When Myriam Irizarry was a child growing up, times were very tough. Her single mom was raising her and six other children in a small shack with no electricity or running water in the mountains of Puerto Rico. Decades later, Irizarry now sits as a Pinellas County Court judge in the Criminal Division of the 6th Judicial Circuit. In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from September 15 through October 19, St. Petersburg College International Programs and Student Life and Leadership teamed up to host Irizarry via Zoom to inspire students with her story.
“She’s been such a friend to the college,” said Frank Jurkovic, Director of International Programs. “We’re honored to have her here to kick of Hispanic Heritage Month.”
Irizarry recalled her family’s move to New York City, which happened incrementally, with her sister going first to join family there. Her sister got work and saved enough to send for her mother and the youngest children. They lived in tenement slums for a few weeks, until their building burned down, rendering them homeless. As her mother began to navigate public assistance without speaking a lot of English, young Myriam, who had learned English quickly, served as a translator.
“That’s where my lawyer training started,” Irizarry said. “My mother saw me as her advocate, and she would always say, ‘You’re going to be a lawyer someday’. I couldn’t see that happening, but she was strong and supportive and had a different dream for each of us.”
The family moved to New Jersey, where Irizarry took part in the Upward Bound program, which prepares minority or underprivileged kids for college. The program helped her with college applications and helped her secure financial aid.
“We couldn’t believe it,” she said. There I was in college!”
She graduated from Rutgers University with an undergraduate degree, then was accepted into their law school, where she earned her law degree.
“Through the grace of god a lot of hard work, I made it,” she said. “When I graduated, it was the happiest day of our lives, and my mom was right there with me.”
Irizarry felt that the only way to pay back all the support and assistance she and her family had received over the years was to use her law degree only to help others and give back to the community. She took a job in Legal Services helping indigent people with civil matters, then moved on to criminal court. After following her family to Florida, she began working with the Circuit Court and adjuncting at SPC. Seeing the judgeship as an extension of public service, she began the long process of trying to be appointed as a judge. When it finally happened, she became the first Hispanic female judge in Pinellas County.
Irizarry believes that the poverty she endured in her childhood only serves to make her better at her job.
“Living through that helped form the strength of character and humility that were tools I was able to bring not only to the bench, but also everyday life,” she said. As a judge, I see many people from all walks of life. They come to me with all kinds of issues, and I know where they come from because I lived it.”
Though she has worked in a lot of areas, she said truancy court is her favorite. Behind the bench, she keeps a big poster of the tumbledown home her family shared in Puerto Rico to show kids what they can achieve.
“I could see myself with the same struggles they have,” she said. “I do a lot of talking and helping them understand they can overcome things they’re facing and not let bad influences bring them down.”
Irizarry, who has a husband and two children, will retire at the end of her term, but she still plans to stay involved by offering her services as a senior judge who fills in for other judges who are ill or on vacation. She also hopes to do more teaching at SPC. Her advice to students was to work hard and believe in themselves and they can accomplish anything.
“It’s a matter of knowing that you are just as smart, important and competent as your counterparts, and if you work hard and reach out when you need help, there will be rewards in the end for perseverance.”