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National Hispanic Heritage Month

National Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrated annually from September 15 to October 15. It celebrates “the history, culture, 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 15th and ending on October 15th. It was passed into law on August 17, 1988.

September 15 is significant because it is the anniversary of the declaration of independence of the Latin American countries of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Additionally, Mexico and Chile celebrate their independence days on September 16 and 18, respectively. Additionally, Columbus Day, which falls on October 12, falls within this 30-day period.

FreightWaves Classics is also celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month. Recent article profiled Federico Peña, the first Latino to serve as U.S. Secretary of Transportation; another focused on Henry Frederick Garcia, a pioneer in the US Coast Guard.

Federal Highway Administration

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) provides guidance for 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 encourage innovation.

Irene Rico received her bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Texas at El Paso in 1984 and then joined FHWA in 1985 as a highway engineer intern. While at FHWA, she earned a master’s degree in civil engineering from the University of New Mexico School of Engineering in 1994.

The FHWA logo.  (Image: Federal Highway Administration)
The FHWA logo.
(Image: Federal Highway Administration)

The beginning of a career

By 1987, Rico was a trainee highway engineer, training in Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Oregon and Texas. She held many other responsibilities in several FHWA positions. For example, from 1989 to 1996, while working as a field engineer for a federal agency in New Mexico, she helped build the state’s first automated truck weigh station.

After serving in New Mexico from 1996 to 1999, Rico was an FHWA International Transportation Engineer. Her duties included “coordinating the transfer of technology between the US Department of Transportation and the Secretariat of Communications and Transportation of Mexico.”

Irene Rico.  (Photo: Federal Highway Administration)
Irene Rico. (Photo: Federal Highway Administration)


Rico also held the following positions at 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 her position as Special Assistant to the Executive Director of the FHWA after being selected as the Administrator of the FHWA’s Virginia office. With the promotion, she became the first Hispanic woman in FHWA history to hold such a position. “Irene has distinguished herself as a leader and respected member of the FHWA,” noted Victor Mendez, FHWA Administrator, when he made the official announcement of her appointment. Mendez continued by stating, “Her experience as both a skilled engineer and a talented executive makes her the right choice for this important position. She puts people first and is a great role model for the 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 has also served as FHWA’s representative to state and local officials and to numerous stakeholder groups.

When she was chosen for the groundbreaking position, Rico said, “Virginia has been a national transportation leader, and I hope to help it continue to be so. We all have a role to play in America’s economic recovery, and I look forward to continuing that work in my new role.”

Rico served as Chapter Administrator in Virginia until 2015. At that time, she was appointed FHWA’s acting assistant administrator for civil rights, a position that became permanent the following year.

As FHWA’s Assistant Administrator for Civil Rights, Rico managed a professional staff that provided civil rights policy, programs, and strategic guidance to FHWA’s program offices, divisions, other federal agencies, state departments of transportation, and private sector organizations.

MAES logo.  (Image: MAES)
MAES logo. (Image: MAES)

A new challenge

In March 2021, Rico left FHWA to serve as president of MAES: Latinos in Science and Engineering. As president of this non-profit organization, Rico leads efforts to increase the number of Latinos in technical and scientific fields.

MAES was founded in Los Angeles in 1974 to increase the number of Mexican-Americans and other Latinos in technical and scientific fields. The idea for a professional society for Mexican-American engineers came from Robert von Hutten, an aerospace electronics engineer at TRW Defense Space Systems in Redonda Beach, California.

In October 1974, MAES filed with the California Secretary of State to register as a tax-exempt nonprofit organization and was chartered on March 28, 1975.

FreightWaves Classics thanks the Federal Highway Administration, MAES,, and the US Army Corps of Engineers for the information and photos that contributed to this article.

MAES photo by Irene Rico.  (Photo: MAES)
MAES photo by Irene Rico. (Photo: MAES)

* Main Photo (top): Commissioner Charlie Kilpatrick, Virginia Department of Transportation: Irene Rico, Division Administrator, Federal Highway Administration; and Col. Paul Olsen, commander of the US Army Corps of Engineers in Norfolk County, signed a draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for US Route 460 in Suffolk, Virginia.

The TOP 500 FREIGHTWAVES The list of hired carriers includes Old Dominion Freight Line (No. 9).

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