The Otazos: Ferociously Successful

This past January county commissioners voted to accept the findings of a study showing that companies owned by Hispanics and women have long suffered discrimination in their dealings with Dade County. It was the first step in what some commissioners believe will lead to a series of laws that will force the county to set aside public contracts, or portions of contracts, for firms headed by Hispanics and women.

Such a move will also give greater prominence to firms such as MCO Environmental (which stands to benefit from such laws) and to its president, Cruz Otazo, who has been an outspoken leader in the move to reform the way the county does business with women and Hispanics. At a press conference coinciding with the commission's vote, Otazo sounded a triumphant note: "Women are the perennial outsiders in Dade County. This is going to be our year." For "Cuqui" Otazo, such a year has been a long time coming.

Otazo refused to be interviewed for this article, but according to a Miami Herald profile published in June 1992, she was born in Havana and moved with her family to New York in 1960. She studied Spanish and literature at Adelphi University in New York before attending the State University of New York at Stonybrook, where she received a master's degree in 1974 in Spanish and literature.

In 1975 she reluctantly followed her family to Miami, where she became a substitute teacher for Dade County Public Schools. Otazo also taught at Archbishop Curley High School and West Lab, both private schools.

She moved on to higher education in 1977, teaching humanities for two years at Miami-Dade Community College. Her next step would be Florida International University, where she accepted a faculty position in 1979 as a grant writer, an experience she would later describe as invaluable. "I really had enough of teaching and I learned about public funds," Otazo told the Herald. "I think back every day now to FIU, how it taught and helped me."

In 1979 she was a founding member of the Coalition of Hispanic-American Women, a group that assists female Hispanic business owners. In 1981 she ventured into the world of business herself, opening the Children's Development Center, a day-care facility located on Flagler Street, which she ran until she became president of MCO Environmental.

Although the firm initially began as a construction company, the work soon shifted almost exclusively to asbestos removal. Cruz Otazo is listed as MCO's president, treasurer, and director. Corporate records list her husband, Julio Otazo, as vice president. No other directors or officers are registered with the Secretary of State's office in Tallahassee.

Ironically, according to officials at the Department of Professional Regulation's Construction Industry Licensing Board, Cruz Otazo herself is not certified to perform asbestos-removal work, which means she is unable to visit or supervise any of her work crews inside an asbestos-containment area. That job falls to her husband, who is certified.

Julio Otazo is a professor at FIU, in the construction management department. He has been with the university for twenty years and was awarded tenure in 1982. In addition to operating MCO, he carries a full-time teaching load. His classes include courses in hazardous waste and how to estimate the cost of construction projects. "He is an outstanding instructor and his classes are very popular with students and always get very good evaluations," says Jose Mitrani, chairman of FIU's construction management department. "He is a key member of this department."

Over the years, MCO's business has expanded and the firm counts among its clients the City of Miami and Dade County Parks and Recreation, as well as its largest clients A the Dade County Aviation Department and the Dade County Public Schools. Cruz Otazo once explained that an emphasis on taxpayer-funded projects was particularly necessary in the company's early days, when she and her husband were first looking for contracts. "We really had to rely on public work," Otazo told the Herald in June 1992, "and that wasn't good because you'd go to make a bid, and seventeen different contractors would be there. Everyone was driving down the prices."

While prices may have been driven down, Cruz Otazo's profile in the community was steadily rising. This past November, when an anti-crime coalition was formed A headed by community leaders such as Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, County Commission Chairman Art Teele, and then-school board chairwoman Janet McAliley A Otazo was one of the first recruited to sit on the panel.

Six months earlier, when We Will Rebuild was drawing fire for not including enough women on its board of directors, the hurricane relief group turned to Otazo as well, electing her to its ranks last May.

In 1992 she became the first woman to sit on the 21-member board of directors of the Hispanic-American Builders Association. "It was her staunch defense of Hispanic women's rights and enterprises, her ability to communicate, and her knowledge in the business field that attracted us to her," association executive director Roberto Cervera-Rojas stated at the time. By 1993 she became vice secretary of the association, which boasts more than 200 members.

And she has been increasingly active on the political stage. During last year's county commission elections, she was a prominent supporter of losing candidate Conchy Bretos and winner Natacha Millan, who became the first Hispanic woman to serve on the county commission. Otazo is also listed as a contributor to County Commissioner Alex Penelas's campaign. At the time, Penelas was chairman of the commission's aviation committee, which oversees projects at the airport.

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