Carmen M. Garcia, 59, grew up poor in Yonkers, N.Y., the first female of seven children. But she soared academically, graduating magna cum laude from St. Joseph’s University as the class valedictorian, using it as a springboard for a distinguished and hard-fought career as a judge and member of the Capital Health Board of Directors. She faced plenty of adversity along the way, including scoring poorly on standardized tests, limited financial resources, and discrimination based on her gender, ethnicity, and even age. But these barriers only served to stoke her fire. Here, she shares the story of her career, which she calls a “series of impossibles” with Real Woman and offers advice for women who may follow in her footsteps.
Why did your parents originally move here from Puerto Rico, and what was it like growing up?
My parents came to the United States for economic opportunity. They were both functionally illiterate factory workers with strong values and a tremendous work ethic. My parents had faith in God and stressed daily the importance of education. They were grounded in who they were and wanted their children to recognize the Puerto Rican culture’s amazing legacy of achievement. We grew up poor, but we were rich in
inspiration because of their example. They sacrificed so much to give us everything we needed. They also taught us the value of community service. I worked hard to make them proud by learning about my roots, helping others, and getting the best possible education.
Why is your mom such a huge inspiration to you?
She’s my own personal superhero. And she’s the person who taught me from infancy to believe in the impossible. My mother believed you took an obstacle and turned it on its head. Thanks to her, I figured out that when a door closes a window opens, and you have to be available for that opportunity.
How would you describe your judicial philosophy?
I was so honored to be appointed to the bench. I knew I would need to work very hard to learn everything about the judicial process, but I didn’t just want to be a judge who resolved cases. I wanted to be a compassionate judge who helped people stay out of the court system, too. All of my life experience made me into someone who had her thumb on the practical realities of life in the inner cities. I lived it, so I had a certain affinity and a solid foundation for understanding some of the core issues that folks might have coming into municipal court.
When you were first appointed to the bench, do you think you were treated differently because you were a Latina woman?
Back in 1988, I was the trifecta. I was the young (30 years old) Latina woman judge, a novelty in New Jersey at the time. A few people had a problem with that, and they were viciously vocal about their feelings at times. These naysayers tried to sour my early days on the bench. But it was their problem, not mine. I was OK with being different from the status quo. That was the essence of my life. I had already overcome so many obstacles, having lost my mom to pernicious breast cancer the year before my appointment to the bench, so there was really nothing that could shake my dogged determination. It helped to remind me of the seemingly insurmountable challenges endured by my mother when she first arrived in the U.S. I pledged to honor her memory every day. So, I dug my high heels in and persevered. I focused on striving for my personal best, while dispensing justice in an urban court. I sought out female mentors on and off the bench and got involved with community projects. My longevity [more than 16 years on the bench] tells the rest of the story.