This year, Raquel Marquez-Britsch has had some great Fridays, all of them well-deserved, since she's made history and been a role model for countless women in California -- especially Latinas, but also an inspiration for all women who are mothers, children of immigrants, and even women who want to work in jurisprudence and law. On Friday January 27, 2012, she became Riverside County Superior Court's first Latina judge, and received her robe at a ceremony in Riverside's historic County Courthouse. Her swearing-in ceremony was on a Friday in February, and she began working two court calendars the following Monday, because of a historic backlog in cases in the two-county area. Last Friday, she was awarded a YWCA Women of Achievement Award in Riverside. A busy year, for someone who has worked so hard her whole life.
As Marquez-Britsch said to me after she was sworn in, "In Riverside County, there are two million Latinos, one million Latina women. I'm a bracero's daughter. To be a judge here, in the Inland Empire, means everything." That day, the courtroom was filled with older Latina women whose faces gleamed with tears. And upon meeting her husband's parents, I recognized their accents right away. Swiss and Austrian. Raquel's husband is also first-generation Californian, as am I. That day, hearing her in-laws tell stories of Switzerland and cows, and hearing Raquel tell stories of her own parents' journeys from Mexico to California, was emblematic of the best of California as a place where people arrive in order for their children to make history and to pass that fierce determinism down to their own children -- in her case, three sons.
Jesus Marquez came to California from Zacatecas, Mexico in 1960, when he was sent to El Centro to work cotton fields as a bracero. The bracero program was begun to bring workers from Mexico during World War II, when a shortage of American men threatened the nation's harvests. But even after the soldiers came home, the program continued because cheap labor had become a staple of agriculture. The cotton harvest was the hardest work he ever did, he told his daughter Raquel. But he received a green card and went back home for Guadalupe, who was the eldest of 12 children and had worked in a fish factory, a chair factory, and a furniture factory.
They moved to Sacramento, where he worked in an uncle's restaurant, then in construction, and finally saved enough to open his own restaurant, called Lupita's. (It still exists.) They raised five children who remember washing dishes side by side for hours in the restaurant kitchen. This is the American story told by so many of us who are first-generation, from turn-of-the-century Brooklyn to last week in Lawndale.
That same year, Hans and Gretel (yes, they laugh about their names) Britsch emigrated from Brig, Switzerland, to America. He was born in Switzerland, and she fled Austria to Brig, where they met. The two couples were married the same year in California; their children, Raquel and Hans. Jr, met at Santa Clara University.
The second part of the classic first-generation success story always involves education, and for that, California was the epitome of achievement. "I was born here, but I spoke Spanish at home," Marquez-Britsch told me. "I went to Head Start. We got so much help. I was diagnosed with nearsightedness by a mobile health clinic, maybe the Kiwanis. We never had Christmas presents, because my parents were working so hard but there was no extra money. One year I got two dolls from a charity, and my mother told me I had to give one doll back to the church, for someone else. She was always about service. She still is."
Marquez-Britsch and her siblings all graduated from college -- UCLA, Stanford, Santa Clara, Harvard. The dream list for first-generation students. She went to UCLA Law School.
I loved seeing her with her husband and their three sons. Her in-laws run a landscape center in Vista, near where Marquez-Britsch's family lives in Valley Center. She runs the two court calendars at Southwest Justice Center; in the morning, she has the misdemeanor criminal calendar, and afternoons, a civil court calendar which is very full because it deals with matters pertaining to foreclosures, which are record in southern California. Those three sons -- Mexican-Swiss-Austrian American, and maybe most importantly, Southern Californian -- have big plans. Two want to go into law, but the youngest wants to raise cows in Vista on his grandparents' land. I love picturing him there, in the valleys where the hills are golden at the ends of summer, herding cows, maybe with the cowbell his Swiss-born grandfather brought when he came here, maybe holding a lunch packed for him by his Mexican-born grandparents, who made thousands of meals in their lives, so that their daughter could make history. After she finished washing the dishes, doing her homework, and dreaming of her future -- as do we all here.
Her new novel "Between Heaven and Here" was published September 12 by McSweeney's Books. Her novel "Highwire Moon" is about a California-born daughter searching for her Mexican-born mother. Doug McCulloh's photographs have been exhibited across the U.S. and in Mexico, Europe, and China. His fourth book "Dream Street" chronicles the builders, workers, and homebuyers of a subdivision in Southern California. Read more of their stories here.