Every year since 1968, the United States has celebrated the histories, cultures, and contributions of Americans whose ancestors came from Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. We observe Hispanic Heritage Month from September 15 to October 15, when Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico, Chile, and Belize all celebrate their independence.
The countless contributions of Hispanic Americans to U.S. society embody the best of our values, including our commitment to faith, family, and country. At the State Department’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, our diverse workforce includes a number of dedicated people who trace their roots back to Latin America, and we are pleased to feature four of their stories.
Our Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary, Gonzalo Suarez, joined the State Department in 2010. Today, he oversees about 60 employees in three ISN offices: counterproliferation initiatives; conventional arms; and missile, biological, and chemical weapons.
Gonzo is of Bolivian heritage. He came to the United States with his family when he was seven years old. He grew up in Miami, Fla. and after high school, enlisted in the U.S. Army, where he served in the 82nd Airborne Division. After his military service, he earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from Florida International University and the Fletcher School at Tufts University.
Gonzo is immensely proud of his public service. Since joining the ISN family, he played an important role in securing U.S. ratification of two important nuclear security treaties. Today, as an acting deputy assistant secretary, Gonzo works tirelessly with partners and allies to protect sensitive technologies and counter sanctions evasion and illicit shipping tactics that rogue regimes use to acquire WMD and related technologies.
Although the job has become more challenging as the use of technology has changed, he has not lost sight of his role as a public servant and continues to serve as a mentor to dozens of junior State Department officers.
Shaleen White works as a Regional Advisor for ISN’s Export Control and Border Security program in Panama City, Panama. As a young woman, she grew up in a bilingual household in Panama’s Canal Zone. She moved to the United States when she was accepted to attend Barry University.
She returned to Panama City in 1998 and landed a job at the U.S. Embassy as a locally employed staffer. She joined ISN’s Export Control and Border Security program in 2014. In 2019, she became the program’s first-ever Advisor to make the transition from a locally employed position.
Today her EXBS portfolio consists of Panama, South America, and the Caribbean. Her multi-heritage background, coupled with her understanding of the nuances in the language and cultures of the region, have laid the foundation for success. When Shaleen took over the Advisor position in Panama, the program was small and not well-known. During her tenure, she has worked hard to advance the program to the point that she has hired an additional staff member.
And as a fun fact, Shaleen learned several years ago that in 1904, her great grandfather, who lived in California, was hired to help build the Panama Canal. Perhaps her success as the EXBS Advisor in Panama was preordained?
Laura Jett works in ISN’s WMD Terrorism office as an office management specialist. Before coming to ISN, Laura was the Community Liaison Officer—also called a “CLO”—at the U.S. Embassy in the Dominican Republic.
Laura was born and raised in Honduras. While enrolled at Unitec, a university in Tegucigalpa, she met her future husband, an American, and they married a few years later. After they moved to the United States, she completed her degree in business management at the University of Phoenix.
Laura and her husband packed up their family and embarked on several moves across the United States and eventually overseas. Each move, she said, provided her an opportunity to learn and grow. Her resiliency, adaptability, and willingness to embrace change have become her greatest strengths.
Although Laura misses her beloved Honduras, she frequently travels back to see her family, who live in Tegucigalpa. This gives her a chance to enjoy what she says are the best things about the country: its fantastic food, people, and beautiful countryside. And although her heart will always be with Honduras, she loves that she is a U.S. citizen. She loves that America welcomed her with open arms and presented her with a wide array of educational opportunities.
Dr. Dawn Verdugo has worked in ISN since 2013. She currently serves in Bangkok, Thailand as the bureau’s Export Control and Border Security program Regional Advisor for Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos. Prior to serving in Bangkok, she worked for five years as an EXBS Advisor for the program’s Levant region in Jordan. She worked tirelessly to revive what had become a dormant relationship with border security and enforcement officials in Iraq. Reinvigorating this program is her proudest achievement, she says.
Dawn hails from Southern California where she grew up and went to high school. Her mother is of German and Irish descent and her father is Mexican-American. Dawn’s beloved grandmother lived in Chihuahua, Mexico until the family emigrated to the United States in the 1940s. Dawn spent countless hours working alongside her grandmother and father in the kitchen, learning to cook traditional Mexican dishes. Today, she shares this love of cooking with her colleagues overseas.
After high school, Dawn earned a BS in chemistry at San Diego State University. She went on to earn her chemistry PhD at the University of California, Berkeley where she was one of the only Latinos in her doctoral program. After a stint in the Peace Corps, she earned an M.S. in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.
Dawn believes in the power of “food diplomacy,” using her love of food to find common ground among many of the cultures in the Middle East and Asia, which in turn helps her build rapport and trust with new partners. She loves the surprising overlaps between Mexican food and some Middle Eastern dishes. She plans to continue her food diplomacy activism as a way to celebrate her Mexican-American heritage and continue to create connections throughout the world.
As Americans, when we recognize the important contributions other cultures have made to our society, using those contributions to enrich our own lives, which in turn allows us to realize how essential these different perspectives are to our own future success. ISN is proud of the diverse backgrounds of our employees and we are pleased to spotlight the unique Hispanic heritage of some of our team members, all of whom have enriched our own lives.
About the Author: Jennifer Bavisotto is a Public Affairs Officer in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation at the U.S. Department of State.