Working to Bridge Two Distinctly Unequal Systems
Updated: Mar 2, 2022
CCIJ’s Executive Director, Bianca Sierra Wolff talks about her experiences growing up as a Latina woman in the United States, and the ongoing struggle lawyers of color face while working to transform an outdated legal system.
Interview Conducted by Danna Castro Galindo
At what age did you move to the US and what are your most memorable memories from the transition?
I was actually born in the US, my parents both came here pretty young from Mexico. I was born in Arizona but we moved to the Bay Area when I was pretty young and I guess my first memories are always pretty much tied with the culture: living in the Bay Area but being different. My first language was Spanish at home and everything came from Mexico. Those were definitely my very first memories, the fact that we were Mexican but not living in Mexico.
Growing up as a bilingual child, how was your relationship with your native and learned languages?
I’d say for up until I was in my twenties, I felt very comfortable in both languages, Spanish and English. Apparently I did speak English with an accent when I was little because some woman [the parent of a classmate] was like, “I remember you! You had the cutest little accent when you came to our school.” Which is really a little offensive…. I have always been fully fluent which really came in handy with my family, translating things or interpreting for them. I think, specifically in my first couple years at school, because English was my second language, people assumed that I was slow. I went to summer school and got put into remedial English groups. And I remember thinking, even then, “No, I think I know this. I think I can do this.” But sort of feeling like there wasn’t that much expected of me and, as I got older, and lost my accent people were surprised that I did really well in school. I guess I’ll just end by saying that I love being bilingual, it’s been a huge asset to me. I wish I spoke more languages!
What inspired you to pursue a career in law?
I didn’t know that I always wanted to be a lawyer but I always liked reading and history and I always loved my culture, being Mexican. I was an international relations major in college because I could learn about Mexican history and political science and that definitely geared me towards law school. But, the story I always tell about why I ultimately became an attorney and do the work that I do is because my family was working class, very humble. Because we were working class, when I went to private school, I was always the kid on financial assistance and work study. Most of my friends were not Latino and their parents were well to do. We bought a house that had some construction defects that we didn’t realize and my dad went to one of our friend’s successful businessmen and said, “I need an attorney to help me because we’re having this issue with our house.” And this man said, “Well, you can’t afford my attorney.” So the attorney that he sent us to was just horrible and we ended up losing our case. I’ll never forget that because, to me, the lesson was: If you have money, and if you have status, you have a different system that’s open to you. If you don’t have those things, then this is the system that you get. I think that’s ultimately why I’m so passionate about the work that I do because I see a system that has two different rules and it’s not right, it’s not fair.
What do you think made you stand out in your undergraduate and law applications?