LWI Lives - October 2021
Yordanka Valdés Delionado: Strengthening the Village DOWNLOAD PDFOctober 1, 2021
By Kathryn Falk Campbell
Somewhere between Cuba, Spain, Venezuela, and the United States, immigration papers shortened Yordanka Valdés Garcia’s name, and made it Yordanka Valdés. But it does not seem that anything or anyone could shorten Professor Yordanka Valdés Delionado’s vision and reach.
This first-generation American, Harvard Law School graduate has a heart and mind for raising up other strong and bright young people through mentorship, teaching, lawyering, and family. None of us can succeed on our own. And Yordanka has both benefitted from the “villages” around her, and paid it forward by becoming a central figure in the villages of many others. It takes a village, and the village is strength.
Teaching now at Florida International University College of Law, as Assistant Professor in FIU’s Legal Skills and Values pro-gram (don’t you love the name FIU gave this course?), Yordanka has found a place where she can bring all of her considerable talents—and her considerable heart—to bear.
Of course there is so much to this extraordinary woman that must go without saying because of space constraints. But three major things stood out about Yordanka when we talked. The first is that she cherishes and nurtures her Hispanic identity and community. The second is that she is a formidable, accomplished, and committed lawyer and law professor. And the third is that she treasures and nurtures her family.
Yordanka’s professional resume is remarkable. She graduated from Harvard Law School in 2000, has clerked for two federal judges, has written and litigated as an associate of an outstanding firm (Hunton & Williams in Miami), tried ten jury trials as Assistant United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, and brought this exceptional experience and talent to FIU College of Law to teach lawyers-to-be how to do what is important. As she builds her own professional standing, she consistently mentors and supports others, especially former and current students.
While she serves her communities, Yordanka is also a mother committed to her family. We had a good talk about the balancing that women do to fulfill their roles in the profession and in the family. Her sense of it is that these are not roles that are thrust upon us; we are fortunate indeed to have both professional gravitas as well as the love and focus of family. But our profession and society have not always made it easy to recognize the crucial role of motherhood when it comes to fellow lawyers. I told her that when I was a young lawyer, the men in our large firm never hesitated and never had pushback for going golfing on a Thursday afternoon, but the women felt embarrassed or ashamed to leave early to pick up the children from childcare or school. I asked if it was the same for her. We agreed that it seems women still struggle with “dual roles.” Many of us feel that we cannot devote the full measure of our attention and time to both a serious profession and to family. Everything suffers when we cannot do any one thing with full focus.
However, Yordanka is finally at a place in her life where, “I think I can finally say ‘family first’ without having to apologize to the profession.” She notes that there seems to be more dialogue about this tension now, and more well-informed allies in the profession to support all our colleagues, whether parents or not. She smiles when she says, “And I am more than fortunate to have a husband who recognizes this challenge and supports me fully in meeting it.”
John Delionado and Yordanka Valdés met in law school. Their marriage is one of mutual support and respect. Before the children were born, Yordanka clerked for one federal judge, and then was working in a firm. John had become an Assistant U.S. Attorney. Yordanka wanted to try cases too and saw that, “he was having so much fun!” So, Yordanka made the move from private practice to federal practice, and she flourished. From 2003 to 2006, she tried tough criminal cases in the Southern District of Florida, many involving narcotics and firearms, and she wrote briefs for the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. This allowed Yordanka to hone her skills.
She particularly appreciates learning about the immigration and ha-beas corpus issues she briefed, and she took to “teaching juries” naturally.
She smiles again when she says that the ability to balance work and family became a focus after the first two babies of three—Isabella and Johnny—came along in 2003 and 2005. “I credit Judge Cecilia Altonaga (S.D. Fla.) with providing another federal court clerkship from 2006 into 2008.” That gave her a path to work on the balance that she felt was best for her at the time. At that point, to find a professional like Judge Altonaga (also of Cuban descent) was exactly the part of the village Yordanka and the growing family needed.
In 2008, when her clerkship was completed, the pull of family was still a priority. She was welcomed by a supporting group, including fellow Harvard alumna and Cuban-American Angelique Ortega Fridman (now Dean of Students FIU Law, member of the founding faculty at the FIU College of Law and former member of the College’s Legal Skills and Values faculty). Dean Ortega let Yordanka know about the opportunities available at FIU Law, and felt Yordanka would be a great fit. She was right. “The fun of jury trials—teaching juries—and the fun of teaching law students was a lot alike!”
Yordanka has been teaching at FIU Law in various capacities since 2008, beginning full time in its innovative Legal Skills and Values (LSV) program. After the birth of Jake, her youngest, she took a short break, then returned in consistent part-time and visitor positions. She credits Marci Rosenthal (Co-Director and Professor of the 1L two-semester LSV program), and David Walter (Director of the mandatory “LSV 3,” an advanced Skills and Values semester), as well as the FIU administration, for making sure she fully remained part of FIU Law’s family.
Professor Delionado lights up as we look at photographs of the family. The love is palpable even on Zoom as she tells their stories. (She has great stories about everything. I want to write a book to tell all her stories.) Isabella, 17, a high school senior, loves ballet, and excels at French, engineering, and art. John (Johnny), 16, is a high school junior who loves soccer, history, and government, and has interned with the Miami City Attorney. Jake, a seventh grader, also loves soccer, and gravitates towards math (“he’s a numbers kid”).
All of the kids have learned Spanish. “It is important to me that my heritage is a part of their upbringing, including their ability to speak Spanish—which they study at school and practice at home.” That language ties this next generation to their culture and heritage. And of course, there is Chico the Chihuahua, Protector of the Pack, the Little Lion, miraculously rescued with only road rash after being hit by a car and homed with the Delionados. The whole family pitches in, including Yordanka’s mother, as the family navigates the logistics of travel teams, school activities, and social time.
I was impressed at how well and how intentionally Yordanka both “felt-through” and planned her return to full-time, to allow herself and her family to test and settle into each transition. In a twist of fate, she returned to LSV as regular full-time faculty in 2019, just in time for COVID and Zoom in Spring 2020. Still, Yordanka says she can’t help but approach all her teaching tasks with excitement and pleasure. Her students and the law give her tremendous energy and drive.
But family and work are only part of the story and the village. Yordanka gives of herself in all her endeavors (“not as much as I’d like”). Her Latin identity and the platform Harvard and FIU offer allow her give back effectively and consistently in the com-munity setting as well. Only three of her many community activities are (1) mentoring, supporting, and providing network opportunities and fun through her chapter of Harvard Law School Women’s Alliance; (2) mentoring through the platforms that Harvard and FIU offer, especially to Latin Law Students; and (3) providing opportunities for first generation students (“I have a soft spot for these,” she says) through the Harvard First Generation Association.
That soft spot is not a surprise. When we are strengthened and molded in the fires of cultural identity, it is only natural that those origins become both an important part of the village necessary to our own growth, and a key part of the community we intuitively and compassionately reach out to so that we can “give back.”
When Yordanka Valdés Garcia was only six years old, her family finally completed their “paperwork” so that they could leave Cuba. “You need to escape because you cannot speak freely. You know the reality of living in fear.” Ever positive, Yordanka begins to tell me about the fun family trips, the nurturing and intelligent home she grew up in in Cuba. While she prefers to “remember the good things,” and it is apparent that part of her strength comes from a positive, constructive focus, I cajoled her into describing what “living in fear in as a child in Cuba” meant to her. For a family to pick up and leave the country, there must be something important happening.
She remembered seeing what she thought was a big parade coming down the street in her neighborhood. She was excited and told her mom, “Parade!” Then she saw the fear in her mother’s eyes, as her mother quickly pulled her into the house to get away from the mob. The mob threw things at the house and family, shouting “traitor!” and other frightening things, to protest the family’s decision to leave the country. “Those in Cuba who could not escape had to become a part of the neigh-borhood mobs who told on and attacked non-sympathizers. These were members of the Comité (the committee). There was always someone watching.”
But finally, the family escaped Cuba. While the goal was always the U.S., they arrived first in Spain, in 1981. Because of U.S. immigration requirements, the family spent two-and-a-half years in Spain, and another two-and-a-half in Venezuela (mostly following other parts of the family). Finally at eleven years old, Yordanka and her family arrived in Florida. And the upshot? “I cannot tell you how I have loved the opportunities here. I have lived the American Dream.”
As immigration requirements tightened again recently, Yordanka recognizes and sympathizes with the DACA Dreamers who also seek the same opportunities that her other mentees enjoy. She remembers the fierceness of the debate around Eliàn Gonzalez while she was at Harvard Law School, and recalls the shared frustration that she a and her fellow Cuban Americans at Harvard felt over the manner in which that played out.
“As an Assistant Professor at a law school with a very diverse student body, I have an opportunity to mentor all students and specially those with background and experiences similar to mine." She approaches teaching, networking, and mentoring with “the excitement of a newbie.” And her advice to her students? “I want them to approach their own worlds with that same excitement. I let them know how to be comfortable and feel confident in their work.”
This professor who loves the practice and theory of law, her community, and her family, has benefitted from having support along the way; she can now lend her support to those who she mentors. Her own hard work, strength, and determination are the ingredients of her success, and she encourages those around her with the same determination. Her final note to her stu-dents and family: “You have the ability to succeed, flourish, lead.”
To get in touch with Yordanka, you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.