Zuri Balmakund Santiago, Assistant Attorney General at the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office, says the desire to have a voice at the table is what makes having Latinx lawyers serving in government so important. “The degree to which government positively affects one’s life is often directly correlated with one’s voice in government,” Balmakund Santiago adds. Indeed, these bonds of trust between government and society strengthen when the government reflects the community it serves. “That’s what motivates my career in public service,” she says.
Balmakund Santiago, who describes her ethnic background as “Indo-Rican” (Caribbean Indian father, and Puerto Rican mother) has had a clear trajectory from a young age. Obsessed with reading, she decided in elementary school that she wanted to be a lawyer, attending the University of St. Thomas for a dual J.D. and Masters in Public Policy with the intention of working in public service. Her commitment to public service was strong, Balmakund Santiago says, and she felt “morally obliged to serve, contribute to, and improve her community.”
Balmakund Santiago attributes her success to her involvement in the Minnesota Hispanic Bar Association (MHBA), of which she now serves as President. Her involvement in the organization began in law school, as she sought to strengthen ties between her school’s Hispanic students and the MHBA. “The Hispanic community is a family, and it was critical to have a larger Latinx community in Minnesota on which I could rely for guidance and support,” she says, describing how leaning on attorneys of color in those nascent years helped orient and motivate her by offering their examples as success in a profession notoriously lacking in diversity and inclusion. “There is so much value in having MHBA members pay their success forward, generously contributing time and effort to lifting and mentoring aspiring Latinx youth.”
Improving representation of Latinx lawyers
As the MHBA’s leader, Balmakund Santiago is committed to putting this principle into practice, leading efforts to engage, develop, and support the Latinx community. “One of my MHBA goals is for our members to contribute to their respective communities, but also to draw upon our collective community to achieve success in our profession,” she explains. To attract future Latinx students to the profession, the MHBA also urges the community to engage Latinx youth and “educate them of that which they are capable, whether that’s becoming a lawyer or whatever else it is that they dream of achieving.” The organization has a variety of mentorship programs — beginning as early as middle school and all through law school — to build a reliable talent pipeline.
“The value of early mentorship cannot be underestimated,” says Balmakund Santiago. “Minnesota has the lowest graduation rate of Latinx students in the country. We rank 50th, and that is unacceptable. Early, authentic mentorship is essential for ensuring educational and socioeconomic growth within our community. We need to do better.”
Latina lawyers played an essential role in Balmakund Santiago’s advancement, particularly within her prosecutorial role at the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, the state’s most populous county. She was one of four Latinas in an office of nearly 200 prosecutors. “I frequently counted on the wisdom of these Hispanic women, specifically Lolita Ulloa and Sandra Filardo, as part of my ‘personal board of directors,’” Balmakund Santiago says. “They helped me navigate the office’s and practice’s cultures, allowing me to thrive as a trial attorney.” Balmakund Santiago emphasizes the importance of balancing the desires of “fitting in” to an established culture on the one hand, and retaining one’s cultural identity as a Latina on the other, noting that diversity, when embraced and fostered, enriches the legal workplace and profession.
Seeing lawyers of color in leadership
“One of the most important elements in attracting and retaining lawyers of color, no matter what community or culture they are from, is visibility in leadership,” she notes, adding that her experience underscores that point. “I applied to Attorney General Keith Ellison’s Office after he was elected because he had a clear vision of the Office’s values and what he wants his administration to reflect. His vision has resulted in the hiring, spotlighting, and encouragement of qualified attorneys of color.”
Balmakund Santiago sees the Office’s commitment to diversity being reinforced by action, such as changed hiring practices, revised office policies, and an emphasis on sustaining positive workplace culture. Indeed, the rhetoric of inclusion, in combination with actions to back it up, serve as a huge retention lever. “Ellison champions for his attorneys to assume leadership roles, and he advocates for us,” she says. “He makes a point of highlighting us, both our work within the office and when we do things that improve our greater community.”
In addition, increasing representation of Latinx lawyers benefits the legal profession, Balmakund Santiago observes. “The Hispanic culture’s value on collectivism over individualism advances the profession,” she says. “As a Latina, I bring a sense of collaboration to everything I do. I try to lead collaboratively, not individually — seeking to capitalize on the value that comes from building a team.” She explains that in her role as MHBA President, she knows that when she makes decisions, she’s made them with the backing of her Board and Executive Committee “because I’ve made the time to ask for, and developed the processes to ensure that I have their input.”
Lawyers of color also bring a diversity of experience to the profession, says Balmakund Santiago, and that too has made her a better lawyer. “My socioeconomic and cultural experiences led me to public service,” she explains. “Being raised by a strong-willed mom developed my sense of ambition. Being a person of color in a predominantly white community in Minnesota gave me grit. These are all challenging experiences, but I wouldn’t change them — they give me value and have made me the attorney I am today.”
Indeed, Balmakund Santiago says she is grateful to be a Latina in a privileged position, both within the MHBA and in government practice, because she wants to attract women of color to public service. “There are so few of us, but the value these positions add to our community is so incredibly high,” she says. “That’s why representation is crucial.”
Balmakund Santiago adds that she hopes future Latinas see her accomplishments as a springboard and then aim even higher. “We haven’t yet had a Latina in the White House, but she’s likely been born already, and I can’t wait to meet her.”