Judge Rita Mella was born and raised in Santo Domingo and moved to New York City in the 1980s. She came to the United States when she was 22 years old, on a scholarship to the University of Florida, and received her J.D. degree from the City University of New York Law School in 1991. Mella served as court attorney and law clerk for Hon. Richard Rivera of the Kings County Family, Civil and Supreme Courts until 2002 and for Hon. Margarita López Torres of the Kings County Surrogate's and Criminal Courts through 2006. She was elected to the Civil Court in 2006, and served in Criminal Court for the next seven years. In 2012, Judge Mella became the first Latina elected to sit on the prestigious New York County Surrogate's Court in Manhattan.
The importance of working for the public good, and in particular to benefit her community, is something Judge Mella learned from an early age. "I was raised in a household where morals and ethics played a significant role. From when I was very little, public service was encouraged by example in my house. And those values were reinforced in school. I attended an excellent school in Santo Domingo. If I had to go back to the influences that have informed what I am about today, I would say it would be the values with which I was raised. If I had to define my life right now, I would say it is about public service. My need to do public service and my devotion to it come from those influences and from being raised with those values."
In a previous interview with NBC Latino, Judge Mella spoke eloquently about her commitment to working for social justice. I followed up on that by asking about what progress has been made on issues that affect Dominicans most. "The Dominican presence has grown tremendously in New York and the United States," the judge replies,"and the influence of our community has also grown significantly, to the point that members of the community are now very visible in different spheres, including the public sphere—we have a significant presence in all areas of public life. For instance in the legal field, we now have eleven Dominican judges that have been elected or appointed in the city of New York. That's only in the judiciary. In higher education, at both the administrative and faculty levels, the Dominican presence is growing. It has also increased in politics. Our presence has grown and the presence of individuals in visible positions in the public sphere has also grown. Through all of that growth, and through those individuals who continue to play a role in public life, a lot has been accomplished in addressing the issues that affect underserved and immigrant communities, including Dominicans. Our presence in all of those spheres has made a difference. The policies that are being set and priorities that have been established are informed by this."
I ask about the challenges she has faced. "One of the most difficult things to do is to operate without role models," Judge Mella tells me. "We are basically the first generation of judges, so we have done it without having role models in the community. I'm trying to change that by opening up the legal field, in particular the field of trusts and estates, which is the field in which I now work, to communities of color, students and members of different communities not represented in this particular field of law in the past. By organizing training courses and taking student interns to teach them about the law, I'm trying to open up the doors so underrepresented communities can play a role."
I ask what her proudest accomplishment has been. "There's no single one, but I'm very proud of the opportunities I have had. I'm proud of having been able to serve the public and the community through the application of the law, and I am proud of the trust the public has placed in me in allowing me to do this job. I'm also proud of the opportunities I have had to work with underserved communities, and to devote my life and energy to improving the lives of members of the community, in the limited way that I can, and empowering them."
With respect to the biggest challenge now facing the Dominican community, Judge Mella's answer is clear: "Access to quality education at all levels is the biggest challenge we face, and making education opportunities available and accessible to members of our community at all levels, starting at pre-kindergarten all the way through graduate programs, is the number one goal we should set for ourselves."
The advice Judge Mella offers young people is concise and straightforward."Work hard at whatever it is that's in front of you. Work hard and you will see the results."She adds that she is "a person of few words." "I'm a public servant, I'm not a star. I'm not one to give big speeches."Nonetheless, her life speaks volumes about who Dominicans are and what they are capable of achieving, and continues to offer a shining example of what it means to apply yourself and give something back.