Luis Rodriguez was sitting in the backseat of his father’s car in El Paso, Texas, when police pulled his father over and made fun of his broken English. Rodriguez felt humiliated and defenseless watching authorities discriminate against his family. But the incident motivated him to help minorities and people of color battle discrimination in the legal system, and the Alhambra High School alumni is now the first public defender and Latino to be president of the State Bar of California.
“As the first Latino, it’s a major compliment,” Rodriguez said. “Not only am I showing folks who have never seen a Latino in this type of leadership role that we have something to offer, but it’s also an opportunity to be an example to other people of color.”
Rodriguez, 46, was sworn in Saturday as the 89th president of the California Bar after running unopposed in July. He will oversee 240,000 attorneys, a long way from his humble beginnings in Mexico and Alhambra.
Born in Los Angeles in 1967, Rodriguez moved to Mexico at the age of two and spent most of his childhood in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, his parents’ birthplace. Rodriguez’s family returned to the United States for better economic opportunities in the late 1970s and moved to Alhambra, where family members had already settled.
Rodriguez enjoyed playing Little League in Alhambra Park and hanging out at Rick's Drive In & Out and The Hat after school. “Back then everything we did for fun was mostly within the neighborhood," Rodriguez said. "Playing baseball and football make up a lot of the memories I have of the city.”
The Emery Park Elementary School student went on to Alhambra High, where his passion for baseball grew into an aspiration to play professionally. But he also wanted to help with his family's financial struggles, so he started to develop a more realistic goal: college.
“Both of my parents were blue collar workers. They struggled financially like most middle to low-income families, and I wanted to help them out as much as I could," Rodriguez said. "The only option that I saw, because I was not that good of a baseball player, was to continue with my studies.”
The eldest of three whose parents had very little formal education, Rodriguez knew he wanted to attend college but had no idea how to get there. He soon caught the attention of one of his high school teachers, Michael Gonzales, who mentored Latino students in an organization called the Hispanic Academic League. With his teacher's help, Rodriguez applied and was accepted to Santa Clara University.
Rodriguez graduated from Alhambra High in 1985 and was the first in his family to go to college. “Being the first one [to attend college] was hard because I had no example and no role model to guide me on what I needed to do,” Rodriguez said.
During his second year at Santa Clara University, Rodriguez decided he wanted to study law, hoping to one day help others who would not be able to legally defend themselves. He graduated college and continued to Santa Clara Law School, taking a part-time job at the Santa Clara County Public Defender's Office to help with expenses.
“One of the reasons I decided to go to law school was to fight for the underdog,” Rodriguez said. “I was able to relate to the background people were coming from, whether they were white, black, Latino, or Asian…I felt a certain connection to these people and that was the beginning of my interest in becoming a public defender.”
After serving as a L.A. County public defender for 18 years, Rodriguez decided to run for head of the State Bar of California because he believed he could help improve the profession. Rodriguez’s priorities as president include advocating for court funding, studying solutions for student loan debt, and decreasing fraud anticipated with immigration reform.
Rodriguez, who now resides in Highland Park with his wife and two daughters, also wants to help eliminate the stereotypes that once plagued his family in that car many years ago.
“I want to go out there and meet with different groups and educate them about the State Bar and the profession," Rodriguez said, "but also so they can see a Latino being active and being representative in a positive fashion."
Main image courtesy of Peninsula Press.