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If you like Anthony Romero's story, you might also like:
David Boies,
Willie Brown,
Ruth Bader Ginsburg,
Alberto Gonzales,
Frank Johnson,
Anthony Kennedy,
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Antonio Villaraigosa

Anthony Romero can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center

and in the Curriculum Module Social Advocacy

Related Links:
Romero on ACLU
Homeland Security
Dept. of Justice

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Anthony Romero
Anthony Romero
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Anthony Romero Interview

Executive Director, ACLU

October 26, 2012
Washington, D.C.

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  Anthony Romero

When did you first know what you wanted to do, that you were interested in civil rights, human rights, that this was the field that you wanted to get involved in? What led you there?

Anthony Romero: From when I was a little boy, I always knew I wanted to be an attorney. I don't know why. There is no attorney in my family. My father was a waiter and my mother stayed at home and I'm the first of my family to finish high school. But somehow I always got it in my mind that I would be a lawyer. Perhaps it was because I was argumentative, because I always spoke my mind, perhaps because I never really understood the rules of the nuns in Catholic school, was always questioning them. Over time it just kind of stuck with me, that I would be a lawyer. Later on in life I understood the role the law would play in social justice and that we would be change agents for people. I saw that it could make a real difference in people's lives, and that's really where I understood the importance of being an attorney for issues, for causes, for people, for ideals. So I don't know, maybe it was in my DNA from the beginning, but I always knew I wanted to be an advocate for change.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

Anthony Romero Interview Photo
Anthony Romero Interview Photo

Was there anybody who inspired you as a young person?

Anthony Romero: The folks who inspired me the most were my parents. My father spoke very poor English, finished the fourth grade in Puerto Rico. My mother speaks great English, but is too shy to speak it. But yet they always made me believe that I could make a difference, and that I could achieve things that they could not. And there was nothing that was not attainable for me. So they give me enormous love and support and push and drive, and I would not be here today without my mom and my dad.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

There was a young lawyer, who I never met, who inspired me about the role of lawyers, and he was a lawyer in my father's labor union. My father, first, was a janitor at a hotel. He worked at the Warwick Hotel on 54th and Sixth in New York City, and he would help clean up the rooms and vacuum the floors and break down the tables. He wanted to become a waiter, and he applied for a waiter job because a waiter was a promotion, much more money. And he was initially turned down from the job. He was told that his English wasn't good enough, which he didn't buy, because when he went to become a banquet waiter, as he would say, "Everybody gets chicken. It's coffee or tea." So he thought that the reason they gave him was a ruse. So he went to a union lawyer -- Vito Pitta was his name -- who took on my dad's case and they filed some type of grievance. I was young. And my dad got the job, ultimately. Several years later, almost a decade later, I would work in the same hotel. I would work there when I was an undergraduate in Princeton, and I would see that the banquet waiters were also immigrants. They were Russians and Greeks and Germans and Italians, and they had thick accents. But my father was the first Hispanic waiter at the Warwick Hotel. That one lawyer who took my dad's case fundamentally changed our lives. We left the public housing projects in the Bronx. My father bought a new car, my mother got a new living room set. We moved out to the suburban part of New Jersey, where life was very different than the public housing projects of the Bronx. I got to do well in school. I got my first bicycle. Just because of this one lawyer's ability to champion wrong, to make sure that a wrong was made right, our lives fundamentally changed. And in that one moment, I understood the role that a lawyer could play in people's lives, and perhaps that was my first inspiration to be a lawyer for doing good.

Anthony Romero Interview Photo
Anthony Romero Interview Photo

What did your parents think when you told them what you wanted to do?

Anthony Romero: My parents were always supportive. My parents always believed that I could be whatever I wanted to be. I remember when I first told my father I wanted to go to Princeton or Yale, and I chose Princeton, he asked me how much would the tuition cost and I would say, "Twenty-eight thousand dollars, Papi." And he said, "That's more than I make in a year!" He didn't know about financial aid. He didn't know that I would get loans, he didn't know that there were scholarships. But my parents were always very supportive. When I said I wanted to do something, they said, "Okay, try." And they never stopped me, in fact, they always encouraged me. So when I told them I wanted to be a lawyer, I wanted to go to an Ivy League school, and I wanted to serve the public interest, they were always very supportive. When I finished law school, and my father asked me what would my first salary be as a fulltime attorney, and I told him it would be about $32,000 dollars a year, he smiled at me and he said, "Now I make more money than that." And I said, "Yeah, but I'm learning how to change the world, Dad." And he always would be a bit chagrined. My sister is a social worker, and I always worked in the public service sector, and my father always would say, "What did I do wrong? Why did none of these kids go out and make a lot of money?" And we'd always say back to him, "Dad, you did it right. You taught us our values. You taught us to make a difference in the world." So they were always very supportive and loving.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

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