My name is Winter L. Torres, and I am ecstatic to join the LSYWC team as its first staff member and Program Director.
My story is similar to many of your stories. I grew up an hour or so from the U.S.-Mexico border in Silver City, New Mexico, a copper mining community that remains plagued by rural poverty. I knew I had to get college paid for because my parents could not afford college tuition. I worked hard to graduate as Valedictorian at my predominantly Latino high school (where the dropout rate was significantly greater than fifty percent—250 classmates my sophomore year; only 92 graduates).
My hard work paid off, and I earned a full-ride academic scholarship to the University of New Mexico (UNM) in Albuquerque. Though I likely could have gone to a more prestigious college, knowing what I know now, I am not certain I could have withstood the culture shock involved in moving from a tiny, minority community to a huge, urban city, so UNM was the perfect choice for me. I became a student leader at UNM, serving in student government, delving into life at El Centro de La Raza (the Latino student center), and earning multiple prestigious awards, political internships, and scholarships. Crucially, my scholarship program connected me with important mentors and friends, many of whom I remain in contact with today. I became the first person in my family to graduate from college—Phi Beta Kappa with triple honors and a B.A. in Political Science (which I majored in because a college advisor told me that it would prepare me for law school).
During and after college, I worked in both politics and policy for several politicians, including former Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis, former U.S. House Democratic Whip David E. Bonior, and former NM Governor Bill Richardson. I returned to NM from Washington, D.C. shortly after the 9/11 attacks to dedicate myself to the law school admissions process. I first took the LSAT cold, but I did not do as well as I wanted. So, I enrolled in a preparation course and studied. That dedication eventually paid off, and I was admitted to Cornell Law School. I am extremely proud that Cornell Law School now has the Ivy League’s first ever Latino dean.
When I arrived in Ithaca, New York, I so was excited to attend a law school full of enlightened classmates. In retrospect, I recognize that the culture shock that I experienced may have been more difficult than the academics. Though my classmates were “book smart,” it seemed most hailed from families and communities with little or no exposure to poverty or discrimination. Nevertheless, I also quickly realized that these individuals become our nation’s leaders—its judges, CEOs, Congress members, managing partners, nonprofit and philanthropic leaders, corporate board members, etc.
One’s experiences create one’s frame of reference, and I strongly recommend that you keep that fact in mind as you forge forth in college, law school, and your professional career. Especially during this time of political divisiveness. It will help you understand where others are coming from. And it will help you remember why some classmates and colleagues may not be able to fully understand where you are coming from.
At Cornell, I served as the President of the Latin American Law Students’ Association and earned the highest grade in my favorite class—Professor Stephen Yale-Loehr’s asylum clinic. I graduated as the only person in my extended family to have any sort of doctoral degree.
Since law school, I have worked in various legal environments, including a federal clerkship with United States District Court Judge Robert C. Brack in Las Cruces, NM, with the regional law firm of Holland & Hart LLP in Denver, in both plaintiffs’ (small) and defense (mid-size) labor and employment firms, as an assistant counsel for a federal labor union, and for a non-profit that advocates for equity in schools. I recently started Torres Legal Solutions, whose mission is to help address the education crisis and close opportunity gaps by providing one-stop, wrap-around diversity and inclusion legal services to schools and employers.
History and the data show that disadvantaged communities must do everything possible to take charge of their own futures. If we are to the be leaders of a country already encountering rapid demographic shifts—essentially, to serve and represent our own communities—then we must develop our own programs and approaches to both complement and alter existing systems. I see my role in LSYWC as part of that effort. I also see it as carrying on my family’s tradition of advocating for equal opportunity, diversity, and inclusion, just as they did in struggle reflected the 1954 blacklisted movie, Salt of the Earth.
I am so excited to work with you. You can do this! We can do this!