Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month

Profile of a DS Security Engineering Officer

By: Suzanne K. Whang, Public Affairs Officer in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security at the U.S. Department of State.

The Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) is honored to celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month by highlighting what Security Engineering Officer Joy Baca brings to the bureau and the State Department.

It’s early on August 30, 2016, when DS Security Engineering Officer (SEO) Joy Baca arrives at U.S. Embassy New Delhi to start the day.

First on the list of issues to address is a vehicular suicide bomb that went off at the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic, just 350 meters away from the U.S. Embassy there. Baca is the officer in charge of the Engineering Services Center (ESC) New Delhi, which oversees Kyrgyz Republic, so she and her staff plan to dispatch technicians to Kyrgyz Republic to make certain the security systems at the facility were not damaged by flying debris from the explosion. Even a hairline crack in one of the ballistic-resistant windows would require coordinating a specially-trained technician to travel there to replace it.

DS Security Engineering Officer Joy Baca (center) with her colleagues during the construction of U.S. Embassy Islamabad, February 2015. (State Department photo)

She and her staff also start checking all the technical security systems at U.S. Embassy Bishkek by using a sophisticated security management system that remotely assesses the status of each system, including the CCTV cameras, X-ray machines, and the emergency notification system.

Next on the list of things to do is addressing the damage caused by flood waters after the heaviest rainfall of the year in New Delhi. Power issues need to be resolved, and the chancery basement and multiple storerooms need to be cleaned out. Baca and her staff plan to roll up their sleeves and move the inventory of expensive technical security equipment that supports all State Department facilities in the South and Central Asian region.

Adding to the growing list is Secretary Kerry’s visit to New Delhi. He arrived in country the night before and is expected to visit the embassy in a few days. So Baca is supporting her Diplomatic Security colleagues by helping to set up security equipment, including a sophisticated machine that screens gifts for the Secretary to detect any trace elements of explosives.

All this is in addition to Baca’s daily responsibility of overseeing ESC New Delhi’s 26-member staff and technical security programs at post and 11 constituent posts, some of them in unstable regions such as Islamabad and Karachi.

Baca and her staff are unfazed by the challenges of the day. “In my 17 years as an SEO, I’ve bid on difficult jobs because I like change and I don’t like to be idle. When I’m stuck, I’m not too proud to ask for help, and I fight hard to get my people what they need to do their jobs. I’ve worked hard to get to where I am, and it’s been a rewarding experience.”

DS Security Engineering Officer Joy Baca visits the ancient Nan Madol ruins in Kolonia, Micronesia, in August 2009. (State Department photo)

During her first State Department interview, Baca was told she may be assigned to a difficult post where she may not be able to plug in her favorite appliances. Without missing a beat, Baca explained that she’d grown up in Alcalde, New Mexico, a rural town 32 miles north of Santa Fe, where it was not uncommon to burn wood for heat and melt snow for water when the power went out in the dead of winter. She got the job offer a few weeks later.

Baca traces her family roots to the Spaniards who settled in New Mexico hundreds of years ago. “Growing up, I was very close to my cousins and my grandpa who taught us things that have been passed down in my family from generation to generation, like how to live off the land, survival skills for the forest and prairie, and even how to handle a rattlesnake! I actually did capture a rattlesnake when I was twelve-years-old.”

Both Baca and her husband, Eric, who is also with DS, come from large, close-knit families. “We had more than 500 people at our wedding, and only 20 of them were friends. The other 480 guests were close family, and Eric and I knew every single one of them well.”

Baca describes what it’s like on her family farm when it’s time to harvest green chili peppers. “All the cousins go to grandma’s house to pick the peppers, roast them, peel them, and pack them away for the winter. A small amount gets ground up, and we sit around and eat it on tortillas with butter.”

There is one unpleasant memory Baca has of her childhood. It was when the local public school superintendent — through a series of misunderstandings and poor decisions — enforced a policy prohibiting students from speaking Spanish in school. This blatantly discriminatory practice resulted in a generation of students losing their ability to speak Spanish fluently. “It made us feel disconnected from our heritage and almost ashamed of our culture.”

Baca is grateful that, throughout her career in the State Department, she has been treated equally for promotions and assignments, commensurate with her hard charging work ethic. “I do insist on high standards and have been known to ask that work be redone in order to meet the criteria. This hasn’t always made me popular, but I find that people respond well when I give them a say in the design of a project and let them direct an installation.”

“At the same time, I’m very family oriented because I grew up in such a tight-knit community. I regularly invite staff to my house to celebrate the holidays, especially when we’re overseas. Because when I’m away from my family of origin, I consider them to be my family in every sense of the word.”

This entry originally appeared on DipNote, the U.S. Department of State’s Official Blog.