Woman’s journey from migrant worker to Ottawa Co. judge


HOLLAND, Mich. (WOOD) — Juanita Bocanegra was a fifth-grader, the only child of Mexican migrant workers, when she started picking blueberries in Ottawa County.

Thirty-five years later and just five miles away, the former migrant worker born in Mexico will soon be sworn as Ottawa County’s first Latina judge.

Bocanegra, 45, last week won nearly 54% of the vote for 58th District judge.

“I remember my father getting up very early in the morning and taking me to the field to drop me off,” Bocanegra recalled.

She would get to Kamphuis Blueberries at 6:15 a.m. before her father Marcos Flores left for his job at an evergreen nursery in Ottawa County.

“And then we would continue to pick blueberries until it got dark,” she said.

Her parents, both born in Mexico, lived in Texas but migrated to Michigan and to Florida to follow the seasons. They lived in migrant camps and she grew up fast.

An undated courtesy photo of Juanita Bocanegra as a child.

“I’m an only child,” she said. “I’ve been paying my parents’ bills since fourth grade, handling all their finances, taking care of them going to the doctor, translating for them.”

They moved to Holland permanently in 1984.

“My father’s dream for me was that I would clerk at some store, where I would be in the air conditioning during the hot summer months,” she said.

Bocanegra wanted more.

“I always knew I wanted to be an attorney since I was in kindergarten,” she said.

Her teachers pushed her: Christi Bruns, who mailed assignments to her; and fifth-grade teacher Frank Kraai, who pulled her aside.

“He said, ‘You have potential; I see the potential in you. Don’t think that you are a migrant kid you can’t do great things. You need to work hard and you will get there,'” she recalled.

She graduated from West Ottawa High School, then Grand Valley State University, got her law degree from Thomas M. Cooley Law School. She went to work at a Grand Rapids law firm then as an assistant prosecutor in Ottawa County since 2011.

She’ll replace Judge Susan A. Jonas, who is retiring after 27 years. Jonas said she recently told four Spanish speakers at a sobriety treatment program about her replacement’s background: born in Mexico, a former migrant worker.

“They were really amazed at that, and I think what a strong message that would be for people in our community who have come from other places,” Jonas said.

In the last complete census in 2010, nearly a quarter of Holland’s population was Hispanic.

Bocanegra hopes her new job sends a message to other little girls, no matter their start in life:

“That everything and anything is possible with perseverance and when you just push through obstacles,” She said. “Don’t give up. Believe in yourself. You can’t expect other people to believe in you if you don’t believe in yourself.”

Bocanegra will be sworn in in mid-December and take the bench on Jan. 1.

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