First child in her nuclear family to leave home.
First one in her extended family to go to college.
With both parents working demanding, physically taxing jobs and money tight, charged with “becoming an adult” by helping to care for her younger brother and sister while a high school student at age 15.
These tales of first generation children from immigrant families struggling to survive and hopefully thrive in the new world are as old as the idea of America itself, and its face in the offices of Boxer & Gerson over the past six weeks has been that of the now 19-year-old Maria Morales-Gallegos.
Having completed her freshman year at UC Davis in June, Morales-Gallegos returned to the family home in Oakland and became Boxer & Gerson’s ninth summer intern from Centro Legal de la Raza, the Oakland-based nonprofit whose Youth Law Academy (YLA) supports young people of color who show interest in a legal career and the academic excellence that the field requires.
As was the case with the academy’s previous eight interns, Boxer & Gerson Partner and Workers’ Compensation Specialist Maria Grasso took Morales-Gallegos under her wing. Grasso has crafted a program over the years that has interns shadow her regular activities as an attorney on one day and then help perform various clerical tasks for the larger firm on another day.
The experience was an eye-opener, Morales-Gallegos reports—and in the very best way.
Morales-Gallegos’s parents immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico seven years apart in the early ‘80s, married and had their three children in Oakland. Her father is a landscape contractor and her mother a custodian.
“They have been the biggest influence on me,” she says. “I saw how they struggled, how hard they worked, coming home tired, with dirty clothes at the end of the day. They always emphasized working hard to achieve your goals. They showed me what that is.”
It was something new every day, and I realized how many different kinds of people there are in the world, with different problems, and you have to be able to handle that as a lawyer.
Also someone whose legacy she draws on: her maternal grandmother (pictured below), who died before Morales-Gallegos’s high school graduation, but who “was a very important aspect of who I am as a person and why I decided to go to law school. I would always talk to her about my inspirations and goals and she was always there for me, wishing me the best in what I believe I could give to the world. She was an amazing role model for me!”
A 2018 graduate of Aspire Golden State Prep Academy in Oakland, Morales-Gallegos was looking in her junior year to do volunteer work connected in some way to the law when she came across Centro Legal de la Raza on Google.
“I clearly remember that they responded so fast saying I wasn’t able to volunteer because I was too young, but that they had this program called the Youth Law Academy. They sent me to their website and I was immediately aware that this program was for me.”
She applied shortly thereafter and was accepted.
“Politics was one of my big interests since I was 14. I had been keeping up with news on social media, had seen the struggles my parents were going through. YLA fit with that, and now I’ve learned so much with this internship, especially from Ms. Sager. It has been a great experience.”
Like many college students away from home for the first time, Morales-Gallegos did not find her early college days to be a breeze. “It was hard the first quarter especially, but I just kept working and adapted,” she says.
Now, her eyes are firmly set on a political science major and a minor in Chicano studies.
When asked if that will eventually result in a law school application and a career as as an attorney, she responds with an emphatic, “Yes!”
That goal was reinforced this summer when she witnessed first-hand the many different life circumstances of clients who came to Boxer & Gerson for legal help. “It was something new every day, and I realized how many different kinds of people there are in the world, with different problems, and you have to be able to handle that as a lawyer,” she says.
“So many people are struggling, but they’re afraid to go to a lawyer. It makes me want to help them, to make them feel comfortable. It’s not about the money. I want to help people, and make my community a better place.”