Speech to the Latina Lawyers Bar Association–October 14, 2016

Speech to the Latina Lawyers Bar Association–October 14, 2016

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. 

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I’d Call It A “Super Scary Day” Instead of a “Sad” Day

I’d Call It A “Super Scary Day” Instead of a “Sad” Day

Today, we found out about federal grand jury indictments against a whole bunch of Los Angeles County Sheriff’s officials, many working in the county’s jails.  The Sheriff called it a “sad day” for his department.  When you read two of the four indictments here and here I think you’ll find a lot of words other than “sad” to describe the situation.

These two grand jury indictments allege some of the accused hampered the federal investigation after the Sheriff’s Department discovered an inmate was working as a federal informant.  According to the indictment, the sheriffs moved the inmate, changed his name, and changed a database to say the inmate had been released in order to hide the inmate from federal investigators.

They also say the accused told one of the lead FBI agents they were in the process of getting a warrant for her arrest.  They did this when they confronted her outside her home.

Then, there’s this allegation, that on three separate occasions, a sheriff’s sergeant encouraged deputies he supervised to use excessive force and unlawful arrests of visitors at Men’s Central Jail.  And I won’t even go into the allegation of how they arrested a diplomat for asking a question.

Did I mention that many of the accused worked in either “Operation Safe Jails,” a program described as “tasked with conducting investigations within the Los Angeles County Jails” or the “Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau,” which “was tasked with investigating allegations of local crimes committed by the LASD’s personnel”?

Yep, you can’t make this up.

So yeah, there’s nothing “sad” about these allegations.  They are infuriating and scary and shameful.

A Summer I Remember

A Summer I Remember

I started my sophomore year of high school the summer of 1985.  Because my school was on a year round schedule, I’d spent most of May and June away from my classmates.  Being brought back together that July allowed us to collectively live the end of the Night Stalker’s reign of terror.
Back then, everyone, including high schoolers, read an actual physical newspaper.
Some classmates brought in their home paper, others stole them off the neighbor’s lawn, others just stole a stack from the newstand.
The four or five papers floating around class in the morning ensured that we were all talking about the Night Stalker.
“Where’d he kill today?” some asked.
“I slept with a bat by my bed,” said another.
“I slept with the windows open,” I said in my best badass, 15-year-old, voice.
Sleeping with the windows open was the one thing the police warned against.  Richard Ramirez got in through open windows and doors.
I didn’t explain it then, because tempting fate seemed much cooler. but I wasn’t as much tempting fate as dutifully obeying my mother.  That summer was HOT.
And I mean, sweaty, tossing all night, rats crawling out on the wires, not even a breeze hot.  And we didn’t have airconditioning.
“Si el no nos mata, este calor lo hara,” my mom reasoned.  I couldn’t argue with that.
One day, class conversation was about how the Night Stalker had been spotted at a diner up the street from the high school.
This proximity so captivated one classmate that he took to clipping the L.A. Times’ headlines every morning and wrapping them a la headband around his head.
“I am the night stalker” he yelled as he ran around the classroom.
We all laughed.  “Yeah right, you’re also the guy who burned off his arm hair when the meeting of hair spray and match went awry.”
Richard Ramirez’s death yesterday reminded me of what an odd summer that was, and of how I think I heard that that classmate with the headline headbands became a police officer.
It was a weird summer story to live and share with my classmates, so I guess it’s no wonder that it inhabits the “odd thing to fondly remember” space in my mind.
The Fifth of July

The Fifth of July

Reposting this story today because it is my favorite memory of the Fourth of July holiday.

When I was a little kid, we were too poor to afford fireworks. I suppose I can’t blame my pyrotechnic poverty just on being poor, but more on the fact that my mother didn’t think any part of the welfare check should be spent on frivolity. If we got fireworks, we didn’t get clothes, or we didn’t get food. Sure, it was a practical choice, but as a kid, you just want to rip into the hundred dollar “Independence Day” box of fireworks.

Our fireworkslessness meant that in the days leading up to the Fourth of July every year, we’d visit our more affluent friends and watch them light fireworks. Back then this annual ritual led me to conclude that socio-economic status could be identified by the characteristics of your fireworks.

If you had no color, just sound, you weren’t poor, but you weren’t living in a mansion. You lived in an apartment and shared a bedroom with a couple of siblings. The same went for fireworks with no sound, and just smoke.

If you had fireworks that were colorful, but just rolled around on the ground, you lived in one of the houses in a duplex.

If your fireworks shot color into the air, and did so while crackling, at least one of your parents had a full-time job and probably owned a house with a yard and a driveway (or at least they’d found a way to live in one).

In my family, we didn’t have any fireworks before and up to the Fourth of July. We didn’t get to light something and have sound, or color. Maybe, if we got lucky, someone handed us a sparkler. In the bad years, they handed us the punk used to light the fireworks. Yep, there’s the poor kid, the one with the smoldering ember.

Occasionally, when the sounds of Fourth of July were so muddled that you couldn’t tell the fireworks from the gunshots fired into the air, we pretended to be fireworks. I mean, if you’re a nine-year-old and you scream from a low tone to a very high one, you sound kind of like a Piccolo Pete. And besides, by nightfall, no one even knows what’s going on in neighboring yards, driveways, or streets. Everyone is just staring into the sky, looking for something to make the darkness light. That means there is no risk of being seen joining the cacophony of Independence Day sound, while in your pajamas, from just inside your apartment’s living room window.

I watched from the shadows every year until the Fifth of July. That was the day when my cousin Reggie would come over and my mom, and my sister, and my Tía Rosalba, and my other cousins, and I would go to the local park. Salt Lake Park was the one where the big neighborhood fireworks were set off, and the official, city-sanctioned Fourth of July safe zone for amateur fireworks displays.

We never went to the show on the Fourth of July. My mom was scared that going to the park after dark would make us victims of violent crime, and my Tía Rosalba was a Jehovah’s Witness. Her family didn’t celebrate the Fourth of July.

But, on the Fifth of July, Reggie, Virginia, and I made sure to take a magnifying glass to the park. Our families would stake out a spot next to a tree, drag over a picnic bench, pull out aluminum foil-wrapped burritos, and play dominoes.

Virginia, Reggie, and I headed straight for the previous night’s launching pad.

We crawled around every inch of that soccer-field sized patch of grass, looking for unused fireworks. Although not plentiful, and not colorful, little by little, we’d find some fireworks.

At first, we’d find little black charcoal disks. While we weren’t allowed to buy fireworks, and we weren’t allowed to play with matches, we did know what unused fireworks looked like, and how to start a fire without matches, so out came the magnifying glass.

We figured out the sun’s angle, and the length of time needed to create a flame, and voilà, black plumes of ash came up from the earth and “snakes” came to life.

My sister, Virginia, tore holes in the knees of her jeans and Reggie got dirt in his eyes, before we found another unused firecracker.

Lighting our fireworks became easier with each successive find. We’d get sound, and some smoke, and then we’d laugh hysterically and roll around in laughter on the charred firecracker paper and ashes left from the night before.

Although there were never more than about ten unused fireworks for us to light every year, we had gotten the chance to shoot off some fireworks after all. On the Fifth of July we had not been denied the simple pleasure of creating marvels of sound and sight.

We all knew that our scavenging hadn’t made us children of homeowners this year, but it was understood that ingenuity would get us there some year, maybe next year.