When Sophia Vuelo was 16 years old, she spent much of her summer bent over a field of cucumbers in the hot sun with her family.
She remembers the ache in her back and the sweat that would soak through the gloves and long-sleeve shirt she wore as protection against the low-growing plant’s prickles.
Vuelo’s mother was a faster cucumber picker than her youngest child. Often when Vuelo looked up from her sweaty work, her mother was rows and rows ahead of her in the seemingly endless field of cucumbers located on Eau Claire’s north side.
Intermittently, Vuelo’s mother called out to her, “You’re falling behind!”
“I remember thinking in those moments, I had literally and figuratively fallen behind in life,” Vuelo said. “I knew as much as I had a loving mother, she did not have the resources or ability to help me navigate our educational (system), so I would have to do it on my own.”
The Chippewa Valley became home to Vuelo and her family when Vuelo’s mother relocated from Thailand as a refugee in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Vuelo was just 6 years old when she arrived here.
Despite that adversity, Vuelo went on to become the first judge of Hmong-American descent in the state of Minnesota. She officially began her duties Dec. 18 at Ramsey County District Court in St. Paul. In a phone interview from Minnesota, Vuelo shared her experience growing up in Eau Claire and offered up lessons she’s learned as an adult.
An Eau Claire childhood
Vuelo and her family arrived in Eau Claire with help from a Lutheran church sponsorship on April 21, 1978.
Immediately, she felt welcomed and comfortable in Eau Claire. While noting that no community is void of racial bias, Vuelo said she didn’t feel any of that early on in her life.
“Despite growing up with very little in terms of money,” Vuelo said, “I had great wealth in terms of being surrounded by family members and a community that showed me a lot of kindness, love and compassion. I don’t think my experience could have been as positive if I had grown up in a different city.”
As the youngest of her mother’s children, Vuelo was the only one to receive a K-12 education in the U.S., she said. Her older siblings began their education in seventh- and eighth-grade classes.
Even with a head start, Vuelo recalls occasionally struggling to understand some parts of her classes, such as the word “canon” in her middle school literary English class.
“I had no references for Sesame Street when I was little, those basic things that we assume all American kids grow up with,” Vuelo said. “They weren’t a part of my normal world.”
Not having the same experience as her student peers didn’t keep Vuelo back from success, though. By the time she graduated from Memorial High School, Vuelo was class president and homecoming queen of her senior class. Those who knew her in school describe her as hard-working and driven.
Leah Schafer, a friend of Vuelo’s from high school, said she remembers first meeting Vuelo as sixth-graders playing basketball on different teams at the YMCA.
“She had more focus and drive than any other sixth-grader I have ever encountered,” she said. “She was merciless on the court.”
Looking back on her education in Eau Claire, Vuelo said she was happy to hear the Eau Claire school district’s recent announcement that it will include a Hmong history and culture class at the high school level next fall.
“It’s so important that all children see themselves in our American history books,” Vuelo said. “Growing up, I did not see that. I’m so pleased to hear the Eau Claire school district is headed in the right direction.”
‘A force of good’
Vuelo said her experiences, both personal and professional, make her highly qualified for the appointment to a judgeship.
Ramsey County is a relatively poor county compared with other places in Minnesota — some families there live at 28 percent below the federal poverty line, Vuelo said. She can identify.
“I was that kid who got free lunch tickets,” Vuelo said, “and I was so mortified back then to be viewed as poor. It was a stigma to be poor. But really, that’s what allows me to understand the people who live in our diverse community.
“It helps inform me as a jurist to understand issues surrounding poverty. Growing up, one did not view it as a teaching lesson, an asset or an advantage. But it’s these hardships that gave me the eyes to view (and understand) all segments of our society.”
Her professional history is fitting for the job too — before her appointment, Vuelo was a practicing attorney for 19 years. She’s been a prosecutor, an assistant public defender, and she headed her own law practice.
When it comes to professional advice, Vuelo urges young people to seek out experienced mentors, even if those mentors don’t have the same skin color or background as them.
“If I had to reach out to a young, female Hmong American judge to mentor me,” she said, “I’d still be waiting.”
Vuelo, whose interview took place on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, said her appointment as the first judge of Hmong-American descent wouldn’t be significant in an ideal world. However, because humankind is still working on King’s dream to have everyone represented at the table, she said, she understands why her appointment is significant.
“I never sought to be on the bench to covet that title of being the first judge of Hmong-American descent,” she said. “I did it to be a force of good.”
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