January 15, 2021

Ilya Espino de Marotta ’85 wanted to make a statement. In her nearly three decades working as an engineer maintaining the Panama Canal, she never encountered overt discrimination for being a woman in a male-dominated field. When she took the lead role for the canal’s massive $5 billion expansion project, though, there were grumblings in the international shipping industry that sat wrong with her.

“I learned that, when my name was proposed during a meeting, there were questions asked like, ‘Why her? Why not one of these three men?’” Espino de Marotta recalled. Despite her boss insisting that she was hired for her technical qualifications, she felt like she was working “on probation” and facing undue scrutiny for her gender. “That’s when I went out and bought a pink hardhat and safety vest. It was a message to my small surrounding group: ‘I’m a woman, and I can do this job.’”

In time, that message would travel further than she could have imagined.

Crossroads of the Americas

After graduation, Espino de Marotta found work in the Panama Canal shipyards. When it was finished in 1914 after a decade of construction, the canal was a veritable gamechanger for international shipping. Before its construction, a naval voyage from New York to San Francisco required 24 days traveling around the southern tip of South America and back for 11,300 nautical miles. After the canal’s locks opened, the same trip took only 11 days and 4,600 nautical miles—60% shorter.

Panama had achieved independence from Colombia in 1903 by agreeing to give the United States sovereignty over the land where the canal would be built, dubbed the Panama Canal Zone. Up until 1979, a year before Espino de Marotta enrolled at Texas A&M, she and other Panamanian citizens were allowed very limited access to the Canal Zone. That year, President Jimmy Carter signed a treaty reverting ownership of the canal and its surrounding land to Panama, an agreement that would take full effect on New Year’s Eve, 1999.

As maintenance of the canal slowly changed hands, Espino de Marotta built a steady life around its imposing locks. For her first four and a half years as an engineering technician, she commuted four hours daily from her home on the Pacific Ocean side of the canal to the Atlantic Ocean side. “The commute was along a two-lane road with a lot of container traffic and no way of passing. I would leave at 5 a.m. to get to work by 7:15 a.m. There was no place to stop and eat, so I learned to drink coffee for breakfast!”

Drawings and Dredges

Despite the commute, Espino de Marotta took to the role with its hands-on opportunities and challenges quickly. “I’ve loved every job I’ve had,” she said. “I was 23 when I started working. I learned from people who had been there for years how to draw designs for different systems, make a bill of materials and eventually watch those designs get built.”

After participating in a three-year developmental program coordinated by the American government teaching Panamanians technical skills required to take over the canal, Espino de Marotta steadily bounced up the ranks. She took on a wide variety of positions across the waterway and, after earning her master’s degree in engineering economics at a local university in 1996, breached into upper management.

In 2002, Espino de Marotta’s phone rang with a life-changing offer. Dr. Ricaurte Vásquez Morales, then deputy administrator of the Panama Canal Authority, was organizing a small task force to explore plans to significantly expand the canal. He asked if she would be interested in joining the team, and she accepted in a heartbeat.

Ebb and Flow

That fall, Espino de Marotta’s middle son, Peter, was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, or bone cancer. Distraught and scrambling for answers, she researched treatment centers in the U.S. She and her husband, Peter, (a dredge captain on the canal) planned to take turns working and tending to their son as he received treatment at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. But three months later, Peter was diagnosed with prostate cancer as well.

Just as the most ambitious project of her career was getting off the ground, Espino de Marotta was forced to walk into her boss’ office and explain that she was stepping away from work to tend to her family. During the next year, she lived in New York and returned to work in Panama for one week every month.

As her son and husband received treatment, Espino de Marotta relied on stockpiled personal leave hours, but needed hundreds more if she was to receive a paycheck each month. News of her situation spread, and employees from across the canal donated their own leave to make sure Espino de Marotta could tend to her family.

Both loved ones eventually healed and went into remission. Having received kindness from close colleagues and strangers alike, Espino de Marotta worked to incorporate compassion into her leadership style. “Before, I was a very technical person,” she said. “I didn’t get involved with people’s personal lives like I do now. The experience taught me to appreciate people differently.”

Gently Down the Stream

Espino de Marotta spent her career aware of how few women there were around her and in higher positions in her field. If she was not the only woman in her workplace, she was often one of only a handful. “Every time I was promoted or moved lateral to another job, it was a man who chose me and a man who I replaced,” she said. “There were no women ahead of me opening doors or giving me advice, but I never needed it. I had such good mentors, bosses and coworkers that I never dwelled on it.”

When her pink hardhat and vest garnered international media attention, however, Espino de Marotta saw an unexpected opportunity to inspire women around the world. “I would tell people, ‘Don’t be afraid to take on challenges,’” she said. “I never shy away from any job. I never knew for certain how I would tackle a new position, but I trusted myself to learn.”

The canal expansion was finished in 2016 to much fanfare. In 2017, Espino de Marotta graced the cover of Forbes Central America and was listed by the magazine as one of the continent’s 50 most powerful women. In 2019, her journey came full circle when she and her colleagues greeted cadets from Texas A&M at Galveston’s Maritime Academy passing through the canal aboard the T/S Golden Bear during a summer training cruise.

Today, Espino de Marotta is the deputy director of the canal, addressing long-term issues such as maintaining a competitive advantage in the shipping industry and improving water conservation. “If you’re an engineer and you like to learn, there are so many opportunities out there that will fulfill you,” she said. “Once you know the real power of engineering in everyday life, you can feel it and see it and live it.” 
Espino de Marotta received her Texas A&M undergraduate degree thanks to generous scholarship support. To learn how you can assist aspiring students at Texas A&M University at Galveston, contact Rick Kline at (409) 741-4030 or by submitting a message using the form below.