MHBA Orgullo: Celebrating Lolita Ulloa

It is with immense pride that we share our interview with our dearest member Lolita Ulloa, as the deputy, Hennepin County Attorney. Lolita Ulloa is someone the MHBA recognizes for her exceptional leadership, advocacy for women rights and her passion for public service. Lolita served as the managing attorney for the Victim Services Division of the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office. She was promoted to deputy, Hennepin County Attorney.

How did your early life shape your decision to pursue law?

That’s a good question, because it all has to do with the way I was brought up. My father came from my country – I’m a first generation [American], here from Ecuador – and my father came to the United States as a political refugee because at the time, he was working for the government in a high position, and as there was many times, there was a junta, and he had to leave Ecuador. He tried to get into Venezuela, at the same time Venezuela had a junta and wasn’t allowing anyone in. Back then, immigrating into the United States was very easy. If you had someone established in the United States who could vouch for you, and you had a job waiting, you can get into the United States, and that’s how my father came. He went to New York, he had friends there, and he had two jobs, three jobs eventually in New York. He left me and my mother, who was pregnant with me, and my two older sisters in Ecuador. This was an immigrant’s typical way for getting into the United States that time. When my father was here, he worked a lot on Hispanic issues. Once he moved to the western part of the state, my father had an accident and he became a quadriplegic, very early on in his life, and became an advocate not only for the Hispanics – which in that part of the state were predominantly Puerto Rican and Dominicans – but also an advocate for the disabled nationally. He would protest in the rain on [issues of] affordable housing, and he would take us. We would be with him, pushing his wheelchair through the streets, He was very vocal, and was an advocate for everything that was Hispanic issues at that time. He eventually became the director of a Social Service agency and received a masters and two PHD’s – ultimately, he always wanted to be with the people. That was my first foray; my eyes were opened, that the only way for me to live my life in a way that I thought was genuine was public service. The most effective way at that time – there were not a lot of Hispanic Latinos- one of the things I thought of is how I do I rise myself up to a prestigious position where I have some authority and have a reputable background so there was no question as to my competence anywhere that I went. 

Thank you so much for sharing that, which brings me to our next question: it sounds like public service has always been an important element as to why you chose law, can you tell us what public service means to you and what It means to be a public servant?

I think different things at different times. When you’re starting out, for me, one of the [first] thing’s was obviously getting a job. Many of us, especially at that time, people of color did not have the resources to rely on family for financial establishment, and I knew I needed a job that would pay money and would not require me to rely on my family. Not because they didn’t want to, but because they didn’t have the wherewithal to be able to do that. When I was looking at what the law meant to me, I knew at nine years old that I was going to go into law, and I knew at nine and half that it would be some kind of public service, because that’s sort of how I was built and where I came from. When I became a public servant, it was sort of right at the beginning, it was legal aid and it was very kind of clinical, and almost robotic like. I knew I had to get in there and I did things like social security, and housing, and tenant law. I also did some immigration and I helped with tax. . . I mean, there were just a combination of things. At that time, I think when we all start out, we all just want to do a good job, point by point, case by case. You don’t really have a vision of the overall impact of what we do. I was really good at being scrappy, which meant I could do a lot of work in situations or environments where I think most people would not enjoy. We usually had a big conference table with seven attorneys, working right off the table. You didn’t have a lot of paraprofessionals, and we sort of had to do our own work. Because we grew up, most of us grew up in very poor environments, we were used with making do with certain things, so we didn’t expect a lot. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but for me, it worked out really well. When I went into public service, I knew it was all I wanted to do, then I moved to Minnesota, I worked for Centro Legal under a fantastic woman, Luz Maria Frias, and she and I both sort of had the same vision of our work. We grew up sort of the same way, and I knew that I was established in my public service. When I moved to Minnesota, the only people of my heritage that I saw here – this was 30 years ago- were people that were waiting on tables, and it was a thing where I would go into a restaurant and I mean, I’m not that kind of a person, but there were people that would look at me and I just thought, that’s such a difference from growing up in the Boston area, where It wasn’t like that. I knew that when I was here, I had opportunities not only for myself to develop in my profession, but I knew that I had opportunities to have some influence on what was happening with our community, and other communities of color, because there wasn’t a lot of Latinos. We start the Hispanic Bar Association, Luz Maria was the president, I was the treasurer, Dan Moreno was the Secretary, Guerrero, who now has his own firm, he was the vice president. There were nine of us. That’s how we started the Hispanic Bar association. 

I had opportunities not only for myself to develop in my profession, but I knew that I had opportunities to have some influence on what was happening with our community, and other communities of color

Can you tell us a little bit about the legal profession back then when you first started the association, and how it compares to now for Latinos?

Well, there were a lot of opportunities. Fortunately, Minnesota in the metro area had smart Latino lawyers like Guerrero, Luz Maria Frias, Dan Moreno, Juan Hoyos who was one of my clerks. There were a lot of opportunities for us because there were so few of us, and what I would say is that Minnesota was very receptive and very open to, at least for me and I can say that just generally, to having our influence and our involvement in many different areas. They were hungry for information and education about what the Latino experience was. That was not necessarily true on the east coast, which was already saturated with Latinos. Here, it wasn’t that, and so I found that most of us found, that we were able to maneuver our way fairly quickly because of the reception that we got here in Minnesota for Hispanic issues. I would say, its kind of interesting because Luz Maria Frias has moved her ways through many different venues and has done work at a very high level. She and I would talk about the same things, and how we were going to manage certain areas. Early on, she and I had the Hispanic Bar Association, which like I said was nine people, we threatened to sue Hennepin County because the interpreter that they had in the county, who had been here a very long time, had been soliciting bribes from some of the people she was translating for. We knew about it because we were hearing this from our clients, so we walked into Mark Thompson’s office, who was in Dakota county at the time, we walked in and said the Hispanic Bar association is interested in this issue regarding the interpreter who was soliciting many and also advising domestic abuse victims to return to their abusers. Fortunately, Mark Thompson did an investigation, and they eventually terminated the individual, which was the correct thing to do, but we went in guns blazing. I don’t really know what we would have done if we did a lawsuit and on which basis, but these were the kinds of things that we were able to impact because we had the strength of the nine Hispanic bar members to do the things that were right. My public service trajectory has been about taking an issue and hopefully influencing some of the process and policies that happen, especially here in Hennepin, because we have such a Huge Latino community here.

You had mentioned the domestic Service Abuse Center. You had the distinction of pioneering the Hennepin County domestic service abuse center, which was the first of its kind at the time. Could you tell us a little bit more about the project and what inspired the concept?

I was working at Centro legal, heading the domestic violence unit for Centro legal, and there was an invitation from Mike Freeman during his first stint at the county to come to a meeting to talk about a service center that would be centrally located, and that would provide services to victims of domestic violence. At that time, that was the focus, so that victims of domestic violence, at least in Hennepin County, didn’t have to go to seventeen different places to get services. It was spearheaded by Mike [Freeman], but it was developed by three women in our office, and they took on this project. Mike invited not only criminal justice professionals, but also non-profits to come to this meeting, and so I said to Luz Maria when she said “why don’t you go represent Centro”, I said “that’s never going to happen. It’s a government office, and people in our community will not trust the government to provide that kind of service”. We had issues around undocumented, poverty, cultural differences in the ways we look at relationships, child protection was always an issue at that time. So, I go, and six months later I apply for the director position. I did go and I did believe in the mission of the center. It wasn’t fully developed, which I also liked, because that gives you some flexibility to really evaluate how you want to get things done. Mike, and at that time chief judge Kevin Burke, gave me a lot of leeway in how the center was going to be developed.

 It did become a national model within three years. I started, at that time, President George Bush put federal money into a national model for these kinds of centers, and there were at least eleven starting off, and I went out and did a lot of training around the center and what it would look like. Now, every state probably has it, but it’s a different variation of what we have in the Service Center. Some are very geared towards prosecution, some are geared towards social services, some are government offices, some are nonprofits, others a combination. I always thought our model was the best because it focused on advocacy first, and it was supported by a government office, so we had the weight and the finances supporting the office. We didn’t run into the issue nonprofits at times run into of funding. We had the weight of the office to support us and, to this day, I think it should be a lawyer running the center or someone who is as capable in terms of their knowledge of their law, and we do have that in the county. It has to be someone who has a strong connection to the law, because so much of it has to do with the law. That’s how I ended up in the county attorney’s office. I did not want to go the meeting, and six months later I apply for the position. You never really know what’s going to happen. I never thought I would work for a prosecutor’s office, ever.

…after Mr. Floyds murder and being in this office, I realize that I had a lot of areas that had not been tapped into, and that I had a higher obligation…

As civil deputy for Hennepin County, what were some of your greatest lessons and challenges?

That’s a really good question. If you had asked me this question three years ago, before Mr. Floyds murder, probably would have answered it differently. I think that over the course of my thirty-two years as a lawyer, I really prided myself in being a really good public servant. And I believe that I was, but up until three years ago I actually didn’t know what that meant. I, as many of us, I was required to pull something more out of myself as a professional and personally. So when I thought I was good as a public servant, that I had reached the pinnacle of all the things you want to be as a professional, after Mr. Floyds murder and being in this office, I realize that I had a lot of areas that had not been tapped into, and that I had a higher obligation, that I had not done everything that I could have as a public servant, and that there is more that I would do. And so, that realization was both a good thing and a bad thing. I thought I was good with my professional, that my legacy and my trajectory in life was solid, but what I realized is that I had the opportunity and the wherewithal to give more to the community and to this office. It was such a volatile time of reckoning for everybody, and everything, you end up questioning a lot of things that you had over the course of your life known, or been exposed to, but it was full frontal attack on all of those things. You either rose to the occasion, or you got crushed by it. I think that for me, I was given the opportunity to give more than I ever had and be really a true public servant in every sense of the word. I think that, if you would have asked me three years ago, the answer would have been different. This answer is – the fact that I was able to do that and help the office during this horrible time and were not through it- that’s the true essence of being a public servant.

What would you like latinx law students and the MHBA to know about service in the legal profession, particularly here in Minnesota?

First, I’m so proud of the group of students and lawyers that I’m seeing. I just can’t be prouder. There’s such a combination of intelligence and coolness and social justice in everything they do. Whether it’s having a look at our environment, or what they expect from their employers, which is a huge deal. I couldn’t be prouder. What I see is the professional group of Latinos here is at such a high level, that that is what I’m the proudest of. In saying that, I would say, always to anybody, never stray too far from your roots. You really do have to rely on all the things that we grew up, in our community and in our families, the traditional ways of looking at things, the relationships and our family makeup of how our community looks at certain things. I mean, think of undocumented status, a priority area. We all have family members that have come to the United States in an Undocumented statutes. You can’t get closer to that. Stay true to the issues while still promoting yourself in the legal profession. So, for me, one of the things that I absolutely love is that I’m watching a lot of Latinos go into private practice, working with firms. Those are areas that predominantly don’t have the exposure that we have in a prosecutor’s office, or some nonprofit agency. If you’re going to influence the legal profession on every level, we also have to support are our Latino lawyers and law students who want to be going into private practice and working with firms, because we’re going to explore, we’re going to push, we’re going to meld a lot of what we do in those areas. This is a great opportunity to do it. I have never seen such a brilliant group of law students and lawyers, and we have a bunch of them in our office and I couldn’t be happier. So, I would say, stay true to yourself and stay true to your culture. Not always easy to do, but if you do it, you will never feel lost. That’s what I think keeps me connected to what I’m doing and to the community. 

Stay true to yourself and stay true to your culture. Not always easy to do, but if you do it, you will never feel lost.

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