Cook County State’s Attorney shares her triumphs and tribulations.
It was fall 1983. I stayed up all night writing a law school paper at the kitchen table in the second-floor apartment I shared with my mother. Mom woke up early and shook her head when she saw I was still in the same spot I’d been in when she went to sleep. After rattling pots and pans around to make breakfast, she told me she was worried: “Anna, don’t you think it would be easier if you just married a lawyer?”
As I think back on that snapshot of my life, I realize my mother could never have dreamed her youngest daughter would go on to have a rewarding career as a lawyer and become Cook County’s first female and first Latina state’s attorney.
We came from humble beginnings in Pilsen. My father, who worked as a waiter, passed away when I was 12. After that my mom found work as a seamstress to support our family. Although she didn’t have a high school diploma, my mother knew education would help her children achieve their dreams. She never stopped working to help me get through high school, college and law school.
After she passed away, I realized my mom wasn’t completely serious when she suggested I marry a lawyer – it was just her protective instincts. She was worried, and to be truthful so was I. When I received my undergrad degree at Loyola University, I became the first in my family to graduate from college. When I decided on law school, I think she secretly worried I might be pushing the envelope.
There were several occasions when I questioned my decision to enroll at Chicago-Kent College of Law. It was culture shock for me, but before too long I knew I wasn’t going to have to marry an attorney in order for the law to become an integral part of my life.
I bumped into similar obstacles when I became assistant state’s attorney. There were challenges, but I loved being a prosecutor from the first moment I stepped into the courtroom.
My career took its most dramatic turn in 2007 when I entered the race for state’s attorney. From the beginning, my crash course in politics was difficult. I remember one incident before the Democratic Primary when a gruff precinct captain dismissively told my campaign manager, “Are you kidding me? Who’s going to vote for an Alvarez?”
I didn’t fully know the answer to that question, and the sleepless nights in law school were nothing compared to those on the campaign trail. But just like those unsettling moments I experienced as a student and young prosecutor, the harder I worked the more I began to feel like voters were responding to my message.
It’s difficult for me to believe I’m closing my first term as state’s attorney. I do try to stop and enjoy the moment, but it can be hard to find the time managing an office with 850 attorneys serving a population of more than 5.3 million people.
With the help of a great team, we’re making remarkable progress and focusing on important issues like cracking down on gang and gun violence, targeting human trafficking and sex trafficking of children, and stepping up the prosecution of domestic violence cases.
I’m often asked what it felt like to become the first woman and first Hispanic to hold this position. I celebrate this achievement, but am also mindful of its responsibilities and challenges.
While I now lead the second largest prosecutor’s office in the nation, my sex and race seem to get in the way sometimes. Two years ago at a conference for elected district attorneys across the nation, I was flabbergasted on several occasions when I introduced myself as Cook County State’s Attorney and was met with raised eyebrows and confused expressions.
That behavior is frustrating, but it also gives me motivation to keep charging ahead. In my case, the greatest risks have always resulted in the greatest rewards, and I hope my future decisions will follow this course. Mine were risks worth taking, and I hope they set an example for other women considering a career in politics, government or the law.
I like to remind young people that they shouldn’t be afraid to pursue goals that may seem out of reach. We become stronger and we’re able to serve others more fully when we believe in ourselves and chase our dreams. Even if we fail, we’re always better for trying.
I didn’t follow my mother’s advice to marry a lawyer. In the interest of full disclosure, I married a doctor. We have four wonderful children who help keep our lives in perspective. Some mornings when I’m making my kids’ lunches or trying to schedule busy days, I often find myself worrying about their futures. Then I think back to that moment with my first role model and know she’d approve.