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The Woman Who Changed Washington
The Honorable Stella Guerra Nelson
When the White House Chief of Protocol phones, you take the call.
Even if you think it’s a joke.
That’s what Stella Guerra did. She couldn’t imagine why the U.S. State Department might be calling her at her home in San Antonio, Texas.
The former elementary school teacher and school district administrator had just settled into local entrepreneurship. She had worked her way through beauty school, community college, Texas A&M and Our Lady of the Lake University. Armed with a Master’s degree and a love for music, Guerra enjoyed working for herself by selling classic records to her community.
But fate had other plans for Guerra, and she was never one to dismiss an opportunity. She went to Washington and was quickly hired as Staff Assistant to the U.S. State Department’s Chief of Protocol.
It was 1980, and although women were well integrated into the workforce, leadership positions were still predominantly held by men. Especially in Washington DC.
Being of Mexican lineage, Stella’s ethnicity had never been what you would call an advantage, at school or at work. But the Carter Administration needed to show diversity. They were seeking a woman – preferably Hispanic – for the role. Stella fit the bill, and served it well until Jimmy Carter lost his bid for reelection.
Now, Washington DC can be a pretty cold town when the administration that hires you is voted out. That didn’t pose a problem for Guerra, however. The new Reagan Administration promptly appointed her to its Department of Education as Special Assistant for International Affairs. She travelled extensively, worked directly with international heads of state, and represented the U.S. in numerous task forces at home and abroad.
Guerra was now one of a very small number of women in leadership positions in the U.S. government, but that wasn’t slowing her down. Her naturally diplomatic manner, work ethic and ability to produce even from the sidelines, took her to increasingly more influential positions.