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News Posted on April 7, 2010

Alumni Profile: Fernando Zazueta '75

Fernando ZazuetaFernando Zazueta grew up as a child of migrant farm workers, living in surplus WWII tents and "following the crops" of the San Joaquin and Santa Clara Valleys.  He attended 16 different schools while growing up and can still remember, when the family finally settled in San Jose, his wonder and amazement at the modern conveniences of his new home.

"We had electricity and indoor plumbing and I didn't have a dirt floor to sprinkle with water to keep the dust down! That was really exciting," he recalled.  After graduation from San Jose State College in 1962  he served in the Air Force Reserves as a lieutenant, worked in banking, took a year-long tour through Europe in a VW van with his wife Cecily, and returned to work as a stock broker and then as an accountant, but he had a gnawing feeling there was something missing.

"In the back of my mind, I wasn't quite satisfied with my job prospects.  It was the middle of a severe recession," he said. "There was a wage-freeze at work, lots of lay-offs.  What other work could I do?  The sight of blood made me faint, so med school was out.  I didn't want an MBA.  Being a lawyer sounded interesting.  I was always good with words, and being in a position to help people while having a job that was a bit more independent sounded pretty attractive."  Though he had been out of college for 10 years and had a family to look after, he decided to give law school a try.

Zazueta was interested in UC Davis School of Law in part because he knew and liked the city of Davis, where he had worked as a bank manager one summer.  He visited King Hall and immediately felt at home.

"One of the things I particularly enjoyed about UC Davis was the La Raza Law Students," he said.  "They recruited me, talked to me, and told me how they hoped I would enroll.  That really impressed me.  The students at Stanford and Boalt Hall didn't have the same camaraderie and togetherness, so when I was accepted at Davis, my decision to come here was very easy."

As a student, Zazueta was involved in a wide range of activities.  He was president of the Ralph Bunche Society of International Law, treasurer for the Law Students Association, a member of Phi Delta Phi, and was on the Student Mock Trial Court Board.  In addition, he founded the UC Davis Law Students Opera Society.  He got corporations to donate unused box-seat tickets and got the university to provide transportation for law students to attend the San Francisco Opera.  He also founded the Foreign Language Court Interpreter Program which coordinated with local courts to use King Hall students as paid interpreters.

While at King Hall, Zazueta, who speaks Spanish and understands some Italian, French and Portuguese,  was made aware by a local judge that California had no formal, coordinated system to assure the language competency of court interpreters.  As a result of the Foreign Language Court Interpreter Program, he published a paper on the issue in the UC Davis Law Review (1975) and, after law school, worked as a special consultant to Arthur Young & Co. on a statewide study for the California Judicial Council to assess the language needs of the California population in relation to the use of the justice system.  He developed interpreter training materials for the State Department of Benefit Payments and helped draft SB 420, Senator Alex Garcia's bill, regarding the certification and usage of interpreters in judicial and administration hearings.

"That law benefits the entire population of our state, not just those who speak Spanish, and it has been emulated in other states," said Zazueta.  "I'm proud of that accomplishment, but then came the opportunity to help build San Jose's $34 million Mexican Heritage cultural center.  Nothing quite compares with how proud I am of that."

Zazueta's leadership in the community came about in part because of the encouragement of Bob Morgan, a partner in two of the San Jose firms where Zazueta had worked.  Morgan encouraged him to become active in the state La Raza Lawyers Association, paying his travel expenses and granting him time off to attend conferences.  "He wanted me to be involved in the Latino community, and was wonderfully generous," said Zazueta.  "He was a mentor and helped direct me to positions of leadership in the community.  I loved him as if he were my own father."

Zazueta has performed thousands of hours of civic service, serving on various commissions and advisory boards, but says the project with the greatest impact for him was the Mexican Heritage Corporation which he co-founded in 1988 and which hosts an annual Mariachi and Mexican Music festival.  As founding MHC chairman he spearheaded the drive to build the Mexican Heritage Plaza which provides arts and music education to students in local school districts.

"Despite all of the jokes you may hear, people do respect attorneys.  It's because I'm an attorney that I'm asked to speak at commencements and graduations and serve on advisory boards," said Zazueta.  "My education and my degree as a lawyer gave me the opportunity to do these things."

Today, Zazueta is often amazed at how radically his life has changed from early childhood.  In addition to gaining millions for injured plaintiffs over the years as an attorney practicing tort and personal injury law in San Jose, he can look back on a career that has helped the courts administer justice more equitably and has actively served on many professional and civic boards.  He is proud of what he's been able to do in his profession and as a private citizen, and says his success was made possible by his law degree, which was made possible by UC Davis.

Zazueta is an enthusiastic supporter of Dean Kevin R. Johnson, and is looking forward eagerly to the 35th-year reunion of the Class of '75 on October 16.  He is a generous donor to UC Davis School of Law.  "I feel a great sense of loyalty to the Law School, and also a duty and obligation to support it when possible so that others like me will have the opportunity to receive a great legal education and enter this profession I love.  Cecily and I will soon celebrate our 46th anniversary, we have three wonderful children, two of whom are married, and our youngest son is about to graduate from law school this May.  It doesn't get much better than that."