Minnesota Law

Fall 2022
Faculty Focus

Putting Her Passion into Practice

In law and beyond, Associate Clinical Professor Liliana Zaragoza’s focus is on racial justice

Professor Liliana Zaragoza

As the only child of a single mother who immigrated from Mexico to Tucson, Arizona, Liliana Zaragoza understands the barriers people of color and low income can face in this country. Zaragoza joined Minnesota Law this fall, bringing deep personal and professional experience to her new position as associate clinical professor and head of the new Racial Justice Law Clinic. She comes to the Law School most recently from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF). 

“Racism and xenophobia have touched my life in many ways, starting when I was very young,” Zaragoza says. “I was inquisitive and talkative in elementary school, so teachers immediately wanted to place me in special education because that often happens with kids of color.” Instead, her mother, a teacher herself, advocated for testing and Zaragoza was placed in a gifted and talented program. 

The family moved often because they were poor and because her mother wanted Zaragoza to go to quality public schools. She tested into Tucson’s University High School, a school that was created out of a racial desegregation lawsuit and became a feeder for top colleges and universities around the country. She landed at the University of Chicago, earning a degree in international studies and human rights. 

While in college, she worked at grassroots organizations focused on mobilizing Latinx and immigrant populations. “At the time, organizing was really hard for me,” she says. “You almost never see the results of your work even though it’s essential work.” 

Pursuing Her Passions in Law 

Zaragoza went to Columbia Law School convinced that she wanted to be an immigration lawyer and joined with others to advocate for an immigration clinic. But her 1L constitutional law course focused on the Fourteenth Amendment altered her career path. “The lens of the Fourteenth Amendment and the fact that our laws have long controlled entry and citizenship on the basis of race made me want to work on systemic issues instead of taking one immigration case at a time,” she says. 

After serving as the first Latinx editor-in-chief of the Columbia Law Review and obtaining her J.D., Zaragoza received a Skadden Fellowship. She proposed a project to represent domestic workers in wage and hour claims in light of the recently enacted New York Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. Because her mother’s first job in the U.S. was domestic work, she says it was a “full-circle moment” for her. She forged relationships with organizations across myriad communities to increase understanding of domestic worker rights and helped individuals determine their legal path. 

“While I knew I wanted to pursue systemic work, impact litigation can be theoretical and sometimes divorced from what actual clients need,” she says. “I wanted to make sure my work was grounded in direct work.” 

Following her fellowship, she served as a John Payton Appellate and Supreme Court Advocacy Fellow at LDF. She then clerked for Judge L. Felipe Restrepo on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit and the Judge Victor Marrero in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York before returning to LDF as assistant counsel. 

Impactful Teaching 

Zaragoza will now have the opportunity to teach the next generation of attorneys at Minnesota Law. She will marry her organizing and impact litigation experience as she develops the racial justice clinic she proposed when she applied for the clinical professor position. 

“Combatting racism and settler colonialism has always been necessary in the United States, but this work is especially urgent here in Minnesota, where George Floyd and numerous others have been murdered by the State, Line 3 was allowed to continue against Indigenous resistance, and racial disparities remain some of the starkest in the country,” she says. “It is urgent at this moment in time, when legislatures across the country are working to ban the teaching of critical race theory, to lean into this work.”

Kathy Graves is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer