FROM UNION CITY TO
PHOTOGRAPHED BY AXEL DUPEUX
They come from all corners of the globe. They struggle, they learn, they earn—all
in pursuit of the American Dream. Though they are relative newcomers to New
Jersey, their stories would make past generations of immigrants proud.
THE FEDERAL BENCH
By Chris Sagona
sther Salas was 10 when the fire
broke out. “Mommy, fire!” she
called as smoke filled the Union
City apartment where she lived with
her mother and two of her four siblings.
Little Esther climbed onto the kitchen
counter to reach for a box of cat food. Shaking the
box, she coaxed her cat out of hiding long enough
for her sister, Julie, to grab it. Luckily, the rest of
Esther’s family also escaped the blaze.
“We lost everything in that fire,” recalls Salas,
it wasn’t easy,” she says. “I had to really advocate.”
now 49. “I helped save the cat, then reached my hand
into the closet and grabbed one shoe, then another,
and had to get out. That’s how little time we had.”
In the difficult days that followed, Salas did her
part to help the family recover. She and her mother
waited in line at the welfare office to plead the fam-
ily’s case—with Esther as translator. “It wasn’t fun;
Her pleas proved to be a prologue of what was to
come. Salas trained to become an attorney. By age
38, she was selected as New Jersey’s first Latino fed-
eral magistrate judge. Five years later, she became
the state’s first Latina U. S. District Court judge.
Salas and her siblings were born in California to
a Catholic mother, Aurelia Valdivia, who emigrated
from Cuba, and a Jewish father, Carlos Salas, from
Mexico. Both had come to America in the late 1950s.
“Our father gave all of us Jewish first or middle
✣ THE NEW FACES OF NEW JERSEY
names to go with our Mexican last name,” says Sa-
las. When she was five, Aurelia and Carlos split up;
Salas blames the separation on domestic violence.
Carlos moved back to Mexico; Aurelia took the chil-
dren east to live with a brother in Union City.
Aurelia had finally moved her family into their own
place when the fire left them homeless. Again, they
moved in with her brother’s family— 11 people in one
small apartment. Eventually, Aurelia saved enough
to move her brood to an apartment on 15th Street in
Union City. Aurelia worked as a caretaker for children. She cleaned offices at night. She cut fabric in
the needlepoint industry. “She never spent the money
she earned on herself, and instead she paid bills and
saved for rainy days,” says Salas. In time, Aurelia saw
all five of her children graduate college. “My mother
is the strongest person I have ever met,” Salas says.
“Tough as nails, but very respectful.”
From her mother, Salas learned respect, fair-
ness, diligence and love of country. Education was
paramount. Salas earned a bachelor’s degree from
Rutgers University and a law degree from Rutgers
School of Law. After working for the law firm of
Garces and Grabler, she spent close to 10 years as an
assistant defender in the federal courts. She served
as president of New Jersey’s Hispanic Bar Associa-
tion from 2001-2002. In 2010, President Barack
Obama nominated her for a federal judgeship. The
Senate unanimously approved the nomination.
✣ ✣ ✣
on this monday in october, the attorneys are
waiting for Salas to enter Room 5A of U. S. Federal
District Court in Newark. In her chambers, Salas is
reading the last-minute paperwork filed on behalf
of the defendant, a musician named Mario Winans,
about to be sentenced for failure to file tax returns.