First Latinx In Public Service Project


Jessica Perez, Staff Reporter

Professor and Chair of the Law and Justice Department Paul Knepper organized a discussion centered around a project in which students interviewed successful Latinx pioneers in public service. The term Latinx is used to refer to Latinos or Latinas, while remaining gender neutral. The discussion took place on Oct. 25 at the Museum of Culture and Environment.

According to David Morales, a speaker at the event and Latinx lawyer in Yakima, it was a two-year-long effort on Knepper’s part to get the event to happen. Knepper said the idea to host such an event arose back in the 1990s when he was a new professor in North Carolina teaching a class called “Racism and the Law.” Knepper said that the flaw of this class was that the class covered racism in the law, but not what to do about it.

“I realized I had failed my students because I couldn’t explain what we were going to do about this,” Knepper said.

He said because of this, he began talking to successful black people about how they broke through racial barriers in order to get to where they are. The project the students worked on for this presentation about Latinx in public service was just that, but with successful Latinx people.

Eleven students spoke at the discussion who said they had worked or are currently working on the project. Many of them hoped that the audience would take some motivation away from the discussion.

“I hope they take away motivation and courage to actually go out there and do something,” said Lesly Cruz a sophomore at CWU and student researcher for the project.

The majority of the successful Latinx people interviewed by these students were court justices who were the first Latinx people to hold a respected position in their district. Washington Supreme Court Justice Steven Gonzalez was one of the individuals interviewed. Sophomore Kiersten Kimminau was one of the student researchers who had the opportunity to interview him. While speaking with him, she was able to ask him if he had to overcome any setbacks or barriers in order to get to his position as a court justice.

“One of the setbacks he said he encountered was that voters in the polls said Gonzalez was too much of a Latino name; they weren’t looking at his merits,” Kimminau said.

A few of the other successful figures interviewed also had trouble with people taking them seriously because of their name sounding too Latinx or Hispanic. Amber Frodsham, a student researcher for the project, spoke with former mayor and councilwoman, Avina Gutierrez. Gutierrez mentioned she faced a similar problem when she was running for city council in Yakima.

“On her yard signs, she minimized her last name so people wouldn’t take notice,” Frodsham said.

Other student researchers spoke about the setbacks the people they interviewed faced as well. Many of the setbacks those people encountered were because of their backgrounds.Towards the end of the discussion, the student researchers were asked what lessons they took away from conducting this research, to which most of them replied that they learned they could do anything or that they are capable of many things. Junior Zackary Gonzalez said he was left inspired by the woman he interviewed, Maria Teresa.

“Maria Teresa gave me a lot of motivation and inspiration to keep doing what I am doing,” Gonzalez said.

Student researcher Samuel Gutierrez spoke on how members of the Latinx community sometimes find it difficult to place themselves, or view themselves as able to be successful and achieve things. So, when he was asked what he took away from this project he responded by saying it was an awakening.

“It was really an awakening,” Gutierrez said. “Until you see yourself represented in society it’s hard to place it.”

To close the discussion, Knepper said that for the future, he hoped the project would expand to twice as many interviews and that he hoped a course about Latinx people in law would develop in the law and justice department.