Xiomara Torres doesn’t recall much about the night in 1980 when she was 9 and crossed a river between Mexico and the United States.
Though they had walked for hours through the wilderness that night, no one spoke much -- not her mother, her three young siblings or the paid “coyote” who led them to their new lives in America.
“I remember the amazing city lights you see,” Torres said, describing the horizon in California. “It was beautiful.”
Torres has held onto that image of hope and possibility to rise from illegal immigrant to one of the state’s newest judges. She brings a diversity to the bench not often seen in Oregon or across the nation – as a Latina but also as a child abuse victim and product of the foster care system.
Torres, 46, who was born in El Salvador, represents an effort to change the largely homogenous face of the state’s judiciary. A survey last year of Oregon’s nearly 200 state judges found that 93 percent of those who responded where white. Just 2 percent were Latino, far below Oregon’s 13 percent Hispanic population.
But Torres also offers a personal tale of overcoming adversity through hard work and education. She put herself through the University of California, Berkeley and later Lewis & Clark Law School with a combination of scholarships, grants, loans and jobs.
Her circumstances embody the American ethos at a time when the nation is immersed in a heated debate over who should be allowed to step foot over the country’s borders.
Torres wants to be clear that she’s not offering any personal opinions about federal immigration policy. But she said she’s open about her past because she wants people who may be struggling in a new country or with family turmoil to know that they can succeed.
“To me, the message to immigrant children and to any immigrant is that you can make the U.S. a better place and you can contribute,” she said. “I want immigrant kids, foster kids, to know that they can go to law school. They can become attorneys. They can become judges.”
U.S. District Judge Anna Brown mentored Torres as a law student 15 years ago and has stayed in contact since.
“I think it is in character for Judge Torres to share her story so that others will know that tough circumstances do not have to defeat them,” she said.
Gov. Kate Brown, who appointed Torres in spring as a family law judge in Multnomah County Circuit Court, called her smart, funny, fair and fearless.
“She is exactly the judge I would want to appear before, as a lawyer or as a party,” the governor said.
If Torres had remained in war-torn El Salvador, she believes her life would have turned out much differently.
“I’ve had so many opportunities here,” she said.
She has many happy memories of her home country, now a nation of about 6 million people, sandwiched between Guatemala and Honduras on the rugged Pacific Coast, 3,500 miles south of Oregon.
She swam in the river near her home where women would gather to wash the household laundry. She watched bullfights in the town plaza. She rode around on a motorcycle with one of her uncles, beginning when she was just a baby in his arms. Torres laughs at how times were different then and adults had different ideas about safety.
Her father had a good job translating telegrams for the government. But in the late 1970s, as the country teetered on the brink of civil war, her father tipped off guerillas to government plans to kill them, Torres said. Her father sought and received legal asylum in the U.S., and he fled immediately.
Her mother followed in 1980, bringing Torres, her older sister and brother and younger sister -- ages 5 to 13 – to escape what turned out to be a 12-year war that killed more than 75,000, including many civilians and children.
To reunite the family, her mother and siblings entered the U.S. without permission, Torres said. They traveled by plane to Tijuana, Mexico, then slipped across the border into California through a route that Torres says is impossible for her to remember precisely.
Hours later, before the sun rose, they met their father in a Los Angeles motel room, she said. The family moved into a modest apartment, and Torres began what seemed like a normal life in Los Angeles, surrounded by a vibrant Latino community.
She started attending fourth grade. She didn’t speak English and had to learn it fast.
“I could talk to the kids at recess, but with the teachers, it was all English,” she said.
On the surface, Torres was thriving: She adored school, her teachers, her friends. But at age 13, she confided in a friend and her friend’s father that a relative was abusing her, she said. She asked if she could live with them. They encouraged her to tell her middle-school counselor -- and she did.
A police officer picked her up at school and took her to an emergency foster home, she said. But first, the officer stopped to collect each of her surprised siblings at their schools and whisk them into temporary foster care, as well.
“We were being removed from our home because of something I said,” Torres said. “That was the quietest ride. ... I was scared about what my siblings would think.”
That’s when the magnitude of her situation struck her: After making that report, Torres never went home again. Within months, she lost all contact with her parents, she said. She isn’t in communication with them today.
Torres doesn’t want to go into the details of the relative who abused her and -- according to California court records -- was later convicted. But she says she spoke up because she didn’t want her brother and sisters to face what she did.
Torres spent the next several years living between foster families, she said. Almost all of that time she was cut off from her siblings.
Although the families were kind, life was very different. No one spoke Spanish to her. They didn’t eat any of the Latin foods that had been the staples of her childhood.
When she lived with foster parents who were Jehovah’s Witnesses, the family followed the denomination’s disapproval of birthday celebrations as pagan rituals and she wasn’t allowed to accept the only birthday gift she received from a friend.
In another foster-care placement, she lived with a woman who was afraid to leave her home. It was Torres who shopped for all of the groceries, got herself to counseling appointments and school and ferried the woman’s 3-year-old adopted son to and from preschool.
She remembers what it felt like to hope, however unlikely, that one of the foster families might adopt her.
“You’re always just trying to fit in,” Torres said. “You’re just thankful you’re there.”
But none of them ever did.
“I just knew everyone wants babies,” she said.
After five years in foster care, she turned 18 and was on her own.
Statistics for American foster children are grim.
Of foster kids who age-out of the system, according to the national nonprofit Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative: One in five will become homeless, less than 3 percent will earn a college degree and 71 percent of the young women will become pregnant by age 21.
Torres points to one person who has been with her through the decades: Jan Brice, a court-appointed special advocate whose volunteer job it is to look out for the best interests of foster children. Torres met Brice in a Los Angeles courtroom in 1984, just before she testified against the relative who abused her.
“Even though she was a pretty frightened young girl, I could see her inner strength that day,” Brice said. “I believe she came into this world as a very strong soul.”
Brice was the only family member or friend to attend Torres’ college graduation from Berkeley with a sociology degree in 1997. Brice also flew up from the Los Angeles area to attend Torres’ graduation from Lewis & Clark Law School in 2002 and Torres’ swearing-in ceremonies as a judge in April and June, even though the first ceremony lasted just a few minutes.
Those who know Torres say it’s her sense of optimism and steely will that have gotten her through difficult times.
Torres credits some breaks along the way. Among them was an undergraduate recruitment offer from Berkeley, which was impressed by her math scores and offered her a scholarship, she said.
Studying was her greatest escape.
“I just hit the books,” Torres said. “I put all of my energy into it.”
When Torres started at Lewis & Clark in mostly white Southwest Portland, she was struck by the difference from California.
After passing the bar in 2003 and starting her career as a lawyer, she remembers walking into courtrooms, only to be mistaken by others as a Spanish-language interpreter.
That same year, Torres became an American citizen. She was 32 and had been eligible long before that, she said.
The process began shortly after she immigrated to the U.S. and her parents filled out the paperwork for her to become a temporary resident. She was granted that status as a teenager, then permanent residency status while attending Berkeley.
Torres hadn’t seen the need to become an American citizen until after Sept. 11, 2001, upon the advice of her mentor, Judge Brown. In light of the terrorist attacks carried out by foreigners, Brown warned Torres that attitudes toward immigration were changing and it would be wise to secure her rights by becoming a citizen.
Wanted to help kids
From an early age, Torres said, she decided she wanted to work to better the lives of children.
That led her to become a lawyer and to spend the first 14 years of her career specializing in family law. She started in private practice, representing children who had become wards of the state or parents desperate to win back custody.
Torres next went to work for the Oregon Department of Justice as an assistant attorney general, handling the flip side of family law. She worked to terminate parental rights. She also defended the state against lawsuits accusing child-welfare workers of failing to protect children from sexual abuse, beatings or neglect.
In the six months since she’s become a judge, Torres’ Portland courtroom is a daily storm of emotion and tears: Couples divorcing. Parents fighting over child support. Mothers and fathers eager to convince Torres that they didn’t hurt their children.
She presides over juvenile delinquency cases of teens who skip school, do drugs or get into fights. She must decide whether to approve restraining orders for people who say they’re in danger of someone else hurting or killing them.
Torres said she must consider all perspectives – the state’s, the children’s and the parents’. She must separate her personal story from her work, she said, “because you have to.”
But she believes that her story has added value.
At a recent hearing, a 10-year-old girl whose parents were divorcing had been called before the judge to tell her who she chose to live with. Torres cleared the girl’s parents from the courtroom, sensing the intense pressure the girl must feel.
“Testifying is terrifying for everyone,” Torres later explained. “Add onto that that you’re 10 years old. Lawyers, we don’t think about that.”
93 percent of Oregon judges are white
Oregon, like states across the country, struggles to have a judiciary that reflects the population it serves.
Torres is well aware of the negative attitudes that a segment of society harbors toward immigrants, especially in today’s super-charged discussion of border walls and young people brought to the country by their parents, like she was, without documentation.
Torres – a mother of two – is proud of her Salvadoran roots and doesn’t want her children to lose ties to their heritage. From their earliest years, she has spoken to them in Spanish, though she and her children also speak perfect English.
While out in public, she’s seen strangers shoot her disapproving looks as she talks to her children in her native language, she said. But when the same onlookers hear her switch to English, their mood suddenly brightens, she said.
“It goes from: ‘These immigrants, you need to learn English!’ To: ‘Oh, yes. It’s bilingualism,’” Torres said. “They smile.”
There are a host of stereotypes that immigrants must overcome, she said. But many still choose the U.S., she said, because it remains the land of social mobility and enterprise.
“What they want is a good job, a good living, to be able to buy a home,” Torres said. “All of those things, I was able to do.”
More than a decade ago, she returned to El Salvador to tour the country for the first time since she left. Although she had studied the conflict while living in the U.S., she was stunned to see the extent of the civil war’s ravages.
“I saw the people with missing arms and missing legs, the young children who fought in that war. The women who fought along with the men,” Torres said.
She believes she might have been one of those child soldiers if she had stayed.
“I actually think about that a lot,” Torres said. “I don’t know if I would have made it out.”
She doubts she would have been able to go to school during the long war or that she would have attended college, had she survived.
Her immigrant experience is one of gratitude, she said, and a sense of duty to work to uphold the American ideal of justice for all.
“It’s not lost on me,” she said. “I’m blown away that I’m here.”