineer trainee until 1987, receiving training in Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, and Texas. She performed many other duties in several FHWA positions. For example, while working as an area engineer in the federal agency’s New Mexico division office from 1989 to 1996, she helped construct the state’s first automated truck weigh station.
Following her duty in New Mexico, Rico was an FHWA international transportation engineer from 1996 to 1999. Her responsibilities included “coordinating technology transfer between the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Secretariat of Communications and Transportation of Mexico.”
Rico also held the following positions with the FHWA: director of planning, environment and right of way in the agency’s Texas division office (1999-2002); assistant administrator for the agency’s Virginia division office (2002-2007); and special assistant to the FHWA executive director (2007-2010).
She left the position of special assistant to the FHWA executive director after being chosen as the administrator of FHWA’s Virginia office. With that promotion, she was the first Hispanic American woman in FHWA’s history to hold such a position. “Irene has distinguished herself as a leader and a valued member of the FHWA,” noted Victor Mendez, FHWA administrator, when he made the official announcement of her appointment. Mendez continued, stating, “Her experience – both as a skilled engineer and a talented manager – make her the right choice for this important position. She puts people first and is a great role model for public service.”
As administrator of FHWA’s Virginia office, Rico oversaw the state’s use of more than $1 billion in federal aid and American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funding for highways and bridges. She also served as the FHWA’s representative to state and local officials, as well as numerous stakeholder groups.
When she was selected for the groundbreaking position, Rico said, “Virginia has been a national transportation leader, and I hope to help it remain that way. We all play a role in getting America’s economy moving again, and I look forward to continuing that work in my new role.”
Rico held the position of division administrator in Virginia until 2015. At that time she was named FHWA’s acting associate administrator for civil rights, a position that was made permanent the following year.
As the FHWA’s Associate Administrator for Civil Rights, Rico led a professional staff in providing civil rights policy, program and strategic guidance to FHWA Program Offices, division offices, other federal agencies, state departments of transportation, and private sector organizations.
A new challenge
In March 2021, Rico left the FHWA to take the position of president of MAES: Latinos in Science and Engineering. As president of that non-profit organization, Rico leads efforts to increase the number of Hispanic Americans in technical and scientific fields of endeavor.
MAES was founded in Los Angeles in 1974 to increase the number of Mexican Americans and other Hispanics in the technical and scientific fields. The idea to establish a professional society for Mexican American engineers originated with Robert Von Hatten, an aerospace electronics engineer with TRW Defense Space Systems in Redondo Beach, California.
MAES filed incorporation papers as a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization with the California Secretary of State in October 1974 and it received its charter on March 28, 1975.
FreightWaves Classics thanks the Federal Highway Administration, MAES, transportationhistory.org and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for information and photographs that contributed to this article.
* Main photo (above): Commissioner Charlie Kilpatrick, Virginia Department of Transportation: Irene Rico, Federal Highway Administration division administrator; and Col. Paul Olsen, commander of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Norfolk District signed the U.S. Route 460 draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement in Suffolk, Virginia.