Text of my speech upon accepting the Mary V. Orozco Abriendo Caminos Award on October 14, 2016
Buenas noches. Que placer estar con un grupo de mujeres tan poderosas. The stories, laughter, and tears in this room tonight are energizing. That’s probably why I tell my friends this is the best professional party of the year. Yes, it’s true, a room full of lawyers can throw a good party.
Tonight, of course, I have the added bonus of going home with an award and not just the centerpiece.
My gratitude toward the women of LLBA is two-fold this evening. Not only am I extremely honored to be recognized for my work at Southern California Edison and some of the other professional stops along the way, but I am especially honored to have been chosen for the Mary V. Orozco Abriendo Caminos Award. It is an award recognizing trailblazers and I am honored to have that description associated with my name.
In preparation for tonight, I’ve been reflecting upon Mary V. Orozco’s story. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about that early courtroom experience, and contemplating what it means for the Latina lawyers here, as well as for those who cared enough about a Latina lawyer to show up here tonight. I’d like to share some of those thoughts with you.
First, did you catch the part of the story noting that the year Mary was admitted to the bar was 1962? My first reaction to that was “That can’t be right? 1962?” I mean, that’s only eight years before I was born. Is it possible that that thing I grew up always wanting to be as a kid, that job that was perfect for all my skills as a smart, hablantina, who liked to argue and make a difference in the world, was barely even possible at the time I was born?
Let that sink in—in California, there were no female attorneys of Latino heritage until a year after John F. Kennedy committed to putting a man on the moon. That means our history in this profession is barely 54 years old. Our history as California attorneys is not even old enough for Social Security.
Looking at all of you, it’s clear we have accomplished a lot in that short span. But there are still a lot of spaces where we, the professional descendants of Mary V. Orozco, are absent.
Do you want proof?
A recent study of women in the workplace concluded that women of color report getting less access to opportunities and that we see a workplace that is less fair and inclusive.
We are nine percent less likely to say we’ve received a challenging new assignment, 21 percent less likely to think the best opportunities go to the most deserving employees, and 10 percent less likely to feel comfortable being ourselves at work.
The study also found that the representation of women of color at all levels, other than entry level, was the lowest of any other group.
All this means that much work remains to be done by people just like us—Latina lawyers, the people who have experience with being first daughters, first collegians, first in the room, first to notice something. Do not think that your “first” isn’t big enough or important enough to matter. In that regard, as Latina lawyers we are lucky—there are plenty of firsts waiting for someone like us.
This means plenty of opportunity for people to say “I’ve never met someone quite like you,” as they walk away with a bit of a grin on their face as they consider the piece of information you just dropped on them.
Common history books do not write of these every day encounters, but what you do on a daily basis by just participating fully in whatever room you walk into matters.
So I remind you, quite simply, to be seen.
The second part of Mary’s story that I always get stuck on is the part at the end about how Mary had to be legitimized in order to leave the courtroom that day.
In the version of the story I heard, another attorney had to convince the bailiff to let go of her because she was, in fact, a member of the California State Bar.
Now, those of you who have taken the bar know how that exam messes with you simply by virtue of how hard you have to work to make sure you pass it. For the non-lawyers in the room, that exam is the one that makes your mom think you’ve finally gone insane.
Ok, maybe it was just my mother, but she literally said, “I have seen you work hard to get a 4.0 in high school, I have seen you work hard to graduate from Harvard with honors, and I have seen you work hard to get through Columbia Law School, and I thought you were finally done. I thought your life was set. I never thought there was another, harder hurdle to get through.”
Given what one needs to go through to pass the bar, imagine how Mary must have felt when the bailiff tried to arrest her because he thought she looked like a criminal.
Before I incite a riot with the bad energy of even evoking that image, I now want you to imagine how you would have felt if after securing your release, your colleague had taken you out in the hall and said, “Wow, did you see that dude’s hair? That was some sort of ugly?”
Ok, that’s just what my friends would have said?
Well, you get the point—in addition to being seen, amazing women who do amazing things also need professional support. They need support that helps them fight through today so they have a desire to come back tomorrow.
And having people come back tomorrow matters.
If the women this organization represents don’t come back tomorrow, you end up with the same problem we have today—findings that women of color are the most underrepresented group of people in the corporate pipeline and that we experience the deepest drop-offs in middle and senior management—despite the fact that women of color are more likely than white women to say they want to be top executives.
I have been fortunate enough to find people in my professional life who make sure I want to come back tomorrow. These people, they are the ones who see the daily struggle to be heard and say, “I see you and I see that thing that just happened. It’s on the radar. Note has been taken. You are not alone.” And you know what, that matters. A lot.
And it makes me come back tomorrow.
And it’s not just me saying it here today.
A recent Washington Post article described something female staffers in the Obama administration did when they felt their male colleagues were overlooking them.
According to the article, female staffers adopted a strategy they called “amplification”: When a woman made a key point or offered a good idea, other women would repeat and praise it, giving credit to their female colleague. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution being made by women—and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.
And you know what, President Obama noticed and started making more room for women in the conversation. It matters.
So, while I’d love to stand here today and tell you there will come a day when we won’t need others to legitimize our professional existences, I fear that won’t happen in our lifetimes. We will have to both consciously keep pushing limits and boundaries, as well as unconsciously walking into obstacles and getting caught in snares.
But this profession is glorious because it gives us access to both these known and unknown situations. You will look up one day and your bar card will set you up for walking into the grandest of courtrooms, but it may not protect you from a bailiff who doesn’t believe you’re a lawyer. It will get you into a room with the President, but it won’t guarantee he’ll listen.
The uncertainty of the places you’ll go is sometimes scary, but I want to remind you of the secret weapon at your disposal.
The people in this room and others like them.
These are the people who see you and recognize the brains and the drive. When you see one another in uncomfortable situations, say or do something. Say something like “I would let go of her if I were you, she’s a lawyer” or something simple like “Mind if I sit here next to you? I don’t think we’ve met before.” Reminders that we don’t have to go through this alone resonate.
Trailblazers didn’t do it alone. In the daily struggle to have our voices heard and our thoughts considered, helping each other acknowledges how amazing it is that we are all here.
And with that, I’ll close with a reminder from my mom. It’s a phrase she always uses when she’s suspicious of what I’m up to.
And because she’s a Mexican mom, that means she’s suspicious about almost everything.
She says, “Dime con quien andas y te digo quien eres.”
Tell me who you’re with and I’ll tell you who you are.
She’s not here tonight because it’s after dark and she’s scared of everything that happens after dark, but when I see her for breakfast tomorrow I’ll tell her I was here.
I’ll tell her I was with law students, and Latina lawyers, and people who got dressed up on a Friday night to help Latinas get through law school and their professional lives.
And I think she’ll smile, knowing that I turned out ok.
Then she’ll ask what we all wore … and if I brought home the centerpiece.
Thank you again. Good night.