Juanita was born in Mexico and migrated to the United States along with her parents when she was just a baby in the mid-1970s. Her parents, migrant farmworkers, settled permanently in Holland in 1984, and now 35 years later, she will be sworn in as the new 58th District Court Judge.
Bocanegra ran to take Judge Susan Jonas’s seat against District Court Magistrate Vern Helder, winning by 54% of the vote. Judge Jonas, 75, was ineligible to run for re-election due to Michigan’s age restrictions on judges.
“I grew up in Texas, and my parents worked on the fields in Florida and Michigan following the seasons. They thought that the best thing they could do for me was to give me a good education. So, they decided to stop migrating and settled in Holland so that I could be in one school for the entire school year.”
However, she kept working in the fields in Ottawa County, picking blueberries since she was in fifth grade. She remembers her father dropping her off at Kamphuis Blueberries early in the morning, so she can work all day, and then pick her up when it got dark.
Juanita, an only child, has supported and helped her parents with errands since she was a child, ranging from handling their finances to taking them to the doctor when they needed her—mainly translating for them. “I learned to speak and write English at school, but my parents do not speak or write the language,” she added.
Her parents wanted her to have a job where she could have air conditioning and not be at the mercy of the weather, as it happened to them. “I always dreamed of being a lawyer. My parents, since I was very young, always encouraged me to go to university. It was not an option for them that I become a migrant worker.”
Since she was a child, she knew that lawyers worked in offices, that they wore suits and, most importantly, that they supported other people; “That’s what I wanted to be,” she exclaimed. So she decided to be a lawyer and worked hard to follow her dream.
She graduated from West Ottawa High School, then Grand Valley State University, where she got a BA in International Relations. “I started studying international relations because my dream was to be a lawyer and travel the world representing big brands,” she mentioned.
“When I was in 9th grade in high school, I met my husband. We got married in my third year of college. Everything changed when I got married because we were already talking about having a family. I no longer wanted to travel; I wanted to be with my family.”
For this reason, immediately after university, she began working at a law firm in Holland in 1997. She started out as a secretary, then as a legal assistant, while at the same time working part-time as a Customer Service Representative in Fifth Third Bank.
When her two daughters were just two and four years old, she began attending Thomas M. Cooley Law School in the evenings and weekends. She got her law degree in 2008 and immediately went to work as a law clerk and later attorney at Rhoades McKee, a Grand Rapids Law Firm.
At Rhoades McKee, she practiced in the areas of business and corporate law, probate and estate planning, commercial and civil litigation and family law; and in 2011, she had the opportunity to move from the private practice to serve as an assistant prosecuting attorney with the Ottawa County Prosecutor’s Office.
For many years, Juanita has committed to giving back to her community by serving on numerous boards, including an appointment to the Hispanic Latino Commission of Michigan by Governor Snyder, the Community Foundation of the Holland/Zeeland area, Holland Hospital Board of Directors, and founding member of the Lakeshore Latinas, among others.
“For the last nine years, I’ve fully enjoyed my position as assistant prosecutor. I have grown as a person and as a professional. I have served my community and will continue to do so, only now as a judge,” she said.
Bocanegra is the first Latina to take up a judge’s gavel in the county. “I believe I can identify with many people of different economic levels and backgrounds. I will bring my life experience to bear and bring a different perspective to my community.”
In mid-December, Juanita Bocanegra will be sworn in and take the bench on Jan. 1. “I will work hard to be a fair and unbiased judge,” she concluded.
By Andrés Ospina | Photos by Isabel Media Studios
Haz clic para leer en Español: Juanita Bocanegra, Primer juez hispano del condado de Ottawa