Teachers play prominent role in judge’s journey from migrant work to court bench

Juanita Flores Bocanegra made history in January when she became Ottawa County’s first bilingual judge and first Latina judge.

Bocanegra — who grew up in a family that migrated seasonally between La Blanca, Texas, and Holland, Mich., for agricultural employment — attributes her professional success to great teachers.

She counts her parents, Marcos and Tomasa Flores, as her first and best teachers. Childhood sweethearts raised in Mexico, about four hours south of the U.S. border in a village that still doesn’t have running water, both had to quit school young to get paid work to help their families survive. Marcos, with a second-grade education, and Tomasa, with a fourth-grade education, speak only Spanish and never could help Juanita, their only child, with homework.
Marcos and Tomasa Flores, Juanita Bocanegra's parents
“My parents were great encouragers because they always wanted me to have the most important thing they didn’t have: an education,” Bocanegra says. “They worked for low wages, but there was never talk about ‘if you go to college.’ My whole life, they talked in terms of ‘when you go to college.’”

It wasn’t until teen-age Bocanegra received a full scholarship for the Honors Program at Grand Valley State University that her father realized he would not have to sell the house he built over 15 years in La Blanca to pay Juanita’s college tuition.

In navigating her K-12 education and prepare for college, Bocanegra praises three dedicated West Ottawa Public Schools teachers — one at each level of education — who inspired her to do quality work and stretch for academic excellence, despite moving twice during each school year.

They are:

Frank Kraai, Juanita’s fifth-grade teacher at Sheldon Woods Elementary School, near Zelenka Nursery’s cinderblock barracks on New Holland Road, where the Flores family lived from mid-March to about Nov. 1, beginning in 1979.

Dale Conklin, Juanita’s English teacher at West Ottawa Middle School who coached her to winning a national essay writing competition. Conklin died in 2006 at age 64, having taught for 43 years at West Ottawa.

Christi Bruns, a West Ottawa High School teacher who taught Juanita’s Advanced Placement Calculus class, mailing her lessons while she was in Texas and tutoring her over lunch hours when she returned to Michigan to assure Juanita kept pace with the class.

Walk for the win

After Bocanegra’s graduation from West Ottawa High in 1993, Bruns says the two would occasionally meet up for a meal but gradually lost contact. In 2017, Bocanegra was invited to give West Ottawa’s commencement address. Bocanegra’s speech mentioned the dedicated math teacher who helped her succeed in college-level calculus. Another teacher at commencement text-messaged Bruns, who retired in 2005. Bruns rushed to the school and was waiting as Bocanegra left the stage, vowing to remain in touch from that point forward.

“I’ve never been a political person, but when Juanita told me in November 2019 that she was going to run for judge, I told her I would be there for her in whatever way I could,” Bruns says. “I knew that she would take the time to listen, be fair, and be respectful and gracious. She’s a faith-based person.

“She has the qualities of a good judge, and I knew I could support her.”

Bruns circulated nominating petitions that helped put Bocanegra on the ballot, then stepped up to a new role in the campaign: “Walking partner” to Bocanegra as she knocked on doors throughout the county to introduce herself to voters.

The first of Bocanegra and Bruns’ 22 three-hour campaign outings was a frigid February day in rural Jamestown Township, where the pair trudged through the snow on long walks between houses. By their second outing, to nestled Georgetown Township neighborhoods, the activity began to feel like friends having fun, Bruns says. Some front porch conversations were entirely in Spanish, which Bruns doesn’t understand, but Bruns says she was impressed by how effectively Bocanegra was able to build rapport.

The COVID-19 pandemic halted door-to-door campaigning by mid-March 2020, but some contact restrictions were relaxed by fall, so the pair continued to the election. After Bocanegra had won the election with 54% of the vote, both women say they soon missed the camaraderie they experienced taking long walks together.

So, periodic walks have resumed, with Bruns — who retired in 2006 after 29 years of teaching — meeting up with Bocanegra on her lunch period at Holland’s 58th District Court for a stroll to Kollen Park and along Lake Macatawa.

Juanita Bocanegra and her former teacher Christi Bruns still take walks together.“I’m taller than Juanita, but I look up to her in so many respects,” Bruns says. “Anyone who remembers the housing — where each row of 10 efficiency apartments shared a bathroom the people had to walk out to — knows those are humble beginnings. But in the classroom, she was a sponge.”

Aptitude for learning kindled

Bocanegra claims she was an average student until she entered fifth grade and Kraai challenged her to do more and be more.

Newly elected Ottawa County judge Juanita Bocanegra (left) is pictured with Frank Kraai, an influential teacher in her life.Kraai remembers having several migrant students that year. Like Juanita, they were learning English as a second language and had seasonal disruptions in their schooling that challenged them to keep pace with their peers. He would often cluster the migrant students together for remediation but realized Juanita didn’t need extra help.

He asked Juanita if — while he was working with the migrant students — she would like to teach Spanish to classmates who were English-only speakers. Kraai admits he was confident the 10-year-old was up to the task before he asked, but says he was still astonished by the level of leadership Juanita demonstrated.

“On her own, she produced transparencies (visual aids) comparing Spanish and English words for the same thing,” Kraai says. “She planned lessons, handed out vocabulary sheets, wrote quizzes — everything a teacher would do.

“That was always the wonderful thing about Juanita,” Kraai says. “You could set high expectations for her, and yet — with her drive — she’d still surprise you with more.” 

What Kraai says doesn’t surprise him is that Juanita Flores grew up to be a lawyer and a judge. “It’s always been obvious that Juanita is a special person,” Kraai says. “Mark my words: As a judge, she’s going to affect the whole county.”

About one-quarter of Ottawa County’s population is Hispanic. 

Journey to the bench

While Bocanegra’s West Ottawa teachers believed she could be a judge, she herself felt no desire to take her law career in that direction.

“I started saying in kindergarten that I wanted to be a lawyer, even though I didn’t exactly know what lawyers do,” Bocanegra says. “My parents’ wish for me was to have a good job, which to them meant I didn’t have to work outside in the elements. From TV I knew that lawyers worked indoors, which is what my parents wanted, and that they helped people, which is what I wanted.”

Bocanegra began learning English in first grade. She also learned advocacy from a
tender age, translating for her parents at medical appointments and managing the family finances from the time she was in fourth grade. She remembers one cross-country trip to Florida to pick strawberries when a car broke down and she was the only person in a three-vehicle caravan who spoke English well enough to arrange and negotiate the repair. She was about 8.

She intended to enroll in law school at the University of Texas, to put herself in proximity to help her aging parents after their employment at Zelenka Farms ended. Plans changed when the Thomas M. Cooley Law School opened a site in nearby Grand Rapids. Juanita and husband Jose Bocanegra — who met in their teens while working at Zelenka and married after Juanita’s junior year of college — decided to remain in Holland with their daughters, Jasmin and Jaquelyn, then ages 3 and 1, respectively, while Juanita attended law school evenings and weekends.

Marcos and Tomasa Flores stayed most of each year with their daughter and her family. Six years ago, a stroke left Tomasa partially paralyzed. She lives in a Holland nursing facility. Marcos lives full time with his daughter and son-in-law, a production worker at Herman Miller who also has a home repair business.

Bocanegra says she feels overwhelmed remembering law school, even though she continued to be a strong student. In addition to her law studies, she worked full time as a legal assistant at the Hann Persinger law firm in Holland and part time at Old Kent/Fifth-Third Bank. She became a master of multi-tasking, reading her daughters’ “bedtime stories” from her constitutional law textbook.

When are you going to run for judge?

After graduation, she accepted a position with the Rhoades McKee law firm in Grand Rapids, then replaced Kent Engle in the Ottawa County Prosecutors Office in 2011, when he was elected judge.

“Being an assistant prosecutor is rewarding, and I would have been satisfied spending my whole career doing that,” Bocanegra says. “Every time I’d see Kent Engle, he’d ask, ‘When are you going to run for judge?’ I’d shake my head and answer, ‘I’m not thinking about that.’”

As the years passed, Engle wasn’t the only person posing that question. On Juanita and Jose Bocanegra’s drive home from a civic engagement, where the issue came up again, Jose addressed the elephant in the room.

“I think it’s time for you to think about it,” Bocanegra remembers her husband saying earnestly. Campaigning held no appeal for Bocanegra. She remained on the fence about a judgeship until the final session of a leadership training program in Grand Rapids, where participants were encouraged to pledge to each other that they would attempt a goal that involved accepting more responsibility — even if it felt uncomfortable.
Newly elected Ottawa County judge Juanita Bocanegra (second from right) is pictured with her family.
That was when Bocanegra first said aloud that she would seek a judgeship if
there ever was an opportunity. Later, when news broke that District Judge Susan Jonas would not be able to seek re-election because of a Michigan law prohibiting judges from being older than 70 at the time of the election, several people from the leadership class immediately contacted Bocanegra.

Each delivered essentially the same message: We heard you say it. Now do it.

Settling in

The COVID-19 pandemic has influenced Bocanegra’s initial months as a 58th District Court judge.

Jury selection would require bringing more people into the courtroom than social distancing guidelines would permit, so jury trials have had to be postponed, although bench trials continue.

Although the floodgates for justice will someday open and increase pressure on the court, Bocanegra says these times have been nice for getting accustomed to working behind the bench, instead of in front of it.

There have been times already when Bocanegra’s warm smile, and greeting in Spanish, have seemed to calm Spanish-speaking people who come before her.

She likes working in the town where she spent the growing seasons of most of her growing up years. Both she and Jose were born in Mexico and migrated from South Texas, but the Holland area has felt like home for a long time, she says. The couple is happy they got to raise their daughters, now 21 and 19, there.

“I never felt poor as a child because I was never hungry,” Bocanegra says. “I worked long summer days at Scott Kamphuis Blueberries, until I was old enough to work at Zelenka, but my parents let me keep the money I earned for school clothes and spending money, so I felt abundant. I’ve always had wonderful support from my family, and from teachers, who are like my family of choice.”
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