Former special ambassador and community leader dies at 68

T-R FILE PHOTO Carlos Portes speaks at a Marshalltown LULAC Council meeting in April 2018. Portes died Sunday.

Former U.S. Special Ambassador and distinguished Marshalltown leader Carlos Portes, 68, died Sunday afternoon at the University of Iowa Hospital.

Born in Cuba, Portes came to the United States at age 9 as part of Catholic Charities’ Operation Pedro Pan program in 1960. Catholic Charities convinced the Cuban government to send about 14,000 children to the U.S. After landing in Miami, he was taken to Marshalltown and sponsored by St. Mary Parish.

He lived with the late Leon and Catherine Hockett and worked at the RKO Orpheum Theater before rejoining his family in New York City.

“I had been in Marshalltown for a good seven years before I met Carlos, but somehow I learnt the true meaning of being a Marshalltownian – the love for the city, its history and the amazing people who inhabit it from all walks of life – because of him,” said Portes’ significant other Hanny García Huerta, also a Cuban who now calls Marshalltown home. “It’s been the greatest gift, joy and honor of my life to have walked alongside him for the last five years.”

She said Portes loved engaging with people and had an inspiring, motivating presence.

Portes spent his formative years in Marshalltown and attributed his later success in business and foreign affairs to his upbringing here.

It was in New York City at the age of 20 Portes began a career with Allstate Insurance where he started as an insurance broker, and soon expanded his skill set to foreign affairs.

He was appointed Special Ambassador for Latin American Affairs by former President Jimmy Carter and played a pivotal role in resolving the Panamanian crisis. Portes also worked with the Regan, Bush, Clinton and Obama administrations on U.S. policies concerning Latin America and Cuba.

In 2014, he was admitted to the Iowa Volunteers Hall of Fame. Portes’ efforts after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, among other work, earned him the selection.

“During our nation’s most intense tragedy, Carlos, one of Iowa’s greatest, and one of our country’s most gifted volunteers and communicators, arrived at Ground Zero when needed most,” said Suzanne Gauch, of Marshalltown.

Since his office was located near Ground Zero, Portes knew the best supply efforts and developed solutions immediately. He organized food and water supplies for rescuers, firefighters and others. Portes said he was stunned and humbled to have been nominated and chosen for the award.

Portes has also been nominated for a place in the Iowa Latino Hall of Fame for his life accomplishments.

He returned to Marshalltown in 2013 to retire, but continued to serve as a volunteer for a host of nonprofit organizations. In 2018, Portes became the first president of the Marshalltown Council of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC).