Rosario Marin (Mexico City, 1958) was the Treasurer of the United States from 16 August 2001 until 30 June 2003, during the first term of George W. Bush. Her life story leaves no one indifferent: born to a modest family, she arrived in California as a teenager and without any English. "As a woman, I was expected to get married and not go to university," she recalls in an interview with VIA Empresa during the Fòrum Cornellà Creació and on the eve of International Women's Day. Yet, as a woman and an immigrant, she went on to change her story and that of the United States.
After learning English and finishing among the top ten at school, she began working during the day as an assistant secretary in a bank to fund going to university at night. She did not apply for a grant, as no one told her she could. She married Alvaro "Alex" Marin, from Nicaragua, and together they had a son, Eric, who was born with Down's Syndrome. She gave up work to look after Eric and was forced to sell her house. She got pregnant again, but lost the child. She fell into a deep depression.
But with "faith, attitude and values" she turned "the challenges into opportunities". She rose to become assistant to the vice president of the bank, she was a councillor and mayor of Huntington, and has now been part of the political life of the United States for 30 years. She was even awarded the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Prize. Her signature is already living history on US dollars. She is a former treasurer, woman, immigrant, activist, mother and grandmother.
Is becoming the first non-American woman to head the United States Treasury a reflection of a change of era?
I think so. President Bush appointed me not only for who I was, but also for what I represented, as a woman, Mexican immigrant, mother of a disabled child, a former mayor... Obviously, I was a banker, I knew about finances and so I fit the position well. It reflects a change of era in the sense that an immigrant rose to have an important role in the Bush administration. Did you know that two years ago the six Nobel prizewinners from the United States were immigrants?
"President Bush appointed me not only for who I was, but also for what I represented, as a woman, Mexican immigrant, mother of a disabled child"
What are the biggest challenges you have faced during your life?
I overcame the challenges of being a woman, mother and immigrant to rise to be Treasurer of the United States. I turned the challenges into opportunities. A lot of people ask how an immigrant from Mexico could rise to become Treasurer of the United States? There are failures and successes in life, pain and happiness, desperation and hope. We went to California, I did an intelligence test that I did not know how to answer because I didn't speak English and everyone laughed at me. That first test did not determine my future. I have been the first Latin woman in many things.
And what was your future?
My mother told me that my future husband would look after me. Should I have talked to my mother about gender equality and rights? I took action and began as an assistant receptionist in a bank to pay for my studies at night. My son was born with Down's Syndrome and he was on the point of death six times. Now, Eric is 33 and continues to be the wind that lifts my wings. I lost a second child when I was pregnant and fell into a depression. I gave up university, the bank, I sold the house and I forgot about living.
And how did you get your will to live back?
The most important thing are your beliefs, convictions and values. What you are willing to give everything up for. I always talk about the three values with which I raised my children: always do what you think is right, whatever others might do. Give the best of yourself, no matter how small the thing is you're doing, because it could be the last thing you do in life. And thirdly, treat other people how you would like them to treat those you love most. The golden rule is to treat others as you would like to be treated yourself, and that is fine, but as I'm a politician, so you can say what you like to me and I won't turn a hair. Imagine what the world would be like if everyone treated each other with respect...
The golden rule beyond politics.
I signed all US dollar bills with my husband's surname. Do you know why? He made a lot of sacrifices for my children and gave up a lot of promotions at work so I could get on with my career. I remember when I left the treasury, Bush saw me in the Oval Office and he gave thanks to my father for his sacrifice. The most powerful man in the world and a caretaker from Mexico.
The Bush era was heavily criticised, in fact they even made a film about it...
[She laughs] Vice, by Adam McKay.
"I signed all US dollar bills with my husband's surname: Marin"
Does Vice do justice to the reality of his term in office?
It's Hollywood and Hollywood needs good stories that shine. The actor Christian Bale gives an Oscar performance as Dick Cheney... But the reality is not Hollywood. It attempts to remain faithful to the Cheney story, but Hollywood also has to sell. The film mocks Bush when he was the one taking the decisions and the one who chose Dick Cheney. There was no doubt about who was the president of the United States. What is true is that the corridors of the White House are like those in House of Cards.
What moment of your time as treasurer sticks with you?
11 September 2001, when the economy lost a trillion dollars. It was very painful, there was a lot of fear in the markets. Everyone had personal concerns about security and it was a difficult time for the economy. Within the chaos, the president had to show his face and calm the nerves of the markets and society. It was a difficult moment that brought out the best of America. Another moment was the reduction in remittances, the money immigrants sent home to their countries of origin, and I tried to make sure everyone had access to the banks. In meetings I represented 57 million Latins and more than 50% of women.
You also wrote the book, Leading Between Two Worlds.
It is my story. That of an immigrant woman who did not speak English, who arrived with nothing, and who ended up with her signature on all US dollar bills. It is the story of picking yourself up and moving forward. President Bush gave me a free hand in heading the treasury while at the same time I was the spokeswoman for his economic policy. There are 460 congresspeople, 100 senators, more than 15 secretaries... But there is only one treasurer. I was at any event involving women, immigrants or families with disabilities.
Does politics boost or slow down the economy?
I am a Republican. Right now the person in the White House is not a Republican...
I wanted to ask you about Donald Trump.
[She laughs]. We believe a lot in competition, in foreign trade, in free-trade agreements. The person in the White House does not believe the same and only wants to protect.
What does he want to protect?
Government policies can help the economy or slow down its growth. When Bill Clinton left he said the economy was doing fine, but it was in decline and that did not become apparent until Bush came to power. The president cut taxes to stimulate the economy. I devoted myself to explaining and promoting his economic policy. There was growth, but recessions are cyclical. Everything that goes up, comes down. The recession during Barack Obama's term was very serious. His policies meant it went on for longer.
"I always tell politicians to study the economy. The budget of a city or country is a cake that must be cut up"
It created uncertainty in small and medium-sized companies, which are the engines of employment and prosperity. Years later, however, a lot of people have medical insurance, something that cost the US economy a lot, and now Trump wants to take it away. Obamacare was a heavy blow for the economy, but taking it away now would be another heavy blow.
There is a lack of consensus on the economy among the political alternatives?
I always tell politicians to study the economy. You need to know how it works because the decisions taken by a mayor, congressperson or deputy will affect the economy. And if you don't see that, all you have to do is look at what is happening now.
You also often talk about the business lobbies behind the parties...
The budget of a city or country is a cake that must be cut up. Each piece must be agreed on and when we do that we become used to our piece and our lives revolve around it. Everyone wants to keep hold of their piece of the cake, but no one thinks about making it bigger.
The cake as a metaphor of the share of power.
Some experts warn that Trump and Brexit are the great uncertainties affecting the world economy.
The markets respond above all to uncertainty. When they do not know what will happen, they do absolutely nothing. And when they do nothing, there is no growth, and if there is no growth... It ends in stagnation, because the population and its needs continue to grow. It is the uncertainty of not knowing what the impact will be. Everyone thinks about today, and as they do not know what will happen tomorrow, there is tremendous paralysis. The markets have realised that a tweet can cause destruction...
"Now, the markets are not so unsettled by a tweet from Trump"
Elon Musk and Donald Trump know that first-hand.
I think they have learnt. Before, you'd see that Trump would tweet and a company would fall on the stock market. And then it would come back. Now, the markets are not so unsettled by a tweet from Trump because it does not mean a new law and in the United States we have three powers. We need wise people, who are good and capable of governing. Trump offends me as a woman, immigrant, Mexican, a mother of a child with Down's Syndrome... The first student we have in the United States does not learn and does not want to learn.
In the post-truth era, tweets lead to fake laws...
Fortunately not. We have to be patient, there is a whole justice system that activates and reactivates laws. We have to wait, we have a whole judicial system. There is a lot of commotion. My work was to calm the markets and society. Trump wanted to leave Nafta, but there is a whole legislative system and even if it goes ahead there can be legal challenges in the courts and, between one thing and another, everything goes on the same. He has been in power for two years and everything continues the same. Everything is written, but still has to be read. He has to learn and so do we all.
I am a migrant. I and my husband have lived in the United States for many years. I put myself in the shoes of many people. I was mayor of a city with many migrants and I saw the challenges that poses. I find Trump's way of dealing with immigration very painful. If it had been up to him, I would never have arrived as a migrant or become the Treasurer of the United States.