AuthorHernandez-Truyol, Berta Esperanza


Like all Stoneman award recipients, I am grateful to Kate Stoneman for paving the way to an awakened life in which seeking justice is a non-negotiable aspiration. I will explain the title of this Essay--Kate Stoneman, an Awakened Woman--in the next section. But before engaging Stoneman's exceptional life and contributions, I take the liberty to utilize this humbling and exciting opportunity to acknowledge several special Albany Law School ("ALS") connections as well as share some personal experiences that have shaped my life and academic pursuits.

It is with deep appreciation that first I thank Dean Alicia Ouellette and Professor Mary Lynch for inviting me to deliver the Stoneman keynote. It is also important to acknowledge other significant ALS influences in my law and life journey. At the top of the list is Professor Michael Hutter who commenced teaching at ALS my 2L year. During my years attending law school, beyond required courses, rather than enrolling in classes based on subject matter, I enrolled in courses based on teachers; I sought out those who were challenging and interesting. Professor Hutter was one I followed; I took every course he taught. I would be remiss if I don't note that he is the only professor with whom I studied who is still on the faculty. Thank you, Professor Hutter, for being an inspiration and a role model.

Of course, there are many others. Professor Katheryn Katz, an ALS alumna herself, started teaching my 1L year and taught Contracts to my section. An unforgettable image of Professor Katz is from the day after the ERA was defeated. She walked into the classroom wearing a black armband and demanded a moment of silence. Professor Sandra Stevenson exuded a passion for and knowledge about the environment that was way ahead of the times. Professor Bernie Harvith had a "no pass" policy, and if he called on someone who was unprepared he would simply require that we think through the problem--providing the facts and asking what the proper outcome would be by applying the law. John Sands' teaching of constitutional law was life changing. But I do not want my gratitude to be limited to life in the memory lane. In that vein, I acknowledge Anthony Farley, a friend whom I've known for many years; I am so very proud that he is now engaging in his critical work at my alma mater!

I want to thank my family--Vivian, Nikolai, Nadal, and Natalia--and my dear friend Eva Egensteiner for being here to share this honor. I am very grateful for their presence and support at this momentous occasion. Let me elaborate on that.

My Stoneman journey started when, in September 2021, I received a letter from Dean Ouellette and Professor Lynch inviting me to deliver the keynote at the yearly Kate Stoneman Day celebration designed to honor powerful women "who have demonstrated a commitment to seeking change and expanding opportunities for women in law." (1) The letter listed various "trailblazers" who had received this award: Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Judge Constance Baker Motley, Chief Judge Judith Kaye. Being in the company of these sheroes was as much an immense honor as it was hugely daunting.

To center, I paused and listened to Tara Brach, psychologist and Buddhist teacher and scholar who blends Eastern and Western philosophies. (2) She has reflected that:

As long as you are alive, you will feel fear. It is an intrinsic part of your world, as natural as a bitter cold winter day or the winds that rip branches off trees. If you resist it or push it aside, you miss a powerful opportunity for healing and freedom. (3) I told myself: "you know how to do this." Heeding Tara's counsel, I faced my fears and took the Stoneman keynote invitation as an opportunity for awakening. Before focusing on the very awakened Kate Stoneman, I will share some significant personal life experiences that comprise my own awakening journey, some of which took place within these very walls.

The first flashback that came to mind was my ALS graduation. When Acting Dean John ("Jack") Welsh announced that I was graduating with honors, the faculty member handing out the diplomas not only dropped his jaw; he dropped my diploma! Why, I will never really know. But I suspect it was my first-semester recitation in criminal law. You see, back when I was a 1L, this particular professor called on the men as Mr. So-and-So; the women, on the other hand, were simply So-and-So. In fact, this criminal law professor was the only professor for our section who required that we stand up to recite cases and respond to questions. When I heard "Hernandez," I stood up and responded to the questions. However, although respectful, I did not respond to the Professor's questions in the traditional way. Nontraditional it may have been, but I never got called on in the class again--and back then the course was year-long!

Thinking back to the experience of the dropping of my diploma, I realize I should not have been fully surprised as throughout life I had experienced other comparable incidents. One was in high school when, at the insistence of Mr. Wedge, my headmaster in Puerto Rico, I applied for early admission to Cornell only to receive a nicely written letter informing me that early admission was only for boys. Another eye-opening event occurred at Cornell as, notwithstanding the early admissions rebuke, I chose to attend the university (again at Mr. Wedge's strong insistence). In my senior year, I sought out a career counselor to receive guidance on applying to law school, only to be told that I did not really want to go to law school; that I should instead become a teacher and return home to "help my people." Honestly, I had no idea then about what he meant. Ironically, the counselor was right--I am a teacher. Although, somehow, I can't imagine that my being a law professor is what he had in mind.

In my own awakening journey, I have learned that being oblivious helps sometimes. Having failed to receive any of the information I was seeking from the career counselor, I remained undaunted. Rather than retreat, I simply marched to the law school admissions office to see if I could obtain whatever materials I needed to apply to law schools. Surprises continued to emerge. Rather than provide the information I sought, the dean of admissions lamented: why hadn't I come earlier? He had just accepted a "Black girl from Duke." I was clueless then; Kate Stoneman would have understood right away.

These inharmonious encounters were not limited exclusively to the academic setting. I distinctly recall an instance when I was being recruited by a firm in Washington D.C. The last scheduled interview was with the main partner in the hiring group, who also happened to be the lead partner in the practice group for which I was being recruited. After the customary perfunctory greeting, the partner turned to me and inquired, really demanded--one does not forget these things--"Little lady, do you think you would be comfortable in a room full of foul-mouthed, cigar-smoking labor organizers?" By now not as clueless as I had been during my education, I knew there was no way I would want to work at that firm, much less with such a leader. So I responded, "Well, my grandfather was a cigar-smoking, non-foul-mouthed labor organizer in Cuba, and I was fine with him."

By the conclusion of my visit to the firm, I knew the environment was not right for me (or others). I parted as quickly as I could politely exit and immediately called my parents. In that pre-cell phone era, mami y papi would get on extensions so we could all chat. Mom was a lawyer in Cuba and could not fathom the partner's query. My dad, on the other hand, fully understood, although his response was rather amusing. He simply said, "Why didn't you tell him you are not a lady, you are a lawyer?"

Although the events I have recounted might appear harsh and unsettling, they are not upsetting memories. When I lived those stories, when those life experiences occurred, they were simply statements about the status quo--the way things were. Because I did not question the status quo. I was asleep. Only when one undertakes questioning the status quo does one embark on a life that entails a process of awakenings. It is certainly an intentional (and challenging) path that Kate Stoneman chose.

In retrospect, these experiences that I can now label unsettling were moments that provided nudges for my awakenings. They made me the person I am today: always thinking of and searching for how things should be, for justice. Soy Yo! I'm me. Just like Kate Stoneman was herself: teacher, lawyer, suffragette, what today we would designate a social justice warrior.

There are other Soy Yo--who I am--stories defining circumstances and experiences in my life. I was born in Cuba. My mami went to Havana to study because it was home to Cuba's only university at the time. There, at seventeen, she met my papi, a poor and brilliant kid from the inner city. An unlikely pair whose love lasted on this earthly plane for seventy-three years until my dad passed at ninety, in 2017. Castro's arrival led my family to leave the island, a first major transition in my life.

I learned English in Miami. We then moved to Puerto Rico, where I lived through high school. I went off to college at the same time my parents and younger brother moved to Europe. When I arrived in college, I had no idea that I was different--an "other"--because I am Latina; Latinidad was all I had ever known. While in college, I appreciated just how different I was--viewed through the normative lens--when I realized I liked girls; perhaps a non-issue in today's world (at least for most people) but a huge deal when I was in college.

After college, I worked for a year and then attended ALS where I was one of thirty-two women, one of eight students of color, and one of two Latines out of 280 students in my class. After graduation, I worked at the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington...

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