The Embassy of Panama’s Karla Gonzalez is a rising star on a mission.
By Erica Moody
A Fulbright scholar and former transactional attorney, Karla Gonzalez, 29, is the Embassy of Panama’s deputy chief of mission. She speaks of a journey devoted to scholarship and service.
You moved to the U.S. from Panama to attend Harvard Law School. What was the transition like? The “American way” isn’t foreign to Panamanians because of the historical relationship between Panama and the U.S. In my case, I grew up in the city in the ’80s and ’90s, with “Seinfeld,” twinkies, and friends from the Canal Zone, so the transition was a comfortable one in terms of culture and general understanding. I must admit, though, that Google Maps saved my life a few times. I grew up speaking English and Spanish at school: it wasn’t thrilling to take World History twice a day in different languages but it served me well later on. Coming from a very close and annoyingly happy Latin American family, it was hard to be away from my loved ones although technology made it a tad better: Skype wasn’t optimal, but came in handy especially in that time of the year when it gets dark at 4 p.m. and is really cold!
When did you start working at the Embassy, what brought you to this role and what do you do? I started working at the Embassy four years ago as part of my post-Fulbright commitment, following a stint at a New York City law firm. In terms of transition, it wasn’t about a client’s needs anymore but about the country’s national interests. I quickly fell in love with the possibility of contributing to my country in some way and making it a better Panama for Panamanians. What started as a short term commitment, is now my current job. I am the senior advisor to the Ambassador of Panama on bilateral matters with the United States, which is a great honor that carries great responsibility. Panama’s alliance with the U.S. is one of the most strategic and durable in the hemisphere.
The Fulbright scholarship is an amazing achievement. Can you explain what receiving that honor felt like and how hard you worked to get it? Honestly, I was surprised I passed the exams, and even more in shock that I scored the highest in the country. The multiple Fulbright exams and interviews are designed to test all of your academic abilities, but also your weaknesses. I wasn’t sure my score in physics (yes, physics!) was going to be the best; after all, I was going to law school. But there’s a life lesson there: you succeed when you are able to combine your abilities and use your weaknesses to solve a problem. How I think I achieved it? My parents made sure that my education consisted of an integral training of the brain, body, and soul – and I am grateful for that every day.
You are very accomplished and presumably very busy. Is there anything you like to do around town to unwind? Concerts. To me, there’s nothing like live music. I also love to draw and paint pieces inspired by the local architecture that only I can call “art”; it’s mostly unintentionally abstract paintings that I will only hang in my apartment.
What do you miss about Panama? I miss the beach. Panama is forever connected to the sea and it shapes who we are and our place in the world. I miss the short distances and having lunch with my family at home every day. I miss the roads that will take you from our very modern city to the beautiful countryside in no time. I miss our people and their kindness, our food, our slang, and the feeling of being at home. I miss long conversations in Spanish and our beautiful old quarter (Casco Viejo). And did I mention I miss the beach?
You already have a distinguished career. What’s next? What’s your ultimate life ambition? I don’t have a singular, ultimate life ambition. I think the journey is all about the collective experiences and relationships one accumulates over time that lead to a truly rich life. I do have personal and humanitarian values that guide that journey, which can be summed up in the Latin American maxim: “enjoy life and help live.” If I have done both of those fully, I can say I’ve had a good life.
This article appeared in the October 2015 issue of Washington Life magazine.