LATINAS IN THE LAW, changing the face of justice

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We live in exciting times for women as we continue to break the proverbial glass ceiling in every front. When it comes to the justice system we felt the world shake in 2020 with the untimely death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or “the Notorious R.B.G.” as she was known. As only the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court, she inspired generations with her relentless for women’s rights. As Latinas we are also very proud of Justice Sonia Sotomayor for her groundbreaking role as therst Hispanic, and the third woman to serve on the Supreme Court.

Originally from Puerto Rico, Justice Sonia Sotomayor has been a key advocate against racial discrimination. Indeed our country is taking a new shape, one that is gradually beginning to re ect the people that have built it, but these amazing women are the tip of the iceberg. We interviewed eight San Diego Latina judges whose contributions are fueling the collective force that is changing the face of justice.  They made themselves vulnerable and opened their hearts to us courageously; through laughter, and sometimes tears, they took us on a journey to their past so that we can positively impact our future. Together they encompass the values of our rich culture- Heritage, Family, Balance, Courage, Humanity, Service, Grit, and Legacy. We hope that their journeys inspire you and empower you to follow your dreams, knowing that you are not alone as they continue to pave the way for all Latinas.


Heritage

Hon. Irma Gonzalez

Retired United States Federal Judge Of the United States District Court for the Southern District of California

A fundamental value of the Latino culture is our connection to our heritage. Hon. Irma Gonzalez, retired United States Federal Judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of California, knows the importance of passing on our individual history as pillars for the next generations. Her story begins in Palo Alto, California, where she was born, at only one year old her family moved to San Francisco so that her dad could go to medical school and eventually the family settled in Arizona.

Her father, raised in Nogales, Arizona, was one of the  first Latino surgeons in that state. A scholar himself, he always empowered his children to aim high. Her mother did too in her own way, considering that she had her hands full raising seven children, she managed to learn English and eventually get her GED. Her parents spoke both languages at home, but at school teachers spoke only English, and back then there was no emphasis on a second language, nor was there any e ort to encourage the pride of having a second language. A lot of parents wanted their children to speak only English so they would  fit in. Today Irma and her siblings all speak Spanish  fuently and embrace their Mexican culture with open arms.

Irma always thought she would be a doctor like her father, never thought of anything else her whole life.  Then in college she questioned her resolve, she asked herself “Why do I want to be a doctor? Is it because of my dad? or is somebody pushing me?” She didn’t have a mentor or anyone to guide her. She decided to go to law school, even though she didn’t know anyone who was a lawyer; although her grandfather was a lawyer in Mexico, he was the only lawyer she knew, and he was far away in another country.

Hon. Irma Gonzalez

There weren’t that many women in law school in 1973 when she graduated, and there were no women professors. She recognizes that it was hard for Latinas, she felt that people thought she was there merely because of A rmative Action, so she always felt the need to prove herself as a Latina lawyer and then a judge.

Irma saw the need for an organization that would be there to mentor Latinas who were interested in the law. With this vision in mind, she along with two colleagues created Latinas in the Law in 2005. She believes it’s a tragedy at times because a lot of women drop out of law due to the pressure, or because they want to raise their children. For Irma, Latinas in the Law is a place where leaders advise and share the ups and downs the young attorneys will encounter, knowing that they can do it because they themselves have done it.

She feels great privilege to represent her heritage. Justice Sonia Sotomayor from Puerto Rico and Irma were  rst nominated the same year in 1992 by President George H. W. Bush. Irma became the  first Mexican-American to receive this honor.  These milestones have allowed Americans to honor their culture and be proud of it. One of the privileges that she had as a Federal Judge was to swear in new citizens. She tells us that it is the most emotional event one could witness with three to four hundred people from up to   y countries. Her message to them a er the ceremony reinforced their individual heritage:

“YOU CAN’T FORGET WHERE YOU CAME FROM, YOU CAN’T FORGET YOUR HERITAGE AND YOUR CULTURE. JUST BECAUSE YOU ARE SWORN IN AS AN AMERICAN US CITIZEN DOES NOT MEAN YOU ARE NO LONGER IRISH OR ITALIAN, OR MEXICAN.”

HON. IRMA GONZALEZ RETIRED UNITED STATES FEDERAL JUDGE OF THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA HERITAGE


Family

Hon. Ana España

Judge for the Superior Court Of San Diego

When it comes to Latino homes no other value has greater pull than family, it dictates our choices in many ways, and shapes our destinies. Hon. Ana España, Judge for the

Superior Court of San Diego County has built her career with the solid blocks of family. As Presiding Juvenile Judge this is particularly essential as her decisions impact

our families and our children. Her father retired from the military and they moved to Bonita, California just in time for Ana’s High School journey, up until then she was what you call an Army Brat, her family moved twenty times in twenty years. She was born in the Imperial Valley, in Calexico and while both her parents were born here in the United States, her immigrant roots take her to Me x i c o .

Hon. Ana España

Although t h e y moved a lot, most of her growing up was in El Paso, Texas. For her it was nice to  nally finish at one school setting in High School. Upon graduation from Bonita Vista High School, the oldest of four and the only girl, Ana attended Southwestern College as it was easier to venture right around the corner from her house. With an eagerness to experience life, but a family pull to remain close to home, Ana transferred to USD. During college she lived in the dorms and then in the student apartments, even though her parents lived in Bonita, this experience gave her a taste for freedom while keeping her family close.

For someone like Ana, whose family ties are strong as steel, being in the position to impact children’s lives is very rewarding but getting there was not without challenges. Choosing law was not a linear decision, she initially thought she would go into teaching; but she now knows that she had it in her all along. She remembers that from the age of twelve she would write poetry about justice and human rights, and she had an interest in trying to work helping people, children and elderly.  is is something that was oating around in her soul but couldn’t de ne it then. Today, she shows her own children her poetry as it has now come full circle.

“YOU NEED TO FIND YOUR PASSION AND REALLY JUST LET IT LEAD YOU, AND YOU NEED TO TAKE RISKS AND GO TO A PLACE THAT MAY NOT BE SO COMFORTABLE.”

She always wanted to be able to have the power to make a it is very important that when people leave the court they feel that they were heard.

“YOU TRY EVERY DAY TO MAKE THE RIGHT DECISION FOR THE CHILD AND THE FAMILY.”

She went to USD even though she applied and was accepted to other prominent schools across the country, like Notre Dame. She knows there was that family pull to stay home.

She moved away when she got married, eventually moving back to Bonita close to her parents. She and her husband decided to live close to them so they could help raise their kids. Today, Ana and her husband, as empty nesters, now moved to Scripps Ranch to do what her parents did for them and help raise their own grandchildren. And the family pull with her parents is now working in the opposite direction as they also moved to Scripps Ranch and are one mile away. It has all truly come full circle, there is no doubt that family is at the core of Ana’s choices, life and destiny.


Balance

Hon. Rachel Cano

Judge of the Superior Court of San Diego County

As Latinas we often carry all the weight of our homes, careers, families and community. Without balance we soon become distraught and fall prey to anxiety and depression that can quickly escalate to illness. The greater the responsibilities we carry, the bigger the risk. We believe that Hon. Rachel Cano, Judge of the Superior Court of San Diego County, knows a thing or two about carrying the load of mixed responsibilities with grace and balance.

“You have to be holistic, take care of the body and mind. It was those who overstudied that had a challenge.”

Born and raised in Los Angeles in an area called Bell in Downey, California which was heavily Latino, most of her friends and family lived within a 10-15 mile radius. A third of her high school was Latino so she always felt like she belonged and was part of that community. Her biggest mentor was her mother, and her mother had a big vision for Rachel. She always stressed that education was the most important thing for success, so from a very young age she knew she was going to go to college, it wasn’t even a question. Her mother came from a very small town in Mexico, a farming town, which is why she only completed a 6th grade education. But she was self-taught and she loved to read, so she instilled in her children that they were going to go to college, that was her dream. Rachel never met a lawyer until she actually went to law school, but she had seen them on the television and  in her eyes, they helped people. Therefore, when she was in High School she decided to become a lawyer. Her mother wanted her to go to Harvard, that was her dream. It was 1987 when she applied for college, there was no internet and she still didn’t know any lawyers, there was no one mentoring her and she didn’t know there were prep courses, or people who could help her fill out the application. She remembers when she told her mom she had been accepted to Stanford, when her mom realized it wasn’t Harvard she said “Call me when you get into Harvard”. She was so determined, and she knew Rachel could do it and she did. Rachel made it to Harvard, she didn’t know about the challenges, sure she could have taken an LSAT prep course, or have someone review her application, but she didn’t know any different. For Rachel, challenges are just opportunities to go around them, move beyond that.

Hon. Rachel Cano

 

“You can’t change the past, you have to keep moving forward.“

That was the era when diversity was beginning to gain public attention, but she recalls that she never once felt as though she was not as smart as those people and she knew she had much to contribute. Former President Barack Obama was in her class, so while she may not have been at that level, she belonged. She felt very welcome from day one, her roommate had gone to Harvard as an undergrad and so she knew the ropes and helped her get around. She befriended the right people “You gravitate towards people that are accepting of you”. She just had her 30 year reunion and it was surprising to her that they all thought she was the popular kid. This is because while they were all committed to studying every Friday night, she  went out dancing, always balancing. She found a group of friends that appreciated her and she never hung out with people who did not. She studied at Cambridge where she rollerbladed to class, in her words  “You have to be holistic, take care of the body and mind. It was those who overstudied that had a challenge.”


Courage

Hon. Patricia Garcia

Judge for the Superior Court of San Diego County

Courage is part of the immigrant spirit, it is an attribute that allows us to keep moving forward even if we are afraid. However, courage and fear show up in our lives in unique forms. Hon. Patricia Garcia, Judge of the Superior Court of San Diego County shares with us her hope for the younger generations, and how courage plays a key role in her own story and theirs.  

She grew up in Los Angeles, my parents both came from Mexico, separately. My mother with her family, my father by himself.They met in San Francisco, they got married and settled in L.A. which is where I was born. Her mother had a third or fourth grade education, her father may have had a sixth grade or seventh grade education, but he instilled in her that she was just as good as anybody in this country, particularly white America. That sort of discrimination was evident at the time, but he instilled in her and her siblings that “You are no better, you are no worse, you are just as good.” Which was important, she thinks that seed was always in her.

Patty explains to us that our parents don’t always have the big vision. As she thinks of this she realizes that her father would have been content if she had become a teacher, and that was perhaps the reason she initially pursued, because it was fulfilling his vision. But she realized that it was not her vision. She began to follow her own vision, and it takes courage to abandon the path your father crafted for you and go into the unknown, it is scary. You may not know what your vision is, but keep pursuing things that you love and that in itself will guide you, you will get to that spot. She also knows that there are many people who have paved the way for us, and the young people need to know that we don’t do anything by ourselves, nothing is done alone. Nobody can achieve anything alone, even though it might look like they did it alone or that they have natural talent and gifts, that is not true. She reminds us that we all have talents and we can develop them further, but we need a community of support, whether it is our family, friends, teacher or counselors. There is power in that, the better connected we are with those people, the better supported and more chance of success we will have collectively. “Develop those friendships and connections all over to support your vision.”

She also talked to us about the immigrant spirit. Our parents and grandparents came to this country not knowing what was going to happen to them, and they came here anyway. They had the courage to work hard, and although they had a lot of obstacles, they persevered and we are here because of them. They brought us here, to a place where they had not been before with nothing but the hope for a better life. Now, they have given us the baton and it’s our turn to go to the places we haven’t been before. 

Hon. Patricia Garcia

As she reflects on what she would tell her younger self, she candidly admits that she would tell her to be kind to herself, to not be so hard on herself. She believes it is the biggest life lesson she’s had to learn, one that perhaps more of us should heed to. To be kinder, more forgiving, “ would tell myself it’s ok to fail, in fact it’s expected. You don’t have to be perfect.” Patty knows that we have to keep going. Obstacles, we all have them, and actually she doesn’t see them as a negative, but as part of what makes us better, it’s just part of life. So if you have an obstacle, it’s there for a reason so figure it out and move forward because that’s what you need to overcome to move forward. 

So how does courage show up in her life? She tells us that every day it takes courage just to be you, just to be oneself takes courage. That is the hardest thing ever, it’s so part of being a judge. A judge has to be independent, an independent decision maker, making decisions solely on the evidence that is before you without outside influence; or making hard decisions that might be criticized. That takes courage. 

“Every day you get out of your home are you going to be your own person or are you going to be influenced by your family, your significant other, or your children, or what people might say and how people are looking at me. It takes courage to be oneself and to be vulnerable.”


Humanity

Hon. Yvonne Campos

Judge of the Superior Court of San Diego County 

A forever student of humanity, Hon. Yvonne Campos, Judge of the Superior Court of San Diego County is committed to her service to the people, to everyone who sets foot in her court. She talks to us about her own journey, and her continuous study in the development of society which helps her understand the journeys people have walked; making her a more understanding judge, open minded and in touch with everyone’s humanity.

Hon. Yvonne Campos

Her dad was only in middle school when he had to start working, both her parents were the oldest of very big families so they always had to work. In fact, both of them still work today, they don’t know how to fully retire. “It was just knowing the immigrant story.” Yvonne tells us. Education was the key, you see, her parents owned a tortilla factory when she was in high school and she had to get up at four in the morning in the heat of Dallas, Texas working an oven at 400 degrees. Even though there were fans and blowers, circulating hot air didn’t make it better. There was sweat and flour, and noise- it was an assembly line. She was the oldest so clearly, she got the most exposure to it before her parents sold it. What she did learn is that she didn’t like working for two bucks an hour, she didn’t like having to do manual labor, it was very tiring and she learned that if she could work in an air conditioned office and use her brain it was going to be a lot better. 

When she went to college she thought she wanted to be a journalist. Like Christianne Amanpour, who is the Chief International Anchor for CNN. But then she saw The Year of Living Dangerously and swore she was never going to be one of those journalists in a war zone. She was an Affirmative Action baby of the 1980’s, she graduated from Stanford with a double major in Political Science and Economics, then went on to Law School at Harvard. The opportunities she was given made her interested in the bigger picture, she loved History, and Political Science and her passion and discipline opened doors for her in government; she worked for the US Capitol, Sacramento, and on the State Capitol. Even though she tried to think about the future, she realized that you can’t always plan things and also that sooner or later you have to deal with your baggage. Yvonne was only 17 when she packed her bags and left home to go across the country to live her life, thinking that she was going to do it better. 

“I wish I had known that you can pack your bags and you can go wherever you want,but your baggage follows you. Your historical family baggage follows you.”

She didn’t understand, or know enough, about the traumas and dramas of our parents and their families; and how much of that had shaped her, and how much of that she would carry into her life and pass on to her own children. As Yvonne continues to explore her own humanity, she reminds us that by gaining an appreciation of our historic, familial and genetic baggage we can understand each other, and our deeper selves.


Service

Hon. Marcella MacLaughlin

Judge of the Superior Court of San Diego County

There is a gentle personality about Latinos that is appreciated around the world, and that is their spirit of service. For Judge Marcella MacLaughlin of the Superior Court of San Diego County, service has always been at the forefront of her career.

Her family is from Central Mexico and the state of Zacatecas in Mexico, immigrants who came to the United States around 1965. They had an elementary school education, yet for them school was the number one priority. They were very strict, her family lived around a lot of crime and a lot of bad influences, her parents sheltered them from that. They had such high expectations from them all the time and that was hard. But looking back she tells us that she is most grateful to her parents for that.

“You know the gift was that they expected so much from us despite our circumstances, there was always a message that you are better than your circumstances” 

Hon. Marcella MacLaughlin

Her family faced the biggest challenge when tragedy knocked on their door during Marcella’s senior year in High School. Her father was killed on a work site accident. She recalls that it was very traumatic and very difficult, so her mom decided at that point to move to San Diego. Ana had been accepted to San Jose State, but that meant she had to stay behind on her own. Because she was struggling with her father’s death she made the decision to abandon her college plans and move south with her mother and younger sister; of course the family pull was very strong.

The transition was very scary for her, she had worked very hard to get into college  and now she did not know anybody and didn’t have a college plan. She enrolled at the Miramar Community College in San Diego, and there she excelled. The nurturing environment helped her spirit of service bloom and she became involved with the Student Body, eventually becoming Student Body President, she was also appointed a student Trustee to the Community College Board. She  transferred to UCSD as a political science major and after leaving UCSD she took part in the then President Clinton’s inaugural AmeriCorp program doing domestic service for a year in San Diego at Crawford High School. She worked with the United Way and learned all the real issues of our very diverse communities through her work in Mid City San Diego.

After her year of service she got accepted to California Western School of Law and decided she was going to be a trial lawyer becoming a prosecutor and eventually Judge. Her entire career has been in government, a choice that she feels came from a sense that her commitment to public service just was organic. She felt that as an American she had been very fortunate to be here, the sacrifices made by her immigrant parents and the gratitude deep inside her for the opportunities this country offered. So, even though she knew the paycheck was bigger, she felt that civil litigation would not inspire her to serve a greater purpose. She saw herself as someone vested to preserve individual rights, and thought those are the highest goals, the loftiest responsibilities and that is what she wants to do every day of her life. 

“Latinos are such an important part of our history, it is upon us to be present and to show the younger generation who we are, what we are doing, what we can do – so they can know what they can do. To set the expectations for what can be done and to keep doing it because the critical mass has not been reached.”


Grit

Hon. Amalia Meza

Judge of the Superior Court of San Diego County

The one thing anyone needs to know about Hispanics is that we have grit, and for Hon. Amalia Meza, Judge of the Superior Court of San Diego, grit was not a choice, it was in her revolutionary blood.

Amalia Meza was born and raised in East Los Angeles. Her story goes back to the 1900’s in Mexico with her grandparents. They never married, she was a Spanish storekeeper of a higher class, and he was a man of the people; they never connected so his father went off to fight in the revolution. Amalia’s father was very rebellious with his mom and so he ran off to join him in the revolution. He met up with him right before a big battle where his father was killed, he remained in the movement. When Pancho Villa was defeated he came to the United States and built a life for himself with a gravestone business. His heart was always in Mexico and returned, after a failed attempt to rebuild a life in Mexico City, when he met Amalia’s mom, he returned to East Los Angeles with fifty cents on his pocket. Forced to start over with nothing, he was able to rebuild his gravestone business. He always had a passion for justice, a strong belief that it was a human obligation to right what’s wrong. During dinner he always wanted to talk about political issues and what was going on in the world. Amalia would challenge him with what she had learned in school and they would argue at the dinner table. Her dad knew she should be a lawyer. 

As Valedictorian of her school, she was accepted to all the schools in L.A. that she applied for. However, that was not God’s plan for her. At the time Ivy League colleges were getting pressured to open their doors to minorities from the inner cities and Yale University was interested in bringing in minorities and women to their campus.  They had a program in Los Angeles called “Las Puertas se Abren” led by famous actor Anthony Quinn, in which they invited college counselors from the schools in the poor neighborhoods to bring their best students. There were only two students accepted from her school, and even though Amalia did not want to go, she was the only one to enroll. Today, many would think she was lucky, but as she put it, “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity”.

“Luck is when preparation meets opportunity”

Yale was difficult and challenging for her, it  was a culture shock because it was such a stark difference from everything she knew. She had been transplanted into a very privileged environment and she now saw that there was a lot of injustice in the world. She finally understood what her father had been arguing about for years at that dinner table. At Yale students were having protest demonstrations over everything, women were talking about women’s rights and it was total upheaval. The Mexican American students who were at Yale were active and they helped her understand what was going on with the Chicano movement through the MECHA organization. This just completely opened the universe for her so she decided to become an active part of society to effect change. At that time people who wanted to be active were going into law, so she thought law was the way to do it. Her father was so proud when she told him she was applying to law school. 

Later she became a recruiter for Yale, they would pay her to go and speak to schools in East L.A. to grow that community. Her time in Yale was an awakening for her, she describes as a baptism, being completely awakened; this changed her completely. This is where she embraced her  background, who she was and where she came from. This is where she became Amalia- before that she was just “Molly”. Today she remembers her origins warmly, a journey that began with her immigrant parents who came to this country with fifty cents in the pocket.

 “They had a lot of challenges, so life is not easy but it is not going to be easy if you give up now. You either step up or you let others step on you.”  


Legacy

Hon. Olga Alvarez

Judge of the Superior Court of San Diego County

As Latinos in the United States we all bring our stories with us, but the key is what we do with our stories, what legacy do we leave behind for the next generation. Hon. Olga Alvarez, Judge of the Superior Court of San Diego County has a plan, her legacy comes from her feminist roots, overcoming segregation and leading with humility. 

She grew up in a place called Saspamco, Texas. A factory town of about a hundred families who were predominantly Mexican American, they lived on a ranch along the San Antonio river. Her maternal great grandfather who came from San Luis Potosi, Mexico purchased it with a sack of gold in the 1900’s. The house in that ranch is where she was raised. In her memory her parents were just beautiful people, very loving, hard working constantly reminding them that to whom much is given, much is expected. 

Hon. Olga Alvarez

Her father was an immigrant from Spain, he immigrated here in the early 60’s during the Franco dictatorship and because of his impoverished background and oppressive history because of the dictatorship, he wanted to make sure that his children spoke their mind. He always impressed on Olga that she could be whatever she wanted to be, that there were never any limitations, just work hard. The sense of community comes from her mother, a bilingual teacher who taught not only immigrant children but also the Texans who for generations Spanish was their predominant language.  Her mom would go to their houses to ask their parents why they were not going to school, or how she could help them advance to high school. She would talk to the parents and teach them about scholarships and other opportunities for their children. And the families often welcomed her with their best seat of honor.

Olga’s grandmother was widowed when her mother was five years old in 1937. After her husband died she just decided she was going to survive along with her two children. She raised cattle, plowed the field, and made the best tortillas ever. She was determined to send Olga’s mother to college. At the time Texas was still subject to the “Jim Crow” laws (The Jim Crow laws implemented in many states and cities, could impose legal punishments on people for consorting with members of another race) so her grandmother had to pay for her daughter to go to Floresville, twelve miles away. The story is that she sold a cow to pay for her tuition. She had the attitude that men and women were equal, that women should have the same opportunities and we just had to do it. “She was a feminist before feminism was en vogue” Olga’s mom was influenced by that, as was Olga and today she is looking at her daughter to carry this light. 

Olga’s humble core comes from great grandfather, an immigrant from San Luis Potosi who worked as a bricklayer, saved his money and bought his ranch in Texas. When Olga’s grandfather died he would walk every Friday to their house and he would read to them. Before leaving he would say to her “No olvides que vengo de pantalón blanco y huarache” (“Don’t forget I come with white pants and sandals”), and this has stayed with her as she walks her journey with the pride of her roots planted in humility.

How she became a judge truly started because in her heart of hearts, she knew she wanted to fight and do what was right, but didn’t know how. The turning point was at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, taking a course with Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, the first African American woman of the South to be elected to Congress in the 60’s, and at that moment realized -it’s possible-  she was a real person who thought Olga was very bright.  She could see herself doing this, she had a chance. If her mother and grandmother, and her father and grandfather were able to get so far under their own dire circumstances, her legacy would now be to carry the torch forward; to be remembered as the public servant who paid it forward to the Latino community and the entire country by being fair, just, impartial, a person with integrity, A woman who fought the good fight. 

“My prayer every day is to have the courage to do God’s will.”

We honor these women 

We honor and celebrate these women for sharing their individual journeys with us, ones that were not always a straight line. They each faced tough choices to follow their hearts and their dreams. They remind us that we are all the immigrant story, we are a product of the sacrifices our parents and grandparents made for us. The women they are today comes from what they inherited from their roots, the core values that their individual stories forged in them as well as the conscious choices they made to have the courage to make those leaps of faith. They remind us that we helped shape this country, and we now have the responsibility to keep these values and shape the future. Their lessons light the way for today’s generation of Latinas and the next. 

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