How one generation of Hispanic attorneys handled discouragement and prejudgment, and helped change the landscape for the next generation.
Vilma Martinez and Carlos Singer in front of Los Angeles City Hall
Because of her Mexican American roots, Vilma Martinez heard countless discouraging comments growing up. “In junior high, my guidance counselor wanted me to go to technical and vocational high school because [she thought] I’d be more comfortable there,” the 64-year-old attorney explains. (That didn’t stop her—she requested that her transcripts be sent to the academic high school anyway, which she did, in fact, attend.) As an undergraduate at the University of Texas, Martinez was told by counselors not to get her hopes up about law school. (She opted to apply to more “liberal eastern schools” and was accepted into Columbia University Law School, where she earned her Bachelor of Laws.)
“[After law school] I was told women shouldn’t be litigators; they should go into trusts and estates,” Martinez recalls. Not only did she prove them wrong, but she also went on to become one of the most prominent Hispanic attorneys in the field of law, working on a number of early Title VII cases for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, participating on the board of directors for several major corporations, and serving as president and general counsel of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) for nine years.
Never one to let others determine her fate, Martinez, now living in Los Angeles and partner at Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP, turned such negative comments into motivation to prove negative thinkers wrong. “I have this theme in my life of challenging the naysayers,” she says. This theme developed as a child—when being Hispanic translated into being prejudged by her peers—and continued throughout her adult years, including the time when friends doubted her ability to win the position of president of MALDEF because they believed that the world wasn’t ready for a woman head of a Mexican American organization. “I said, ‘Well, are you my friend or not? Because I am going to run.’ And I did get the job. If I had listened to them, I never would’ve done anything.”
Riguer Silva in Tegucigalpa, Honduras
Letting Nothing Stand in Their Way
Meanwhile, as Martinez was climbing toward acceptance and success, a Hispanic attorney with distinctive roots was working just as hard to make it, but in a very different way. In 1979, Riguer Silva, then a high-level attorney in Nicaragua, was facing formidable challenges that arose owing to a national revolution. The Sandinista political group was fighting to seize power over the Somozas, a political dynasty that had been ruling for several decades before the war. Silva soon learned that the Sandinistas were a communist group and decided to seek out a better life in the United States.
But it wasn’t so simple. As fires broke out and bombs fell in the thick of the night, Silva attempted to bring his family to safety on four separate occasions. “Once we went through a downtown area and were stopped by three Sandinistas who told us to get against a wall because they were going to shoot us,” recalls son Cristian Silva, who was then 9 years old. A skilled negotiator, Silva slipped out of the soldiers’ grasp by trading his family’s dark clothes, which would protect the enemy from Somoza soldiers during nighttime hours, for their freedom.
The Silvas did not leave Nicaragua that night. The urban fighting continued and most residents remained in the country. Later that year, they tried again. “Everything at the airport was blocked. There were mobs of people trying to get refuge,” explains Cristian. “Dad got out of the car, talked to the guards, and they let us through.” The family made it onto a plane to El Salvador, then took a bus to Honduras, and eventually made it to the United States.
Silva seemed to have had a special touch that gained his family priority over the hordes of other would-be emigrants. “He’s very white-looking and he has red hair,” Cristian says, explaining that in many Central American countries people tend to respect those who look European. Silva also had a knack for being quick on his feet. He told the Sandinistas a convincing story about the Somoza government trying to harm him and was granted exile.
Embracing Their Roots
Much to Silva’s disappointment, the professional landscape in America was bleak when he arrived. With few options for becoming a professional lawyer, he moved his family to New Orleans, La., where he attended Loyola University Law School, one of the few schools that offered opportunities to foreign-trained attorneys to take specialized courses. Although he immediately passed the bar exam, Silva was unable to obtain a job. “Nobody would give him the opportunity,” explains Cristian. “For one, the concept of being foreign-trained was a novel concept at the time; not many people accepted that. Plus he’s got a very thick accent, [so many people thought] he wasn’t smart enough.”
Cristian Silva, flanked by his parents
Rather than letting his ethnicity deter him, Silva embraced it, opening a private practice that served people with a similar background. “He put himself in the Hispanic community. About 99 percent of his clients were Hispanic and many were immigrants as well,” explains Cristian. After many years of hard work and long hours, Silva established a successful practice.
Similarly, Martinez’ decision to embrace her ethnicity helped her make her mark on her community and her profession. When informed that a law firm’s clients wouldn’t take well to being represented by a woman or a Mexican, she moved on, seeking out roles in forward-thinking organizations like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where she worked on two seminal early Title VII cases. “I’m really proud of the work others and I were able to do with and for the African American and Mexican American communities,” Martinez says. She helped draft the proposal that launched MALDEF and became the liaison between the two organizations, which led to her being one of the first women to serve on the board of directors and later as president and general counsel of MALDEF.
After serving for nine years in this role, Martinez made the jump into the private sector, joining Munger, Tolles & Olson as a partner in 1982. The move allowed her more flexibility as she raised her two young sons, something she had missed during her years at MALDEF, which often involved long hours and a great deal of travel.
Martinez’ commitment to serving the community has never waned. She served for 14 years as a member and two years as chair of the University of California’s Board of Regents. She chaired the Pacific Council’s Study Group on Mexico and served on the advisory boards of Columbia Law School and the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California. In 1994, Martinez was appointed to President Clinton’s Advisory Committee on Trade Policy & Negotiations.
Moving Forward, Internally and Externally
The fierce commitments that both Martinez and Silva made to the Hispanic community have helped change the landscape for their children, both of whom grew up to be lawyers. They also passed down determination, tenacity, and tools to succeed in a business world that hasn’t yet reached a point of full equality.
Martinez’ son, Carlos Singer, 31, served until recently as deputy counsel to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. He represented the mayor on numerous task forces, advised him on legislation and policy, and monitored outside counsel on cases against the city when the city attorney had a conflict of interest. In mid-July of this year, Singer began working at Willenken, Wilson, Loh & Lieb, LLP, reflecting his desire to return to a litigation practice. Singer has experienced skepticism by others related to his being a minority, particularly with respect to his education. (After graduating from Columbia University, he went on to Yale Law School.) “I’m sure some have doubted my qualifications,” he says.
While it’s evident that even in the 21st century bias exists, what Singer has encountered doesn’t seem as pervasive as the discrimination his mother faced, particularly in her earlier years. “I have to go a little out of my way to prove myself,” Singer adds. “But it hasn’t been full of disadvantages. Once they know me and my work, any skepticism goes out the window.”
Like his mother, Singer has chosen to embrace his Latino heritage. “I’ve been influenced by her personal values, like hard work and earning people’s respect, but also the importance of family and community outside of the professional context. She’s instilled the importance of being a participant in the community, whether through pro bono work or service on behalf of nonprofits,” he says. Following his mother’s lead, he has taken on roles on the boards of trustees for the Los Angeles Music and Art School in East L.A.—an organization that offers subsidized lessons to underserved children—and the Mexican American Bar Foundation, a group that raises scholarship money for law students of Latino descent. “It’s something she’s always encouraged—to get involved and give something back. I’ve had a lot of advantages growing up as her son, so in light of that, I want to give back.”
Cristian Silva, 36, lives in Alexandria, Va., where he is an associate at Baker Botts LLP and deals primarily with international trade matters. He remembers experiencing his father’s professional and personal struggles firsthand, as far back as his childhood years in Nicaragua. What stands out is how hard his father worked to achieve success in the United States. “I was inspired by him and my mother [who was a law professor in Nicaragua and later assisted with his father’s legal work in the United States, though she was not technically a practicing attorney],” he says. “Knowing and remembering how and where we started and seeing where we were [later], I have a great deal of respect for him and what he did. I don’t think that I personally would have been able to overcome the challenges that he overcame. I think very few people could.”
Martinez’ and Silva’s decisions to embrace their heritage, as well as their dedicated efforts to be active within the Hispanic community, have undoubtedly filtered down to the next generation. At the same time, the tides are slowly turning within the profession.
Clearly, the elder Silva’s work ethic and personal determination made an impact on his son. “I’ve been very lucky as a result of my father’s efforts,” he says. “I went to American schools so I haven’t really had the challenges and obstacles that my dad had,” he adds, noting that the profession has also reached a point where it’s more accepting of Hispanic attorneys.
Having worked as a tax attorney in the national office of the Internal Revenue Service, then as an attorney specializing in mergers and acquisitions for PricewaterhouseCoopers in Washington, D.C., and in his current role at Baker Botts, representing clients in securing government authorization to export or re-export highly regulated products and technology to sensitive regions and countries, Cristian has witnessed notable changes with respect to diversity. “It’s more common and more acceptable now. There’s definitely been a growth of the Hispanic community and also a greater acceptance of foreign-trained attorneys from Central and South America. I don’t think nowadays if you’re foreign and have an accent people assume that you can’t do the job. I think it still exists among more prestigious law firms, but it’s going away.”
On the Horizon
Singer is optimistic about the future for Latino attorneys, thanks in part to the positive attitude he has cultivated as well as the changes he has seen in the professional landscape. “The legal profession is undergoing a change, a shift in consciousness. I think more and more people have adopted the notion that diversity is a good thing for us all,” he says, adding that he believes it is primarily driven by the recognition of the need to obtain a competitive advantage in a global economy. “I suspect that economics is really the driving force. Ultimately, we’re in a shrinking marketplace. It benefits any business to be able to draw on a diverse set of experiences. Partly having observed my mom’s experiences, but also just going through it myself, I can see that it’s changed in the last few years, even since I graduated in 2002.”
Martinez’ and Silva’s decisions to embrace rather than abandon their heritage, as well as their dedicated efforts to be active within the Hispanic community, have undoubtedly filtered down to the next generation. At the same time, the tides are slowly turning within the profession, thanks in part to attorneys like them who have fought for minority groups. With more positive role models, an ongoing emphasis on a global economy, and an increase in diversity awareness, the future looks promising. DB
Kara Mayer Robinson is a freelance writer based in northern New Jersey.
From the September/October 2008 issue of Diversity & The Bar®