Spirit of Wetzel Award: Bernice Espinoza

Bernice Espinoza is the recipient of this year's Spirit of Wetzel Award. Read her story here.

Bernice “bere” Espinoza is a civil rights attorney, activist, and poet. Currently working as an immigration removal defense lawyer with Corazón Healdsburg, she is one of only two pro bono deportation defense attorneys operating in Sonoma County. A tireless advocate for immigrant rights as well as all those bearing the brunt of oppressive and unequal conditions, Bernice embodies the ethos of community service in all she does, including her extensive volunteer work during the fires and floods of recent years and the more recent Covid-19 pandemic. The Healthcare Foundation is proud to recognize her commitment to social justice and community health and wellbeing with the Spirit of Wetzel Award.

Bernice grew up in the East Bay and from the age of 8 to 18 lived with her family in Livermore, where she participated in student government beginning in the fifth grade until graduating high school. Born in El Paso to parents with ties to Juárez, Mexico, Bernice would also visit the border region every year for the first 15 years of her life. 

Despite the racism she encountered at her majority-white school, Bernice went on to become the school’s first Latina student body president, and represented her school in the State of Our Nation’s Youth survey of American high schools commissioned by the Horatio Alger Association and broadcast on C-SPAN. She noted the high rate of suicide at her school and the lack of counselors (the school would introduce counselors after Bernice graduated). 

From a young age, Bernice showed a passionate instinct for justice and fairness, and early on set herself the goal of becoming an attorney. Graduating with honors from UC Berkeley, she was accepted to UC Berkeley’s School of Law in 2003.

“I always knew that I wanted to be a civil rights lawyer,” she relates in a recent phone conversation. “Since eighth grade, when we were learning the Preamble to the Constitution, and I complained to my teacher, Miss Montgomery, why do I have to learn this? She said, ‘Maybe one day you’ll want to be a civil rights lawyer.’ I asked, what is that? She taught me about the Civil Rights Movement and I thought, yeah, that’s definitely what I want.”

Since she is a first-generation college attendee and the first to attend law school in her family , Bernice made a point of seeking out mentors who could guide her toward achieving the goal she had set for herself. She met the attorney who would become her first mentor through a Youth, Law and Constitution program that followed on her experience with the Youth survey.

Another mentor was a law student she met while an undergraduate at Berkeley, Alegria De La Cruz, who helped her navigate her way into and through Berkeley Law. Years later, in late 2015, as Bernice was preparing to join the office of the Sonoma County Public Defender, she learned that Alegria had recently moved to Sonoma County as well. (Alegria is now the director of Sonoma County’s Equity Office.) The two would become the ad hoc Spanish-speaking public information officers for the Emergency Operations Center during the Tubbs Fire. She also created a communication network for immigrants and Spanish-speaking communities that was adjacent to her work within the county.

Bernice helped out again during the Kincade Fire, and has continued to prioritize emergency response systems that are accessible and inclusive.

“During the Kincade Fire, we worked very closely with Corazón for all of the recovery and relief,” she recalls, reactivating the communication network to serve north county residents. “In case of emergency, you need language access,” she says. “You need to know what’s happening. You need to be able to react. So that has been a major role that I have played in all of my work.”

“We were learning the Preamble to the Constitution, and I complained to my teacher, Miss Montgomery, why do I have to learn this? She said, ‘Maybe one day you’ll want to be a civil rights lawyer.’ I asked, what is that? She taught me about the Civil Rights Movement and I thought, yeah, that’s definitely what I want.”

Bernice Espinoza, Spirit of Wetzel Award Recipient

Bernice also volunteered with UndocuFund, helping to get financial support to people who could not apply to FEMA or other relief programs, and continues to co-chair COAD’s communications committee. She has also since become a mentor, in turn, for students at Santa Rosa Junior College.

In the summer of 2020, Bernice became the deportation defense attorney through a partnership with the nonprofit Secure Families Collaborative. That partnership includes her current employer Corazón Healdsburg, Catholic Charities, Immigration Institute of the Bay Area, North Bay Organizing Project, and the USF School of Law Immigration and Deportation Defense Clinic, and aims to provide both legal services and social services to immigrant neighbors as well as their families, while safeguarding the economic and cultural vitality of the larger community.

The need for the legal services alone was great.

“There were not enough attorneys who knew how to do removal defense in the North Bay, period,” explains Bernice. “We needed to create capacity. The attorney at USF, Jacqueline Brown Scott, is my legal director, the person who has supervised me and who our waitlist goes through. We do the removal defense for the entire county. We have about 100 clients. There’s unfortunately a 50-person waitlist at this time.”

Bernice describes her clients in removal court as overwhelmingly individuals who came fleeing danger back home but who were unaware of the specific words to use in seeking asylum. “We’re the only country in the world that puts those individuals in detention, these jail facilities,” she notes. “Sometimes with kids, sometimes without their kids.”

As a poet who performs her work at open mics and other venues, Bernice brings her talents with language into her support for her clients.

“I’m a storyteller,” she says. “And being a person with ADHD and a person that lives with PTSD, I do have a trauma-informed practice. Many of my clients have gone through a lot of trauma, and have very little formal education. So I give them notebooks. I say, ‘This is your notebook. I have to paint a story for the court about who you are and why you should be in this country.” For clients who may not be literate, she tells them, “You can do a bullet point. You can draw for me. You can make a symbol. Just something to help me figure out your story.’”

Bernice is always ready with tissues and hugs for her clients, but also recognizes the importance of social services provided by Secure Families and Corazón Healdsburg. “We see if their basic needs are being met. Do you need assistance with food? Do you need assistance with housing?” While her clients may initially decline the need for mental health services, she has encountered on more than one occasion that, as a result of pending deportation proceedings, a client’s U.S.-born child “is cutting themselves in fear that their parent is going to get removed. So I say, ‘We need to get your child mental health services.’”

Bernice’s devotion to her clients is ultimately more than a commitment to social justice—it’s a collaboration born of compassion and understanding.

“I know as someone who lives with PTSD that remembering everything in one session is not possible. Your memory comes to you in phases. That’s why I have the notebook for them. What I say is, ‘Right now the government only sees you as a black-and-white coloring page from a coloring book. They have your name, they have this number they assign to you, they may or may not know what country you were born in. It’s my job to make a full, in-depth, rich painting of you. I have the brush—I have the pen and the computer. But you have all the paint. So I need you to put in that notebook all the colors for me.’”

November 3, 2022 | 8:30-10:00 AM

Dry Creek Kitchen
317 Healdsburg Ave
Healdsburg, CA 95448

Limited Tickets Available – Purchase Here

Join us for a celebratory breakfast event to honor this year’s Wetzel Community Leadership Award recipient Herman J. Hernandez and Spirit of Wetzel Award recipient Bernice Espinoza

Enjoy your choice of a plated breakfast at Dry Creek Kitchen, where iconic chef Charlie Palmer brings his signature style to the bounty of Sonoma County. The morning will include honoree recognition and a brief program. 

Each year, the Healthcare Foundation presents the Wetzel Awards to highlight individuals who demonstrate a commitment to improving health and health equity in our community. The Wetzel Community Leadership Award and Spirit of Wetzel Award are named for the late Maggie and Harry Wetzel, longtime friends of the Healthcare Foundation and generous members of our community. The memory of the Wetzels lives on through the award honorees who exemplify humanitarian leadership values in action on a daily basis.

Thank You to Our Sponsors

Community Health Builder

Big John's Market

Community Health Supporters

Costeaux French Bakery
Exchange Bank, Healdsburg
Healdsburg Running Company

Related News + Stories