MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now it's time for our Wisdom Watch conversation. That's the part of the program where we speak with those who've made a difference through their work. Today, we hear from Paul C. Lo. He's one of the newest municipal judges in California. At the age of 45, he's also one of the youngest. But Judge Lo is also believed to be the first judge on any court in the U.S. to be of Hmong decent. We spoke with him last month about his rather unusual journey to the bench. He was born in Laos. He left the country at just 7 years of age with his family. And I started our conversation by asking him why they left.
PAUL C. LO: The Hmong people, obviously, were involved in the Vietnam War - the Secret War in Laos. And in 1975, when the country fell under Communist rule, virtually overnight, a huge number of people who were in the war, particularly those fighting on behalf of the United States, so with the CIA, had to flee Laos. Otherwise, there was going to be huge retribution and persecution as the country fell under Communists. So my family was no different.
MARTIN: And then you ended up first in a refugee camp in Thailand. Do you remember it?
LO: Yes, I do. We were there for a good four years. And so I remember, even as a young person growing up in the refugee camps, I remember the sights and the sounds and some of the hardships of growing up in a refugee camp.
MARTIN: And then your family made its way to California where they were granted asylum. How did they make it all those years?
LO: We had eight siblings - rather nine in our family. I have a half-sister. We grew up on welfare. And my parents also supported us by farming - growing vegetables and selling at farmers’ markets. So I remember, even as a very young person in junior high and high school, those were our activities during the weekends and during those summers. There is something about a family coming together and seeing crops grow and seeing - and I enjoyed seeing that because that's what my parents did when they were back in Laos. That's what they knew what to do. And I saw them at their very best. They could not have done anything else. And so I remember that very fondly. But I also remember them telling us, study hard so you don't have to come back to the farm.
MARTIN: What made you decide on the law?
LO: The seed was planted by a high school teacher. He had taken interest to me and asked me what I wanted to do. And I said, well, I want to be a psychologist. And he said, you know, you can help your Hmong community a lot more by being an attorney. So that just kind of stuck with me. And then I went into college with a psychology major but hated it, quickly changed to a different major and started pursuing seriously the study of law.
MARTIN: What do you think he meant by that? I mean, were there things that you saw that - where people weren't able to stand up for themselves that you felt that maybe you could be helpful?
LO: Yeah, I think he saw that, you know, even as a young person growing up, I was the mouth, the eyes, the ears of my parents. Wherever we go, either to the welfare department, to the DMV, to any institution, I was translating for them. And I saw them having experienced tremendously adjustment difficulties with the institutions. There were cases of folks who had been in jail for a minor misdemeanor.
And they had thought they were going to be in jail for a long time, committed suicide. And I think my teacher saw some of those things when the huge influx of Hmong refugees came to the Central Valley of California. And he was right that what we really needed was someone who would understand the legal system and be able to help them maneuver that system.
MARTIN: As I understand it from reading the reporting locally, that you had been encouraged to pursue a judgeship some years ago. Is that right? But you declined. Is that true?
LO: That's true. You know, I've been so fortunate to have good friends and colleagues who thought that I would make a good judge. And the opportunities came a number of years ago, but I just felt that I could never take myself away as an advocate for the community. But I think now there are more Southeast Asian attorneys practicing in the community. And so I finally feel that, yeah, if I leave, everything will be OK.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're having a Wisdom Watch conversation with Paul C. Lo. He has been appointed to the municipal bench in California. He's in the Superior Court at Merced County, California. He is believed to be the first Hmong-American judge in U.S. history. So, you know, speaking of which, Judge Lo, that sometimes these firsts mean more to journalists than they do to the people who achieve these things. I mean, sometimes, you know, we make a bigger deal out of it. And then we approach the people and say, did you know, you know, you're the first to do X, Y or Z? And people go, so, and - you know. I wanted to ask you, is this important to you?
LO: My parents and the folks of my parents' generation, they gave up everything so that their kids can be here to have a better life. The appointment is a small affirmation that what they went through is worth it. That's sort of the message that I think - a collective affirmation, I think, in the community that this is a good thing. So a number of people have told me that. And I'm just happy to be a small part of it.
MARTIN: Was there something you feel that your particular perspective brings that has not been part of the equation - not having someone of your background in this role?
LO: Well, I think so. I think that having grown up differently, bilingual and bicultural, gives me a certain understanding, particularly in my community where there's a huge population of Hmong-Americans. It gives me an understanding of what they went through, some of the issues that they struggle with. How that will change my ruling, I - you know, I don't know. I think it will be on a case-by-case basis. But, you know, at the end of the day, I will have to follow the law whatever the law is.
MARTIN: We call these conversations our Wisdom Watch. It's where we ask people to reflect and offer wisdom to people who might be listening to our conversation who might identify with you for whatever reason. Do you mind if I ask you, do you have some wisdom to share?
LO: Our accomplishments are never just personal accomplishments. Despite all the problems we have in our country, I think America still remains a land of opportunity and a land of dreams for many people, regardless of where you started, where you came from. I think that if you're here and you take advantage of the educational opportunities that we have in this country, the doors will open for you. And people along the way, good people along the way will support you. So I've been so fortunate to have this opportunity and to be where I am. And I look forward to many more years of serving the community as a judge.
MARTIN: Paul C. Lo has been appointed a judge in the Superior Court of Merced County, California. And as I mentioned, he was with us from Modesto. Your Honor, thank you so much for speaking with us. Congratulations to you.
LO: Thank you, Michel. It's been a pleasure talking to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.