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Holland woman learns the value of hard work from migrant parents, goes on to become judge in Ottawa County

Judge Juanita Bocanegra hopes her story will inspire others to dream big.

HOLLAND, Mich. — It’s Hispanic Heritage Month and we are highlighting the business and community leaders making a big impact here in West Michigan.

Inside the 58th District Court in Holland, Judge Juanita Bocanegra presides over her domain.

The daughter of migrant farm workers from Mexico knows the value of hard work.

“My dad was a crew leader there and mom worked out in the field and then for a few years, and then she did childcare for the other migrant families, hard workers out in the field all day long," Bocanegra said.

Juanita, who was born in Mexico, is a U.S citizen. She knew ever since kindergarten that she wanted to become a lawyer.

“Now I have to be honest, I had no idea really what an attorney did. I had no idea how many different kinds of attorneys there are. I knew two things: The attorneys worked inside, and they wore suits, they dress nice, and they helped people," Bocanegra said. 

Her father, a U.S. citizen, came to this country because he wanted a better life for his family.

“My father would constantly talk to me about working in a place where I didn't have to be at the mercy of the weather, where I didn't have to work in the rain. I didn't have to work in the cold. I didn't have to work in the heat. Because that's what he did all his life," Bocanegra said.  

Juanita’s family came to Holland in 1979 where she attended school. Meanwhile, her parents continued migrating between Michigan and Texas for work.

“They spent many hours at night talking about how they were going to put me through college, how they were going to afford it. They thought about selling their home in Texas to use that money to be able to put me through college," Bocanegra said. 

Luckily, Bocanegra got scholarships to pay for school and graduated from Grand Valley State University, becoming the first in her family to graduate from college.

Then it was on to law school during which Juanita and her husband were raising two little girls.

“I was reading constitutional law to my kids for bedtime stories because I needed to get those cases read and they want to hear my voice before bedtime,” she said.

After graduating with an impressive resume that included making the dean's list and earning the top litigator award, Juanita eventually took a job in the Ottawa County Prosecutor’s Office as an assistant prosecutor.

“I loved being an assistant prosecutor, I loved being out in the community, I thought I was giving back to my community that way. And I really enjoyed it," Bocanegra said. 

After a lot of support and encouragement, Juanita successfully campaigned to become a 58th District Court judge, an accomplishment she hopes will inspire others.

“Sometimes you have to believe in yourself if you expect other people to believe in you. And the only way you're going to believe in yourself is if you're willing to put in the hard work," Bocanegra said. 

Juanita says she’s comfortable with her role right now as a judge and plans to continue working and helping others in the community she loves.

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