María Blanco is executive director of the University of California Immigrant Legal Services Center. Before taking part in a Zócalo/The California Wellness Foundation event titled “What Can California Teach America About Immigrant Integration?” at Capitol Event Center in Sacramento, she spoke in the green room about what it was like to be a young female lawyer, her parents’ migrant stories, and what she misses about L.A.
What are you reading for pleasure?
I’m reading a book about the discovery of the Mayan ruins in Central America, about the guys who discovered Copal, in Guatemala. One was a draughtsman; he drew all the ruins. It’s kind of an amazing story. I just finished reading, which I thought was fabulous, Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel The Feast of the Goat, about Santo Domingo. And I read detective novels—that’s my candy! I read all the Michael Connelly books, I read all the [John] le Carré books. I just read his latest one.
What do you love most about living in Northern California?
Nature. The nature here is absolutely beautiful. I live in Berkeley and commute three times a week to Davis, to the university there. I love L.A., I lived in L.A. for four years and loved it. But then I came back because of family and friends. I never went to the beach in L.A. I lived on the Eastside. So although I know that there are beautiful parts of L.A., I never really did that in L.A. And in the Bay Area I really take advantage of that. I go to Point Reyes, I go to Napa, I go hiking. I really love the nature up here. But I love the Mexican feel of L.A., and I miss it desperately in the Bay Area. I love that it’s all around you. It’s not just the food, it’s who you talk to, you go here, you go there. I use Spanish all the time in L.A., and I really miss that in Northern California. So I go to L.A. a lot, for work but also just to soak it up.
Apart from your parents, who was the person who most influenced the direction of your work life?
When I started practicing law, after a couple years of a fellowship, I went to a law firm called Equal Rights Advocates in San Francisco that was all women attorneys, and were all doing big class action cases in federal court. And this was in the late ’80s. And there were very few women in federal court and very few women litigators. Even the public interest world was very male, these very assertive—is a nice way to put it—guys. The cause was great, but it was a very male environment. And so to be at this firm that was all women, and we were going up against employment law, and so on the other side were very big national firms, lawyers for big corporations, all men. And when you got there you got started right away, sort of on-the-job training. There was a lot of support but also you had to learn to do 20 things. So that gave me tremendous confidence at a very early stage. Because the team of women lawyers were very supportive of each other. There was zero fear, even though we were going up against huge law firms and companies.
How much harassment was there when you started out?
Well, it was a combination of harassment, but also probably more so condescension, sort of patronizing, being not taken seriously. That was really what we faced all the time.
How did you deal with it personally?
I think I learned early not to show weakness, even if I was being aggressively put down by opposing counsel in a deposition or in court or through discovery or on the phone. And it was very blatant. And part of it was, that’s just the way it is in litigation. And part of it was, there were older men, I was a young woman, and it was intimidation. So I learned not to show it, and then to talk about it afterward with my colleagues and share strategies for how to deal with it. I just got tough! It took a while.
And your parents?
They were a very big influence—politically, in terms of supporting us in our vocation, and what we did. So after that I went to Chicago and lived there for seven years and was very involved in grassroots organizing. And so there I met a lot of organizers. And that was very influential because it was very strategic, and that was before law school. So I learned a lot about strategy and how to assess a political environment, how to figure out who to partner with on issues. A lot of that sort of political strategy thinking I learned from a group of people.
We’re here today to talk about immigration, and most Americans have a family story about their immigrant ancestors. What do you know about yours?
I know a lot. I was born in Mexico City, and we moved here after I was born, but we went to Mexico every summer until I was about 16, and lived with my cousins. So we kept a very close connection to Mexico for a long time. So that was my story. On my parents’ side, my dad ended up in Mexico because his family were refugees from the Spanish Civil War. They were Basque; they left the Basque country, relocated for a couple years in France, and then when France fell to the Nazis they went to Mexico. And my mom, even though she considered herself Mexican and went to school in Mexico, her father was from Venezuela, and had been I think a trade unionist in Venezuela, and had had to leave under one of the dictatorships. So it’s a mix of economic immigration but also political immigration. And there’s no doubt that to some extent it really influenced my interest [in immigration and law]. A lot of the early sexual harassment and rape cases were women janitors. So that started very early, that interest of mine.