Featured Lawtina: Mariapaola Santacruz, Esq.

One of my most vivid childhood memories is of my father being put in handcuffs after my mother falsely accused him of physical abuse. I remember the fear and confusion I felt. How could they be taking my daddy away if he didn’t do anything wrong?


My father is the strongest man I know. He is a Colombian immigrant who came to this country with no money in his pocket, but with a dream to make a better life for himself and his future family. He struggled with homelessness when he first arrived but never gave up on his dream and never opted for the “easy ways” of making money. He was constantly gone for work as a truck driver, but he always made sure to tell my younger brother and I that we were the most important things in his life. So, as a nine-year-old crouching in the corner of her family’s living room watching the strongest man I knew in the world being put in handcuffs, nothing made sense.


As I reflect on my journey to becoming an attorney, I find myself replaying this memory in my mind. I believe this experience to be the moment I realized that you do not necessarily have to do something wrong to get in trouble. Fast-forward almost twenty years later and that same childhood realization resonates with me and fuels me in my pursuit of being an advocate for those whose voices are snuffed out by society.


Like many who decide to pursue a future in the law, my journey was not an easy one. At the age of nineteen, I found myself bearing the responsibility of providing for not only my husband and myself, but my brother and father. At a certain point, I took on two jobs to try to make ends meet while juggling my college courses. Eventually, after six years in college and graduating cum laude, I was accepted to law school. My dream was actually coming true.


I’ll never forget getting off the freeway on my first day of law school orientation and feeling the knot in my throat already forming. Nor will I forget parking my car in the school’s parking lot and sobbing because I had actually made it. It was my first day of law school. That was the first time I realized that there had been moments throughout my journey to law school where I found myself wondering if I could actually do it, so the emotion I was expressing in the parking lot was a mix of overwhelming joy and relief.

My three years of law school were absolutely amazing [and, yes, stressful]. When people ask me how law school was, I find myself telling them that I’m one of the weird people who actually had fun during law school. Every single day I got to drive up the ramp to the parking lot and walk into one of the school’s buildings was a gift. It was a privilege to be there.

My law school experience was also different because it was the first time in seven years that I was fortunate enough to not have to juggle my course load and work. As a result, I really got to enjoy my time there. I’ve made incredible friends whom I credit my sanity during law school. I was accepted to Southwestern Law School’s Moot Court Honors Program and was an active member of the Southwestern Latino/a Law Student Association, Student Bar Association, and Peer Mentor Program.


Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic took away the last couple of months of law school and graduation and resulted in our class being the first to take a virtual California bar exam from home (!!!) and two months later than originally scheduled. Thankfully, though, absolutely everything was worth it when on January 8, 2021 I got to see the word “pass” next to my name on the State Bar website with my father right next to me.


Since I passed the California bar, I’ve been thinking of my nine-year-old self watching my dad getting arrested in my living room and I wish I could somehow go back in time and whisper in that little girl’s ear that everything will be worth it. That she will achieve her dream to grow up and protect people like her dad, someone whose voice is snuffed out by injustice and oppression. While I can’t go back in time and give my younger self that message, I can give it to those who have struggled and continue to struggle to achieve their dream. Don’t give up on your dream. Push through and give it all you’ve got. Whenever you think you don’t have any more to give, push a little harder because you have so much more to give. ¡Si se puede!