Faces of the Forest Service

Meet Helen Cortes

Office of Communication
September 19th, 2016 at 11:45AM

A photo of Helen Cortes on a visit to White Water, CA
Helen Cortes on a visit to White Water, CA. (Photo Credit: Cortes Family Photos)

With the tenacity of someone that strives for greatness, and the strength of someone that has worked hard to achieve it, Helen Cortes is making her way in the world in a way that’s inspiring to those around her. Her career with the U.S. Forest Service started 11 years ago in the International Institute of Tropical Forestry or IITF in Puerto Rico. Since then she’s come a long way, going from working as an executive assistance for the Office of the Chief in the Forest Service’s Washington Office, to now occupying the position of program analyst for the agency’s State and Private Forestry staff. She seeks to inspire the Hispanic community and young women to be bold and present, and to go after their professional and personal goals.

What led you to work for the Forest Service?

My career in the Forest Service started 11 years ago in the International Institute of Tropical Forestry where I was hired to work under the Student Training Employment Program. Back then, I was about to finish my bachelor’s degree in Labor Relations at the University of Puerto Rico, and getting that job at IITF was honestly a struggling student’s attempt to finance her studies.

Little did I know I’d quickly fell in love with the Forest Service, and the course of my career changed forever.

By the time I finished my Master’s Degree in Labor Law, I had become increasingly involved in many IITF projects and initiatives in Central America and the Caribbean, and my professional goals had grown and changed to the extent where they had become synonymous with those of the agency. Our conservation mission in the Forest Service became a fundamental part of my own values and goals personally as well as professionally, which is why I decided to continue my work here.

What is your favorite part of your job?

What I love most about my job is its multifaceted nature and the fact that it allows me to collaborate with experts in a number of different areas. My work entails communication planning and program delivery with regions, partners, cooperators, and other agencies as well as other areas in the Forest Service. I really enjoy having the opportunity to plan out which areas I will be focusing on each year, and I derive a great deal of satisfaction by being able to see the fruits of my labor at the end of the year.

A photo of Helen with Stella Luna and her husband, Frankie, during a family photo shoot in Auburn, Indiana.
Helen with Stella Luna and her husband, Frankie, during a family photo shoot in Auburn, Indiana. (Photo Credit: Lily Miller)


did you grow up?

I was born and raised in Puerto Rico, in a town called Hatillo, full of green areas and grazing cows. Having spent a most of my childhood running and playing in Hatillo’s valleys, I grew up having a deep appreciation for nature. Puerto Rico has it all: beautiful beaches, waterfalls, even enchanted forests such as El Yunque. Growing up, I relished everything my country has to offer, and I continue to delight in it every time I visit with my family.

Who or what inspired you growing up?

My adoptive mother, Ruth Cortés. She was very young when she took on the responsibility of raising me, having barely graduated from university with an engineering degree. Her values of humility, empathy, compassion, and sacrifice have helped shape me throughout my entire life. My mother worked hard to cultivate in me the importance of a good education, and she always encouraged me to be the best version of myself that I could possibly be. I am extremely grateful to her for helping me become a confident and upright person with unlimited professional and personal ambitions.

What do you like to do for fun on your free time?

I really enjoy spending time with my husband, Frankie, and my daughter, Stella Luna, who just turned one. Truth be told, my free time has basically turned into Stella time. She is without a doubt the center of attention in my household, and everything new she does is news the entire family immediately wants to hear about. We are absolutely in love with our little blessing.

A photo of Helen Cortes’ daughter, Stella Luna, visiting U.S. Forest Service Chief Tidwell and siting on his chair
Helen Cortes’ daughter, Stella Luna, visiting U.S. Forest Service Chief Tidwell and siting on his chair with the historic desk of Forest Service founder Gifford Pinchot in front of her. (Photo Credit: Cortes family photos)

Just a few months ago, we visited Chief Tidwell, and Stella had the opportunity to play with the giant Smokey Bear he has in his office. She loved playing with that bear so much that it got me wondering, who knows? We might have a future forest ranger in our hands!

What is your highest personal and professional achievement?

My personal and professional lives have always been very interconnected. It is my strong personal opinion that whatever one chooses to do professionally should go hand-in-hand with one’s personal values.

When I began to work for the Forest Service, I barely spoke English, and my work consisted of answering the phone, which was nothing short of ironic. It was very difficult for me, but I stayed positive and never doubted myself or my abilities.

Getting to where I am has been a journey full of many learning experiences, and that is exactly what propels me to continue my work each day. My motivation consists in knowing that my job allows me to learn something new on a daily basis.

What does being Hispanic mean to you during this time when Hispanic heritage is celebrated?

Times like this—as well as questions such as this one—provide me with the opportunity to express how extremely proud I am, not only of being Latina, but of being Puerto Rican.

For many Latino families, Hispanic Heritage Month is about recognizing our collective contributions and efforts as well as educating those around the world who might not know much about our culture and heritage.   

This celebration also serves as a great opportunity to delve deeper into Latin American history and share knowledge about the many important roles that Latin Americans have played in U.S. history in particular, and how they continue to help shape our American experience.

We Latinos living in the States have the cultural responsibility of educating our children about their heritage. As a mother, I want my daughter to be proud of her Puerto Rican heritage, to understand her country’s history and its present implications, to enjoy “arroz, habichuelas y pasteles” just as much as her father and I do, and to be able to appreciate how fortunate she is to live in the United States where diversity is celebrated and encouraged, especially because of the struggles we had to overcome to get here.