Maria often speaks at events to inspire people to get involved with elections and public service. "Nothing changes lives more," she says.

Maria wears statement jewelry on the air to reflect her strength, confidence and individuality. This crystal necklace is from Brighton Collectibles.

As his deputy press secretary, Maria accompanied Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown on trade missions such as this one to Senegal.

Originally from South America, Maria and her siblings grew up in Bogotá, Colombia; Leesburg, Florida; and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Maria appeared on various channels until she became an exclusive CNN contributor in 2011. She comments on many political and social issues.

A Woman of Independent Memes

Just as she’s about to speak live on a segment of Fair Game, Maria Cardona tweets about the jewelry she’s wearing. The CNN contributor and public affairs veteran lets inquiring minds know about her Brighton Collectibles necklace, embedded with Swarovski crystals. It’s a personal, charming way to build awareness for her TV appearances and exemplifies her particular brand of authenticity and openness.

Once on the air, Maria shows that she's also a seasoned professional in public affairs. Her commentary for CNN covers a wide range of social and political issues. As a principal with Dewey Square Group, she leads the public affairs practice and founded Latinovations, a subsidiary dedicated to Latino outreach.

What specifically does all that mean? “I do what I do,” she says. Through her ideas and relationships, she wins hearts and changes minds. In this age of information technology, when concepts can spread instantly on the internet, her powers of communication often create or sustain those memes.

Maria contributes to CNN Domestic and CNN Español

Over the past 20 years, certain memes have developed around Maria as well. She’s been cast as the Young Protégé, the Feisty Latina, the Working Mom and now, inevitably, the Wise Latina. Yet the defining moment of her character occurred in 1996 and remains top of mind whenever she discusses her life. It was the day Ron Brown died.

Ronald H. Brown was Maria’s first boss and mentor in politics. While he was chairman of the Democratic National Committee, he brought her on to his press staff as the DNC’s first Hispanic media director. When he became Secretary of Commerce in 1993, he helped her transition to the department as a deputy press secretary. At 26 years old, Maria found herself supervising a staff of middle-age white men. “They had been doing their jobs longer than I had been alive,” she recalls. “When I walked in, they looked me up and down and then looked at each other and smirked.” While she won them over with her respect and openness, she also felt that she needed a few years of experience before she’d be ready to move up to a bigger job. She didn’t get that time.

On April 3, 1996, Maria was in her office taking press calls like any other day. She had just come back from a trip to Latin America with Brown and was supposed to have accompanied him on a trade mission to Bosnia and Croatia. Three days before departure, however, her immediate boss, Press Secretary Carol Hamilton, realized the trip would generate a great deal of press interest and decided to take Maria’s place. Now the press was calling Maria about reports that Brown’s plane was missing. Within hours, she learned that the plane crashed, killing everyone on board, including Hamilton, Brown, 25 CEOs and all of Maria’s agency friends and colleagues. The tragedy still wrenches her heart to this day.

Maria never told her friends and family about the last-minute switch with Hamilton, so all her loved ones were terrified when the plane went missing. Reporters began to show up at the agency looking for information. Amid the shock and chaos, she needed to step into the role of Press Secretary. As she walked to the press room, expecting to see just a few reporters, she didn’t realize the news conference would be standing room only and beamed live all around the world. It was her first on-air live briefing, and she did it with just a few hastily scribbled notes. Her mother realized that Maria was alive by watching the briefing in Puerto Rico.

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