‘You Can’t Teach Heart’
A Latina born in Michoacán, Mexico who immigrated to California as a youngster and was raised by her father, a strawberry fieldworker, and equally hardworking mother, a factory worker. And a Latina whose second-grade teacher declared her “mentally retarded,” before being placed in remedial classes until the tenth-grade when a substitute teacher observed that she was actually gifted.
The first is LA County Head Deputy Graciela Martinez who went on to earn her bachelor’s degree from Stanford University and her law degree from UC Berkeley. The second is Head Deputy Irene Nuñez, who went on to receive her bachelor’s from UC Berkeley and law degree from Harvard Law School.
Both Martinez and Nuñez were honored Sept. 27 during the Latina Lawyers Bar Association’s 22nd Annual Awards and Scholarship Dinner held at the Millennium Biltmore in downtown Los Angeles. The theme was Celebrating Mujeres Paving the Future for Latinas in LA County.
“I am a son of a strong, brave, independent and intelligent Latina,” said LA County’s first Latino Public Defender Ricardo García, who introduced both. “The two public defenders we are here to honor tonight share those qualities in abundance.”
In introducing Martinez, García noted her stick-to-itiveness and dedication to not only achieving enviable academic credentials but her work at the Public Defender’s Office becoming a statewide expert in immigration and criminal law and their intersection.
“She is the absolute best person to lead our Immigration and Civil Units,” García said of Martinez who has worked for the Office for 25 years. “I have no question in my mind that she leads those Units better than anyone else I could have expected to do so, today, tomorrow and well into the future.”
Martinez said she was grateful for her parent’s sacrifices.
“And the sacrifices were many,” Martinez said. “And yet there was never a hint of a complaint about the long days of picking strawberries under the scorching sun of Orange County. My father, with the big sacrifices that he made being a farmworker, he really wanted my sister and I to have a job with shade.”
Her parents had modest aspirations for their daughters, she said.
“Their hope for us was that we would finish high school and get an office job,” Martinez recalled. “But their love and faith in us was so transforming that my sister and I have a combined total of four degrees from UCLA, Stanford and Berkeley.”
When she started kindergarten at age four, she spoke only Spanish.
“Both of us actually failed kindergarten,” Martinez said of herself and sister Rosalia. “Yes, that’s right I failed kindergarten. Mostly because I hated to color. I forgot or I would not stay within the lines,” she said to a roar of hoots from the few hundred in the audience.
In introducing Nuñez, García spoke of the noble role of a public defender.
“We speak for those who are silenced,” he said. “We stand up for the individuals who the institutions of government would not just silence but in some cases kill. There is no greater profession than to be a public defender. And there are a few lawyers in our office who embody that more than Irene Nuñez.”
With a Harvard Law School degree under her belt, Nuñez started her career at a lucrative, high-rise Century City law firm, García said.
“But she realized very quickly that it didn’t matter how much they paid her; it didn’t matter what the view was because that wasn’t where her heart was,” García said. “She left that Westside, fancy law firm and joined the LA County Public Defenders to fight for the indigent accused. You can’t teach heart.”
He said that after 32 years at the Office, Nuñez is just as passionate today as she was “that day she decided to follow that heart. She is without a doubt the living breathing definition of a public defender.”
Nuñez said she was very proud to be a public defender.
“We save lives, we rescue people,” said Nuñez, who has represented seven special circumstances clients — individuals who the state had decided should receive the death penalty — yet has no client on death row. “And I know what it feels like to be rescued.”
She was greatly influenced by and thankful to “Mrs. Berkman,” her substitute teacher who after seeing her school work battled against administration to place the ninth grader in college prep courses.
“And I will always be indebted to her,” Nuñez said. “She saved my life. And throughout my life I’ve been rescued by so many different people. And I think that we are rescued so that we can rescue others.”