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January 18, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved.

PHOTO: Sila M. Calderón became governor of Puerto Rico on Tuesday
(Laura Magruder for The New York Times)

SAN JUAN, P.R. -- Sila M. Calderón is the first to admit that as a young adult she was not very fond of politics. In fact, she was not very fond of work.

"Girls of certain families didn't have to work," said Ms. Calderón, the daughter of a wealthy entrepreneur whose holdings included ice cream factories and hotels. "My American friends would work as waitresses in the summer and I would go off to Europe with my parents."

Today, Ms. Calderón is both a shrewd politician and a bit of a workaholic. She believes that her parents, who taught her that a lady should look nice and tend to the home, would be proud, though her life bears little resemblance to the traditional homemaker role they had envisioned for her. After all, she did make history this week.

On Tuesday, Ms. Calderón was inaugurated as Puerto Rico's first female governor.

It was a day that brought thousands of supporters to Old San Juan's streets. Choirs sang. The presidents of Haiti, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and Panama looked on.

But after the musicians packed up and the dignitaries had been whisked away following her swearing-in ceremony, it seemed only fitting that Ms. Calderón would turn to her parents. And she did just that with a solitary stop on her way to La Fortaleza, the governor's headquarters and mansion where she will live and work during her four-year term.

"I went to their graves and just asked them to help me," Ms. Calderón said.

She will need all the wisdom and strength she can muster to tackle the numerous challenges ahead. Ms. Calderón, who ran on the Popular Democratic Party ticket, has already angered some politicians in Washington by advocating that the United States Navy immediately halt its bombing practices on Vieques island. She also opposes United States statehood for Puerto Rico, which her predecessor, Pedro Rosselló, endorsed. And she comes after a scandal-prone government that has left many citizens here weary and distrustful of their leaders.

Ms. Calderón, 58, also knows that supporters of the two losing political parties will be scrutinizing her progress on her promises to deliver better services to the poor, upgrade the island's water system and general infrastructure and improve Puerto Rico's image.

"I think the image has nothing to do with the reality and I think that is one of my biggest challenges," Governor Calderón said.

She said Puerto Rico, a self-governing commonwealth of the United States, suffered from misperceptions about its economic stability and its patriotism. "We are proud of our citizenship and share the same love of democracy and liberty," she said. "At the same time we have our own culture we want to protect."

She said she would personally take those messages to Wall Street and Washington as an "ambassador" for Puerto Rico.

BORN in San Juan in 1942, Governor Calderón grew up steeped in the history of her native island. Her father would spend hours recounting to her Puerto Rican history and his admiration for the Popular Democratic Party and its message of democracy and social responsibility. And though he also emphasized a traditional role for women, it is perhaps not surprising that she was drawn to public life after graduating from Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y., where she received a bachelor's degree in government.

Her first real introduction to government came in 1973 while attending the Graduate School of Public Administration at the University of Puerto Rico. Her labor relations professor liked her work so much that when he left during the semester to become Puerto Rico's secretary of labor he tapped her as his executive assistant. It was a turning point that introduced her to public service.

Over the next nearly three decades she would weave in and out of both the private and public sector, working her way up to vice president at Citibank and serving for eight years as mayor of San Juan, the job she left to become governor.

Because of what her parents taught her about history and social responsibility, "when I was asked to go into public service, I accepted." The mother of two grown daughters and a son (she also has five stepchildren from her 22-year second marriage) wants to lead Puerto Rico into a new era of respect and prosperity. But in the first days of tackling the issues of governing here, she and her staff have been distracted by more basic duties. They have had to figure out how to work the computers and copy machines in their new offices.

Less than 48 hours after her inauguration, Ms. Calderón discovered that the transition of power from Governor Rosselló, who departed without appointing anyone to assist with the transition, will be far from smooth. The staff could not find computer codes. A news conference on Thursday was delayed by more than a half hour because no one could figure out how to make copies of news releases. And Ms. Calderón left one visitor waiting for three hours because administrative glitches threw her schedule off.

Yet ever mindful of her image, the new governor did her best to stay on time and on point during one important photo opportunity. As her staff worked nervously behind the scenes on the headquarters logistics, Ms. Calderón spent the early afternoon on Thursday air- kissing and shaking hands with local politicians at the governor's annual New Year's protocol greeting at La Fortaleza. Now, with her ceremonial duties tended to for the moment, the governor wants to get on with, as she puts it, being a "public administrator more than a politician."

She never liked the latter title to begin with. "Politics has lost its prestige and doesn't have a good name to it," she said.

She has drafted several laws intended to stem corruption, which she hopes will restore the image of government, at least in Puerto Rico. "We deserve a government that's clean, open and honest just like we are," she said.

Also not lost on her is that among the thousands of supporters who lined Old San Juan's streets to view her inauguration were young girls who were seeing a new day in more ways than one at the birth of the new millennium.

"When I was a little girl everybody who had power were men," Governor Calderón said. "Now girls know that it is very normal for power to be shared with men and women."

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