“My client was gunned down by her husband in my presence after a court proceeding. I truly believe that God had spared my life and so I became purpose driven to make a difference in the lives of the victims and their children.”
Bernadette D’Souza, originally hailing from Vhoddlem Bhatt, Quepem, Goa, has created waves in the American as well as the Indian press for being elected for the New Orleans’ first Family Court judgeship in the first week of February. Fondly known as “Busha” to her relatives in Quepem, Bernadette D’Souza won the elections when two of her rivals, Kris Kiefer and Janet Ahern dropped out of the race. In her victory statement D’Souza says, “I thank all the members of our community, who have entrusted me with this historic opportunity to shape the role of this new Family Court in our judicial system, including my worthy opponents, Attorneys Janet Ahern and Kris Kiefer, who have allowed me to begin the important work of this court immediately by withdrawing from this race. I want everyone to know how seriously I take that responsibility. I pledge to make you proud of my service as your first Family Court Judge.”
Recipient of numerous awards and honours, D’Souza is a graduate of the Bombay University and Tulane University Law School in New Orleans. She moved to the U.S. in 1978 and joins the ranks of Keith Vaz, Bobby Jindal, Sunita Williams etc. who have made it big in the West.
In a very personal and frank chat Bernadette D’Souza talks about her ambitions, childhood, Bombay and Quepem – her home during her childhood years.
Tell us about your childhood in Quepem, Goa and also about your father Tony Gomes, who was a renowned musician of yesteryears.
I was born in Goa to loving parents Anthony (Tony) and Esmeralda Gomes. I have fond memories of my childhood in Quepem. Every summer holidays in May, we would visit with our grandparents, Joao and Anamaria Gomes. We had a fun time visiting with relatives. My parents often entertained friends and relatives in our home. The feast days were special. There was so much excitement around the house. To raise funds for a worthy cause, my father arranged for a New Year’s Eve dance in the Quepem Municipal Garden. I remember going to see him perform. It was well-attended and the people of Quepem appreciated his kindness. It was such a proud moment for me as his daughter. My father never hesitated to give a helping hand to those in need.
My father was a well renowned musician in Bollywood. My early childhood was spent in Mumbai because of my father’s employment. He was the primary influence in my life and was my role model. He would take me to the film recording studios, where I watched him play his guitar. Many of my leadership traits were taken from the examples of my father. He was the first Indian musician to introduce the electric guitar in Hindi movies. I remember being introduced to the music directors and other musicians that he worked with, and was in awe of his greatness. His untimely death left a sudden void in my life and compelled me to carry on his message of striving to achieve my full potential. His outstanding legacy will always be a part of my life.
As a Catholic girl from Goa, how was it like for you growing up in Bombay?
We lived in an area that was predominantly Goan Catholics. I attended a nearby Catholic school in my early years. As the oldest child of 8 children, my father wanted me to have a good education and sent me to a convent boarding school in Siolim, Goa. My father always emphasized on how important an education was and had great expectations of me. I thrived while there and was the head girl of my class. I came back to Bombay to attend college and graduated from the University of Bombay with a degree in Psychology (with Honors).
|With husband Dr. Terence D'Souza|
You moved to the U.S. in 1978. Was it primarily because of academic reasons or were there any other reasons?
I came to the United States in 1978, as a young bride having married my husband, Dr. Terence D’Souza of Cuncolim, Goa. He came to the US to do a medical residency in Neurology. I chose to stay home and raise our 3 wonderful children, Lloyd, Vanessa and Christine. When our youngest entered kindergarten, I decided to go back to school and was admitted to Tulane University Law School in New Orleans. I graduated in 1992 with a Juris Doctor (JD) degree. In 2002, I was appointed as an adjunct professor to teach a course at Tulane Law School.
How was your initial experience in the U.S.? Did you encounter racial discrimination?
My initial experience in the U.S. was a lot easier. Both my husband and I adapted very easily to the culture of New Orleans. New Orleans is a great city and the people are welcoming and hospitable. New Orleans is a city very much like the cities in Goa, with Spanish and French influences. It is predominantly Catholic with lots of old churches. We quickly made friends and became a part of the community that we live in. We did not experience any racial discrimination. Our accomplishments as a physician and a lawyer helped break any cultural barriers.
What motivates you in taking up public service?
As a public interest lawyer, I worked at a non-profit law firm and represented the indigent population of our city. People who could not afford a lawyer obtained free legal services. I was the managing attorney of the family law and domestic violence unit. Representing the poor of our city gave me an understanding of the need to offer myself for public service.
|With Chief Justice Caloger and Louisiana State Bar Association President Guy de Laup after receiving the Career Public Interest Award in 2008|
Why is the issue of domestic violence so close to your heart?
In 2000 I was the board president of the Young Christian Women’s Association (YWCA). The YWCA had the premier battered women’s program in the city. The incidents of domestic violence were growing. I saw a need for representation of victims of domestic violence and through my law firm applied for funding to the Department of Justice to represent the victims in civil court. I established the unit at Southeast Louisiana Legal Services and began my work. The issue of domestic violence is so close to my heart because of an incident that occurred outside the courthouse. My client was gunned down by her husband in my presence after a court proceeding. I truly believe that God had spared my life and so I became purpose driven to make a difference in the lives of the victims and their children.
Having being brought up as a Catholic Goan girl, to what extent did it influence your personality and outlook on life?
I attended a Catholic boarding school in Siolim, Goa where the emphasis was on education and leadership. The nuns in the boarding school also instilled in me a strong desire to help the needy. “To those whom much is given, much is expected,” is a quote from John F. Kennedy. I have continued to be involved in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, having served as a pastoral council member in my parish. I also serve as a lector and Eucharistic minister.
|With her entire family|
Can share with our readers some interesting anecdotes or incidents that you experienced in the process of your amalgamation in American society, in the sense of being accepted in America?
My career path in public interest law has been a gratifying and rewarding experience. I thank God, my wonderful husband and children, who have been my source of strength and grace that has enabled me to continue the work I do for my community. I have been honored by the community in New Orleans having received numerous awards and recognitions, and most recently honored as the 2011 Women of the Year by City Business, a local newspaper. The American society recognizes success and excellence, and acceptance has not been a problem. In addition my children have also been finding success in their own careers. My son Lloyd is a writer director in Hollywood, my daughter Vanessa (Michael DePetrillo) is a Patent Attorney in New Orleans and my daughter Christine is Director of International Sales and Acquisitions at Preferred Content in Los Angeles. We are proud grandparents of Aidan Michael DePetrillo.
(A version of this interview appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: February 15, 2012)
For the Konknni translation see here.
For the Konknni translation see here.