I made a pilgrimage to Compton last week in search of wisdom, to a little storefront with bars over the windows and a liquor-grocer next door.
Sonia Sotomayor, the Supreme Court nominee, set me off on this quest with her oft-repeated observation that "a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male . . . "
Southern California is home, arguably, to more wise Latinas than any other place in the United States. The only Latina in Obama's cabinet (Labor Secretary Hilda Solis) is from here. And I personally know dozens more, starting with my mother, my wife, my mother-in-law and assorted professors, activists and sharp-minded stay-at-home moms.
But Judge Sotomayor was referring, specifically, to the law. So I thought I should go find a smart Latina attorney and ask her if she thought that was true. Does American jurisprudence look different from a Latina woman's eyes, and if so, what does she see in the United States that a wise "white male" does not?
Until recently, Luz Herrera, 36, ran a solo law practice in Compton. She was born in Tijuana to Mexican parents and raised in heavily Latino neighborhoods of unincorporated West Whittier. But she'll be the first to tell you that her background alone didn't make her wise. Neither, she says, did Harvard Law School, from which she graduated in 1999.
"I learned to think like a lawyer there," she said of Harvard. "I learned how to be a lawyer here. That's what Compton gave me."
For much of the last seven years, Herrera was the only full-time, Spanish-speaking lawyer with an office in Compton, a community with more than 50,000 Latino residents. She was more than a lawyer, she said, to many of her clients, most of whom were working people who needed a bit of "hand holding" along with a legal brief or two.
What Sotomayor can bring to American justice, Herrera told me, is something that Herrera longs for every day: the understanding that the Latino experience is already "a part of the fabric of U.S. society" and that this truth should be reflected in our legal system.
I first read about Herrera in the Los Angeles Daily Journal in March. Columnist Martin Berg called a visit to her Compton offices "a little jolt of hope and inspiration" in the gloom of an economic crisis that's hit the legal community hard.
Herrera traveled from West Whittier to Stanford, and then from Stanford to Harvard to Compton, because she's a proud Latina. Her journey is one of those American stories that reminds us that American wisdom is, by definition, a book written by people of many different colors, faiths and outlooks.
"I went into law because I wanted to represent people from my community," said the daughter of immigrants, who graduated, as I did, from Pioneer High School in Whittier.
Hard work took Herrera to Harvard, where the grads, she said, think of their law degrees as "golden tickets." Herrera cashed in too, with a six-figure salary right out of law school. But during two years as a "corporate drone," she never entered a courtroom.
In law school she had discovered that the traditional path for Mexican American legal warriors -- civil-rights litigation -- wasn't her passion either. She wanted to do work that put her in touch with regular working people.
So in 2002 she set up a solo practice in the offices of a retiring attorney in Compton. Like Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Herrera hung up her shingle and took on the kinds of cases that typically are the bread and butter of small-town attorneys -- divorce and child custody, bankruptcy, probate and real-estate transactions.
"I was scared and I was learning as I went along," she said.You might think of Compton as part of the big city, but in the eyes of the legal community, it's in the boondocks, Herrera said. "People think that if you're working here, you must not be a good lawyer."
But legal wisdom came, she said, in the unglamorous unfolding of cases in the satellite courthouses of Compton and Long Beach. And also in the East Los Angeles Small Claims Court, federal Bankruptcy Court and too many other places to mention.
Many of her clients were people like her own immigrant parents -- entrepreneurial, with some money to pay for a lawyer, but distrustful of the law.
There were a lot of people, she said, who were "freaked out" by the legal process. Often they ignored the summonses and legal documents that arrived in their mailboxes, hoping that the problems would just go away.
In this place some of her fellow law-school graduates looked down on, she saved people's homes and rescued their businesses.
"I thought, 'This is what I was meant to do,' " she said. "It's been a coming home."
At first, she said, she was surprised by the "sheer number" of people calling her office. Eventually, she began to see a truth about working-class Southern California that a lot of other people in the legal community either don't see or prefer not to talk about.