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Candidate Linda Yafiez hopes to become the first Latina in Texas history to win a seat on the state Supreme Court. By ELIZABETH PIERSON HERNANDEZ .4″ 41. 1.1 he teenager carried a long-handled hoe. Her bosses had left her unsupervised to work the vast, northern Illinois vegetable field. As the summer sun beat down, she moved up and down the rows clearing weeds. When it came time for the midday break, Linda Reyna Yariez sought refuge under a shade treeto read. At that time the 16-year-old from the Rio Grande Valley was devouring books by Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Victor Hugo, and any thing she could find by Thomas Hardy. Yariez was no stranger to the fields. She had spent earlier summers picking cotton in Texas. Often there was no bathroom during the long days between the rowsa fact that still grates. But the hard work paid off at the end of each summer, when she and four siblings used the money they’d earned to buy school supplies and clothes. Yariez’s improbable life journey has taken her from farm fields to Harvard University to her current position as the first Hispanic female appellate judge in Texas history. Now she’s on the move again. Yariez is running to become the first Hispanic woman to sit on the Texas Supreme Court. She’s challenging incumbent Republican Justice Phil Johnson for the Place 8 seat. No Democratic candidate has won statewide office since 1994, but Yariez hopes to ride a Democratic wave sweeping the nation and exploit disgust in Texas over the court’s big-business bias. Interviewed in May at her Edinburg office, Yariez wore a red dress with a neat white cardigan, white shoes, and a matching white handbag. She’s petite and speaks clearly with energy, often interrupting herself with another thought. When she was born, her family had lived in Rio Hondo in the Rio Grande Valley for generations, but without connections that could help them overcome their status as working poor. Her parents, both manual laborers and each the oldest in their families, helped put their younger brothers and sisters through school. Jobs in the Valley in the 1960s were scarce for people without much education, so by the time Yafiez reached high school, her parents had moved to Illinois for steady factory jobs. Yariez stayed with her grandmother in Rio Hondo, where she thrived as an honor student, cheerleader, and carnival queen. Her parents and grandparents doted on her. Her well-educated aunts and uncles encouraged her to go to college. In the migrant camps, she and her sisters befriended the crew leaders’ sons, who took the girls on trips to museums in Chicago. For Yariez, new horizons opened. After graduating from Rio Hondo High School, she stayed in the Valley to attend college at the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg. One summer she had what she called the most difficult job of her life, working on an assembly line in a factory that made plastic lids for fast-food cups. She was allergic to the plastic and vomited every day until she quit and took a job at a drug store. A recruiter from President Nixon’s Cabinet Committee on Opportunity for the Spanish Speaking convinced her to spend a year in Washington scoping out possible careers at federal agencies. The work did not appeal to her. She married and had a child. After a year, she returned to the Valley to raise her daughter. In 1971, she settled in Weslaco and took a job as a first grade teacher. Teaching by day, she volunteered evenings and weekends with voter drives for the 1972 George McGovern presidential campaign, an effort headed in the Rio Grande Valley by David Hall, now executive director of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. She turned out to be a star political recruiter. “Linda’s a very engaging personality and doesn’t take no for an answer readily, and she had lots of friends and lots of relatives,” Hall says. “And so we had most of Rio Hondo working on the effort. And they were all a good-looking bunch of women. They could stop traffic on any street corner in the Rio Grande Valley.” Over the course of the campaign, Yariez got to know Hall, who found her to be bright and a talented public speaker. He saw in the schoolteacher someone with “courtroom poise that is lacking in so many lawyers,” so he encouraged her to attend law school. She resisted, seeing the move as a tremendous risk. Her marriage had failed, she was supporting a daughter alone, and she’d have to leave her steady teaching job to attend law school. In March 1972, Yariez says, Hall showed up at her home with an application to Texas Southern University Law School in Houston, and said, “You need to do it now.” She filled out the paperwork, left to teach migrant students in Nebraska for the summer, and came home to an acceptance letter. At Texas Southern, she took an internship her first summer and returned to the fields of northern Illinois, this time “It was the early days of empowerment of the Hispanic community, and she made it clear that she wanted to be part of that future.” JUNE 27, 2008 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 9