We had the good fortune of connecting with Monica Valencia and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Monica, how has your background shaped the person you are today?
I’m from Echo Park in Los Angeles, but my parents are immigrants from Mexico. I very much grew up in an immigrant household and community. My parents were undocumented and then later, we lived in a mixed-status family. My native language is Spanish. For most of my life, my parents were monolingual. I didn’t learn English until I was 1st and 2nd grade. From there, I had to attend “English-As-A-Second Language” (ESL) classes throughout elementary and middle school.
Because we lived in an immigrant community and navigated those same spaces, I realized very quickly at a young age the lack of access to vital services in vulnerable communities like ours. I also witnesses first-hand how my parents were treated because of their immigration status and because they didn’t speak English. Both of my parents were always so proud to be Mexican and gracious enough not let us see how this type of discriminatory treatment affected them.
They taught my brothers and I to work hard, focus, to never give up, to be kind and more importantly, to get an education. My father used to say, “Be better than me.” He only had a 3rd grade education and he felt he was limited to hard labor and he didn’t want that for us. My mother would lift our little faces after she was spat on and tell us that our skin color was beautiful.
It is because of these experiences and upbringing that I am a proud Latina lawyer fighting for immigrants and their rights – for their dignity and their humanity.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
I took a non-traditional route to where I am today. When I was 18, I enlisted in the military and spent the next six years of my life away from my family traveling between the U.S., Asia and Europe. My favorite duty station was Kunsan Air Base in South Korea. In six years, I became a non-commissioned officer (NCO) and reached the rank of E-5/Staff Sergeant. I graduated from the Pitsenbarger Leadership Academy in Spangdahlem, Germany and was able to lead, supervise, and train my own team of airmen and airwomen in various nuclear security tactical trainings, warfare and combat operations, as well as law enforcement scenarios. My military experience taught me that before I learn to lead, I must first learn how to follow. This truly has been one of the best lessons. Once I learned to lead, I did so with integrity, grit, and vulnerability. This experience has allowed me to tackle both my undergraduate and law school experience with focus and an indomitable spirit.
As an immigration attorney, I help adults and children who are seeking asylum. I specialize in removal defense and also assist unaccompanied minors apply for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS). The work is difficult because of the emotional and mental toll of listening to atrocious stories of persecution, femicide and violence. So many of our clients risk their lives to travel for thousands of miles to reach safety. In many ways, their stories are both unimaginable and remarkable. For me, helping immigrants and asylum seekers is about dignity – seeing them more than a number or a case – but as human beings. As a “rebellious lawyer,” it is my job to work in tandem with clients and to create a safe space for mutual learning and reciprocity.
Because I practice meditation and mindfulness, I have been able to intertwine these practices with my lawyering to help survivors of trauma in their asylum cases navigate their reactions, triggers, and emotions and responses as we prepare to present their case in immigration court. Likewise, it is equally important as a supervising attorney to be aware of my team and the impacts of vicarious trauma. As such, debriefing and grounding techniques are very helpful in this tough work.
My academic experience and professional career as a lawyer has not come without hurdles. One of the biggest challenges has been overcoming imposter syndrome because imposter syndrome is so real! Oftentimes, we can come into a situation like school or a job and feel like we don’t deserve to be there or that we don’t belong. Sometimes we do this to ourselves and it comes from our own belief systems, trauma responses and cultural upbringings — but other times it can also be exacerbated and caused by other people with privilege who can either intentionally or unintentionally make people feel like they don’t belong. In the nonprofit world, this type of policing and othering can be detrimental to a person’s sense of self and professional development. So, it is important for BIPOC to create spaces of belonging, continue to stand in their own power, use their voice, set boundaries and remove themselves from toxic environments – otherwise, this type of work is just not sustainable.
The best thing that has helped me through episodes of imposter syndrome and hostility in academic or professional settings is the practice of mindfulness and meditation. Grounding yourself and your spirit in the essence of being worthy and deserving can bring you back home to yourself and find belonging in yourself, first and foremost. I also really delved into therapy, podcasts, books, research and the works of Thich Nhat Hanh, Dr. Thema Bryant, bell hooks, Jay Shetty and Dr. Brené Brown.
As a law professor, I teach my students to lawyer with compassion, kindness, and dignity, but also to see themselves with agency, autonomy, courage and the power to change the world. As a Latina lawyer, I hope that my students see themselves in me and know that they too can reach every one of their goals and that we don’t have to wait for systems built on white supremacy to give us opportunities, but that we can build our own platforms of change.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
My favorite spots in the City are:
Echo Park – I love this park! You can hang out with friends, take in the L.A. skyline or even ride the swan pedal boat.
Lake Shrine – for meditation and mindfulness practice. They also offer teachings from Paramahansa Yogananda and areas for lakeside meditation, the practice of silence, or just walking through the gardens.
Toi on Sunset – My favorite Thai place to eat for lunch, happy hour or dinner. The vibe is vintage, eclectic and fun.
Yxta Cocina Mexicana – I love this take of Mexican food. The mole enchiladas are the best and the drinks are also on point.
Mercado “La Lorena” – I used to go here with my family when I was a kid on the weekends. We would indulge in Mexican treats and my parents would shop. Towards the end of the day, we would go to the third floor to listen to Mariachi at the restaurant.
Fiesta Cantina – My favorite happy hour spot in WeHo. The watermelon margaritas and chicken nachos are da bomb!!
Griffith Park – My childhood park growing up in Echo Park, Griffith Park was just down the street. You can hike here, have a picnic, there are even pony rides for those with little ones who are looking for something cool to do.
Runyon Canyon – Cool hiking with views of the city.
The Observatory – This is a beautiful L.A. staple.
Taco Trucks all over Downtown L.A. near the Staples Center and in Echo Park.
The Standard – For happy hour, evening drinks, and lounging.
Art Walk – I’ve seen some of the coolest art here. Plus, you can bar hop along the way.
The Last Bookstore – for books and open mic or even slam poetry.
Santa Monica Pier – I like going to SMP at night for the nostalgia of rides, attractions, winning stuffed animals and churros.
La Brea Tarpits – Just a cool place for adults and kids.
Urth Cafe (Santa Monica or Melrose) – Best coffee, lunch, brunch, smoothies and desserts.
E.P. & L.P. – Cute rooftop bar
Grand Central Market – So many restaurants and food choices. My favorite place is Villa Moreliana – they have the best carnitas tacos!
Bottega Louie – The lasagna is to die for.
Perch – You can also have cute drinks here at their rooftop bar.
The Grove – for good shopping and good eating.
Hollywood and Highland – for tourist stuff.
Tokyo Delves – For dinner and a show
Plazita Olvera – lots of Mexican eateries, mariachi on the weekends, and shops
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I have failed, stumbled, changed, evolved, learned, unlearned, re-learned and grown as a person in so many facets of my life. And in each facet, there have been people, catalysts and experiences that have shaped me in a meaningful, vulnerable, and honest way. I am grateful for your love and kindness. I am mindful and cognizant of each person and experience that has played a role in my evolution and success – so I dedicate this shoutout to: Phoenix, My family, Gordo, Alex, Jimmy, Donna, Uncle Joe, Meghan, Pete, Gaby G, Kai, Ned, Gaby M., Lizett, Dyvianne, Bethzy, Prof. Bill Hing, Prof. Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, Lorena, Aidin, Irma and my students.