A Q&A with Judge Nelson A. Diaz

This week in North Philly Notes, an interview with Nelson A. Diaz, about his inspiring new autobiography, Not from Here, Not from There.

You came to America as a child—literally—in your mother’s belly. Can you discuss the experience of being part of the wave of Puerto Rican immigrants post-World War II?
During the 1940’s and 1950’s, many Puerto Ricans came to New York in search of greater job opportunities because the economic hardships confronting Puerto Rico after WWII. My mother came to New York to provide a better life for me. She was a woman who was ahead of her time because she was a working mom at a time when most mothers stayed at home with their children. She did not have a choice. She worked as a seamstress in a factory to make ends meet. Although I grew up in very humble circumstances, my mother always provided the example of love, hard work, and faith. The Marine Tiger where she landed was a famous ship used in WWII for transport of soldiers and many came to the shores of NY the same way having American citizenship since 1917. Public Policy in the availability of Public Housing made a major difference in our lives.

You grew up in Harlem and had some hardscrabble experiences. What was that period of your life like?  You talk about being in fear at age 15. What helped you get through that time and not just survive, but thrive?
Growing up in poverty does not give you many options. Violence, gangs, and drugs are all around. I had a lot of problems in school much of which stemmed from my inability to speak and read in both English and Spanish. Trying to live in two different worlds – Puerto Rican culture and American culture – was difficult. I was not doing well in school and was always struggling to get better grades. At the age of 15, I went from being a D student to an A student in one year through the saving grace of the church.

Through faith, I felt hope. Hope for my future, an expectation that better things lied ahead and a strong desire to work hard for it. Through faith, I no longer felt unworthy and I knew that I could achieve greater things, not only for myself but also for others. The intervention of people in my life made a difference.

Not From Here_smYou faced considerable discrimination in Philadelphia (e.g., passing the bar). Was there a particular experience that made you learn and grow?
Growing up as a poor Puerto Rican kid from Harlem, I always had to overcome the barriers of stereotypical attitudes: a school counselor who believes that you are not college material, or institutional or systemic bias in law schools and government, or law firms and corporate boards that lack diversity even though there are highly qualified people of color. That is why civil and human rights are important issues that I have spent my life fighting for. I have spent a lifetime breaking barriers so others can walk through the doors—whether it was becoming a founding member of Black Law Students Association and the Federation of Puerto Rican Students because I understood the power of coalitions of interest; or becoming a community activist to protest the lack of diversity and open up law school doors for others; or promoting economic development in the Latino community; or becoming the first Puerto Rican White House Fellow, where I worked for Vice President Mondale and was able to promote Latino diversity in the political arena and influence public policy both domestically and internationally; or becoming the first Latino judge in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania; or becoming the first minority administrative judge and presiding over court reforms that brought seven years of backlogged cases to the present and saved the courts millions of dollars; or fighting for the human rights of Soviet Jews; or becoming the first American judge to sit on a Japanese Court; or fighting against segregation in housing nationwide; or promoting the inclusion and promotion of minority and women lawyers in the profession; or fighting for diversity on corporate boards. I may have been the first, but I did not want to be the last!

The history of anyone but Caucasian who had passed the Pennsylvania Bar demonstrates that until the Liacouras Bar Committee found discrimination in the Bar exam the Commonwealth of PA since its founding, the bar had only admitted 67 African Americas and no Latinos before 1969 when I entered Law School. It was apparent that it was impossible to believe that I might get admitted and the city was so segregated by neighborhoods with continuous racial conflict between neighborhood boundaries.

Eventually, your career took off with appointments as the General Counsel at HUD, and as a city solicitor who helped with immigration issues. Can you describe your experiences?
The White House Fellows program gave me an education on the world and lifted my profile in my professional life.  The Judicial appointment and election also changed the public perspective of me. Both of these appointments, including the Administrative Judge title, were avenues of increasing diversity in the workplace. Although I was flattered to have been asked to by Henry Cisneros, who is a trailblazer and friend, to become his General Counsel at HUD, I did not want to go to Washington, DC. Henry was persistent and I eventually agreed. By breaking another barrier—becoming the first minority General Counsel—I was determined to increase the numbers of minority and women lawyers hired, retained and promoted because of the shocking lack of diversity among the government attorneys. I have always felt that the inclusion of minorities and women is an important step to changing systemic bias that exists in most institutions. As Latinos, we need to select our own leaders and continue to help each other climb the ladder of success.

Your book’s title is curious, it suggests a lack of belonging. Can you discuss that?
The title of my book, “I am not from here and I am not from there/No soy de aqui, ni de alla,” is about being a Puerto Rican born and raised in New York. We are not accepted here because of stereotypes and prejudice and yet not accepted as Puerto Rican from the Islanders because we were born in the States. It begs the question so where do we belong? That is a difficult barrier to overcome. You continue striving for excellence, inclusion, and moving the agenda forward so there is equality for all. There are many examples of rejection on both sides of the Atlantic both professionally and community where Puerto Ricans resided.

My parents lived most of their lives in Puerto Rico while I lived all of my life in the United States. I visited regularly since the age of 10 was educated in the issues of both countries, despite my professional capacity and assistance was there rarely an opinion they sought or cared particularly as you can see from the major Hurricane Maria. When they used my help it was limited to educate their officials and not my expertise which normally was ignored. That never gave me pause to keep trying wherever possible.

Do you think you achieved the American Dream?
Latinos positively contribute to the wellbeing of this great country. My story demonstrates some of the many ways, Latinos contribute to America. I hope that this book is seen in a bigger context than just my story. In the backdrop of the negative and racist attitudes about Latinos being only “criminals and rapists” my story is one of many, Latinos who work hard every day to put food on the table, house their families as best as they can and educate their children to have equal opportunities for the future. Isn’t that what everyone wants – the American Dream? History has eliminated most of our contribution and we fail to tell the story of how we have made America better.  My book will hopefully inspire young people to strive for a better life.

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