Maria Echaveste was born on May 31, 1954 in Harlingen, Texas. Soon thereafter, she moved with her Mexican immigrant parents and her six siblings to central California, where her father was employed full-time as a farm worker. When Maria was 12, the family moved to Oxnard, California. But with her father unable to find work there, the family lived for some time in public housing and relied on government assistance. “Welfare was a helping hand for us,” Maria said in an interview many years later.
In 1976 Echaveste graduated from Stanford University with a BA in anthropology. In 1980 she received a Juris Doctor degree from the UC Berkeley School of Law and went on to become a corporate litigator in Los Angeles, working for two firms that have since dissolved. In the late 1980s, Echaveste served alongside Hillary Clinton as a board member of the New World Foundation (where she is currently a board member emeritus).
From 1993-97, Echaveste was an administrator in the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division. From 1998-2001, she worked directly with President Bill Clinton as his assistant and deputy chief of staff; her work focused on international relations with Mexico and Latin America, as well as on domestic issues such as civil rights, labor, and immigration.
After leaving the White House, Echaveste promptly co-founded the Washington, D.C.-based Nueva Vista Group (NVG), which touts itself as “a dynamic government-relations firm specializing in public policy, advocacy, strategic advice, and outreach” for “racial and ethnic communities.”
In 2009 Echaveste was a board of directors member with The American Prospect, where she had once contributed an article accusing Republicans of engaging in “a steady assault on anti-discrimination law and civil-rights enforcement.”
In 2009 as well, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appointed Echaveste as Special Representative to Bolivia. A year later, Echaveste became a board member with the U.S./Mexico Foundation, whose mission is to help “empowe[r] the Dreamer population”—a reference to foreign-born individuals who were brought illegally to the United States when they were minors, and who were subsequently given temporary protection from deportation under President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
In 2013, Echaveste and a number of fellow activists—most of whom were aligned with the Democratic Socialists of America—drafted a proposal urging President Obama to award a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom to the late Fred Ross, Sr., a radical who had been trained by Saul Alinsky and had served as a mentor to both Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.
In “Harnessing the Power of the New American Majority,” a 2013 article which she co-authored (with Ben Jealous and Kate Kendell) for the Rosenberg Foundation, Echaveste heralded nonwhite minority voters for having helped secure the recent re-election of President Obama. “It now is clear that a presidential candidate can no longer win without appealing to the broad and diverse population of this country,” she affirmed. Moreover, Echaveste emphasized the importance of standing “side by side with our brothers and sisters who live in the shadows” as “undocumented immigrants” in need of “a pathway to citizenship.” She also articulated her hope that Obama’s second term would bring about “fair” and “humane” immigration reforms, especially for LGBT immigrants. “Our current immigration system,” said Echaveste, was guilty of “tearing apart families and exposing hundreds of thousands of undocumented LGBT immigrants to severe discrimination in virtually every aspect of life.” “Today, we face a unique opportunity to build consensus and to build a movement,” she added, “one in which immigrants can work with African American and LGBT communities, organized labor, and progressives to flex the muscle of a powerful new majority.”
When interviewed for a 2014 report published by the UC Berkeley Restorative Justice Center, Echaveste noted, with satisfaction, that several illegal aliens had graduated from the prestigious Berkeley School of Law thanks to private funds and loans. She also urged Congress to pass the DREAM Act, legislation designed to grant amnesty to illegals who first came to the United States as minors.
In 2014, President Obama nominated Echaveste as U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, making her the first woman and the first Latina to hold that position.
Today, Echaveste is a lecturer-in-residence at UC Berkeley, where she serves as the Policy and Program Development Director at the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy, and as a senior fellow at the school’s Institute on Race, Ethnicity and Diversity. She is also a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress. Over the years, Echaveste has sat on the boards of directors and/or advisers for such organizations as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Mi Familia Vota, People for the American Way, the American Constitution Society, J Street, the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, the National Campaign to Prevent Teenage Pregnancy, CARE, the Alliance for Excellent Education, and PowerPAC+ (whose mission is to “buil[d] the political power of the multiracial majority” and to “elect social justice champions to public office”).
Echaveste is married to civil rights attorney and Berkeley Law School professor Chris Edley Jr., who was a senior adviser to former U.S. President Barack Obama. (Edley had previously taught Obama when the latter was a student at Harvard Law School between 1988-91.)