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October 2020 - President's Message
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President's Message - october

Jessica Kronstadt
WLALA President 2020-2021

Thank you to everyone who attended and made WLALA’s 2020 Awards Dinner such a success.  Congratulations again to Hon. Virginia Phillips (Ernestine Stahlhut Awardee), UCLA Health and Johnese Spisso (Myra Bradwell Awardee), Hon. Karla Kerlin (Distinguished Service Awardee) and to all of WLALA Foundation’s scholarship, grant and fellowship recipients.  Thank you also to California Women Lawyers for bringing together women and minority bar associations in the powerful tribute to Justice Ginsburg on September 24.

WLALA would like to dedicate this month’s message to recognizing and honoring the enduring contributions and importance of LatinX Americans to the United States and celebrating the many heritages and cultures of Americans – from or with ancestors from Mexico, the Caribbean, Spain and Central and South America.  The term “LatinX” is a gender neutral or non-binary alternative to relate to people of Latin American origin or descent.

LatinX Heritage Month, also known as “Hispanic Heritage Month,” began in 1968, when President Lyndon Johnson, through Presidential proclamation, designated it as “Hispanic Heritage Week.” In 1988, President Ronald Reagan expanded the week to cover a 30-day period.  Today, Latinx Heritage month officially runs from September 15 to October 15. 

In 1989 in Presidential proclamation 6021, President George H.W. Bush declared: “The rich ethnic heritage of Hispanic Americans gives us cause to celebrate because it is a proud and colorful portion of our Nation's heritage. Hispanic Americans have reaffirmed our belief in the principles of liberty and democratic government, and they have helped to share that vision with our neighbors in Central and South America and the Caribbean. This month, as we recognize the many achievements of Hispanic Americans, we also recall the universal appeal of the American ideal of freedom and opportunity for all.” (emphasis added.)

On August 8, 2009, Justice Sonia Sotomayor became the first Hispanic and Latina member of the United States Supreme Court.  Justice Sotomayor said:

“When a young person, even a gifted one, grows up without proximate living examples of what she may aspire to become – whether lawyer, scientist, artist, or leader in any realm – her goal remains abstract. Such models as appear in books or on the news, however inspiring or revered, are ultimately too remote to be real, let alone influential. But a role model in the flesh provides more than inspiration; his or her very existence is confirmation of possibilities one may have every reason to doubt, saying, 'Yes, someone like me can do this.’”

Representation matters.  Selene Estrada-Villela, a WLALA Foundation scholarship recipient, is a second-year law student at Loyola Law School enrolled in the evening program and works full-time as a social worker with child protective services.  She spoke powerfully about this topic at our Awards Dinner and discussed how she has worked directly with predominantly Latino families to help them navigate the dependency system while ensuring the safety of children who have been victims of abuse or neglect.  As she so eloquently stated, “Advocating for children has taught me that I have a responsibility to continue protecting the rights of children, who are one of the most vulnerable populations in our society.”  When she graduates from law school, Selene commits to working at the forefront of the dependency system.  She wants “to ameliorate the disproportionate number of Latino and African-American children who enter the dependency system, a system which needs social justice advocates committed to providing culturally responsive services to communities of color that have been historically underserved and oppressed.”  Selene went to law school to join the only 2% of Latinas that make up the legal profession.  Selene, you already Lead Like a Girl and you inspire us daily.  WLALA is so proud of you and we are excited to see the incredible impact you will have on the legal profession.

If you would like to support worthy scholarship recipients like Selene, please click HERE to donate to the WLALA Charitable Fund today. The Charitable Fund supports the WLALA Foundation’s scholarships and fellowship.

On October 23, 2020, the Latina Lawyers Bar Association (LLBA) will host its Installation and Scholarship Dinner.  Congratulations to LLBA President Lorrina Duffy, President-Elect Cinthia Flores and all of LLBA’s scholarship recipients and bar stipend awardees.  We at WLALA look forward to celebrating with you on October 23.  Together, we work to ensure, as Justice Sotomayor made clear, that we “never walk alone in [our] future paths.” 

Representation Matters.  Election Day is November 3.  Lead Like a Girl and vote!

In honor of Latinx History Month, I interviewed two incredibly inspiring women, both of whom Lead Like a Girl every day:  Hon. Michelle DeCasas and Brigit Greeson Alvarez.  Thank you, Selene, Judge DeCasas and Ms. Alvarez, for your determination, self-confidence, for standing up for what is right and for your commitment to allyship.  You are, as Justice Sotomayor described, “role model[s] in the flesh,” and you “provide more than inspiration.”

JUDGE MICHELLE DECASAS

Judge DeCasas is a judge in the Metropolitan Area Courthouse of the Los Angeles Superior Court.  Before being appointed to the bench in April, Judge DeCasas served as a Deputy City Attorney at the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office for 13 years, and was a civil litigator for four years.  Judge DeCasas has been an active member of the Mexican American Bar Association (MABA).  She currently serves as the State Court Judicial Liaison on WLALA’s Board.

What inspired you to become a lawyer?

Judge DeCasas

I was born into a life of struggle.  My parents, although forever loving towards my siblings and me, struggled to provide us with even the most basic necessities.  In between the many homeless shelters, motels, and cars we often called home, there were times when we lived in a structure with walls and a roof that was much like any family home from the outside.  But within, lurked a venue of drug abuse and poverty.  These times, however, furnished me with a sense of steadiness in a world of turbulence. It was during these times that I was enrolled in school for six hours of the day. For me, education was sacred.  School was a place I equated with stability.  Performing well in school earned me praise that signified a positive aspect of my life. This gave me the assurance that no matter what I was experiencing at home, I had something inside that nothing in the world could take away. It was at this time that I learned one of the most important life lessons: I held the power to effectuate change.

When I was thirteen, just eight short months after my parents separated, my mother was shot and killed by her new boyfriend.  The criminal trial for her death was my first exposure to the inner workings of the legal system.  That exposure left an impression on me that strongly influenced my decision to pursue a career in criminal law.  From that point forward, I sought to leave the circumstances of my childhood behind and build a new way of life.  I held the power to effectuate change and the way to achieve this goal was to obtain a quality education.

In 2005, my father finally lost his lifelong battle with addiction and died of a heroin overdose.  Watching my father cycle in and out of incarceration showed me how ineffective our criminal justice system was at addressing the underlying reason he was being sent there to begin with.  As a criminal prosecutor, I was able to make a difference by balancing all the varying interests of justice.

Although those experiences were difficult, I can only be thankful for them.  As a result, I have emerged as a strong, empowered, and educated woman.  I am also an empathetic woman who, through her own adversities, has a personal understanding of the struggles people endure when dealing with issues such as poverty and drug addiction.  I am also a woman who has felt the pain of loss at the hands of a criminal defendant.

As a judge, I believe who I am and what I have learned through my personal experiences give me unique qualities which enrich the diversity of the bench.  I have the innate ability to be compassionate and understanding of a situation that many bench officers may not appreciate on the same level.

Justice Sotomayor said:  “Remember that no one succeeds alone. Never walk alone in your future paths.”  What allyship and/or sponsorship have you encountered in your legal career?

Judge DeCasas

I was extremely fortunate to have strong Latinx mentors throughout my career who encouraged and supported me.  They pushed me to set high goals and to think beyond what I thought I could achieve as a Latina woman.  They helped create opportunities that I might not otherwise have had the opportunity to access.  They set an example of success that allowed me to see beyond any gender and/or color barriers I believed existed.

What is your proudest accomplishment?

Judge DeCasas

My proudest accomplishment is that I have achieved all that I have notwithstanding the obstacles I faced and that I have done so while remaining humble. I am so very fortunate to be where I am and understand the responsibility I have not to take any of it for granted.

BRIGIT GREESON ALVAREZ

Brigit Greeson Alvarez is a Senior Attorney at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA).  Since graduating from law school, Ms. Alvarez has worked to advance the human rights of immigrants.  Before joining LAFLA, Ms. Alvarez worked for the Law Offices of Andrés Z. Bustamante, the Center for Human Rights & Constitutional Law (Los Angeles) with immigrant survivors of domestic abuse and as a sole practitioner.  Ms. Alvarez serves as a member of WLALA’s Racial Justice & Equality Advisory Council. 

What inspired you to become a lawyer?

Ms. Alvarez

After graduating from college, I worked as a community organizer at The Audre Lorde Project in Brooklyn, New York. The Audre Lorde Project is a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Two Spirit, Trans and Gender Non-Conforming People of Color community organizing center. My job was to strategize around health and wellness issues related to HIV+ immigrants and disparate policing by law enforcement in communities of color.  Specifically, we were confronting the stop and frisk policy that targeted Black and Latinx folks, and also denouncing the death and abuse of Amadou Diallo, Patrick Dorismond and Jalea Lamot, who died at the hands of law enforcement.  After a peaceful demonstration resulted in en masse arrests – an attempt to dissuade activists from further organizing – a volunteer from the National Lawyers Guild conducted a know-your-rights session.  I was so impressed by her: she was efficient, knowledgeable and confident.  More importantly, she was cognizant of her role: to further the movement for justice.  From that moment on, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer.

Justice Sotomayor said:  “Remember that no one succeeds alone. Never walk alone in your future paths.”  What allyship and/or sponsorship have you encountered in your legal career?

Ms. Alvarez

In my third year of law school, I met my best friend and mentor Maribel Reynoso.  Maribel is an immigration lawyer and her commitment to the community and to helping the most vulnerable has never wavered.  Maribel has been so supportive of my career that she remains the first person I consult for guidance. Since I did not know any attorneys, Maribel answered my questions about how to pursue a career in public interest law. More importantly, she helped me dismiss self-doubt through constant encouragement.  I wish I had met her earlier in law school. Today, in honor of my friend, I focus on supporting and mentoring young women of color law students and newer attorneys who want to practice immigration law.

What is your proudest accomplishment?

Ms. Alvarez

My 5-year old son is my proudest accomplishment. He teaches me patience and unconditional love every day. I am also proud to be a Senior Attorney at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles where I get to train and support the next generation of fearless immigration attorneys.