Evelyn Sanguinetti is an attorney, a mother, a concert pianist and a public servant who, in 2014, became the first Hispanic elected to the office of lieutenant governor in Illinois as well as the first female Hispanic lieutenant governor in the United States.
Her story begins with her parents’ decision to come to the United States in the 1960s to pursue a better future. Her mother arrived fleeing Fidel Castro’s Cuba, where she had no freedoms. Her father is from Ecuador, one of the poorest countries in Latin America. They met and married in Florida when her mother was 15 and her father 17 years old. Evelyn was born in 1970.
Growing up, Evelyn would hear the stories about people being chased and harassed in Cuba for wanting to speak their minds as well as the struggles that her father endured.
“Now, whenever I show pictures of my father back in his country he often laughs and says, ‘Couldn’t you find me a photo with shoes?’ That’s how poor they were,” she said.
Her mother was only 15 years old when she had Evelyn.
“Being raised by teenage parents was interesting. Simply put, I was a child raised by children. My mother and I would bicker and she would say ‘I am your mother. I am these many years older than you,’” said Evelyn, “and she would count with her fingers because she was so young. But, bickering aside, we were very close.”
Evelyn’s mother always had high expectations for her.
Evelyn remembers growing up in a very poor neighborhood. Her family constantly moved from apartment to apartment, “ahead of the landlord,” and she was the beneficiary of public aid. It was difficult for her to understand why her family was in such a precarious position.
Her mother helped her gain perspective by teaching her that there were many in their situation and that education was the answer to changing one’s circumstance. Yet, despite her mother’s best efforts to keep her engaged, Evelyn felt unmotivated and uninspired at school.
One of the reasons she struggled, she said, was that her teachers seemed uninterested in helping her to improve, and Evelyn failed the first grade.
As she continued trying to make her way through school, her parents wanted to ensure she had the necessary tools to complete her homework. They bought her a dictionary at a local grocery store called Winn-Dixie in hopes that it would improve her grades, but her parents were still learning English and she did not know how to use it, so it was challenging.
“I did not get that residual knowledge from my class, nor could I get it at home,” Evelyn said. “For example, I didn’t know that if you are looking for the word Xerox, you have to start with the letter X, so I would start from the first page. Eventually, I would tire and fall asleep, so I would always fail the assignment.”
Unable to complete her assignments on time, Evelyn kept failing. Her self-esteem faltered. She was too young to recognize that the environment was failing her, not the other way around.
She internalized those feelings and they affected the way she felt about herself. But thanks to her mother’s efforts, she was able to overcome those self-doubts when an education opportunity came knocking.
“My mother used to say, ‘You are going to rise like the foam,’ even though our family did not have the resources to facilitate an environment conducive to big opportunities,” Evelyn said. “Despite that, my mother inspired me. She always told me that I could do anything I wanted in this country.”
Prior to Evelyn beginning high school, her mother had worked at a factory and saved enough money to buy her a piano. Evelyn started taking piano lessons at her local community elementary school.
Music changed Evelyn’s perception of herself. Those lessons became a safe place, as she described it:
“When you grow up in poverty, life is always very stressful. Bilingual children have a lot of pressure from their families. Spanish was my first language and my parents needed me to translate their mail and help them communicate, so I experienced an incredible amount of stress. Music provided a getaway, a safe place to retreat.”
Learning how to play the piano ultimately led Evelyn to the New World School of the Arts in Miami, Florida. She learned about their auditions. Those students accepted would graduate with the equivalent of an associate of arts degree.
One of the pieces that Evelyn audition with was called “Ice Castles,” and she was accepted. It was a breath of fresh air, as she described it, since she finally received the quality education that she needed to reach her full potential; something she had long craved.
Her professors at New World School of the Arts were both highly educated and skilled artists who inspired Evelyn to do her best in what she described as a life-changing experience.
“That is something that always stuck with me,” Evelyn said. “Had my mom never bought that piano, had she not given me that opportunity, I would have never excelled. I think about all the other kids whose parents did not have the resources. They never had an opportunity.”
After graduating with the equivalent of an associate of arts degree, Evelyn was able to attend Florida International University on a scholarship.
The transition from music to the law came from Evelyn’s realization that her passion for service would allow her to do more for her community. She joined an international honorary music fraternity for women called Sigma Alpha Iota because she believed in the power of music as public service. They performed in nursing and retirement homes. It was always about the causes she believed in.
One day, while at the cafeteria, she came across a John Marshall Law School kiosk. One of the recruiters encouraged her to apply.
“If you can perform in front of an audience, you can perform in front of a jury of your peers,” she recalled the recruiter telling her.
Evelyn took the brochure and went home to discuss it with her family. Goal-oriented by that point, she prepared for the admissions test by applying the same study techniques she had used as a pianist: concentration and memorization. Going into an academic field that required a high level of concentration was a natural transition. She was accepted and started law school in 1995.
When she first began learning legal terminology, most of which she did not know how to pronounce, she discovered that starting without any previous knowledge or preconceived notions about the law was extremely helpful. It facilitated her learning process and she quickly excelled.
She recalls insensitive comments regarding her ethnicity. Some people discounted her success as they perceived it to be due only to affirmative action rather than her personal efforts. While it was bothersome, Evelyn realized that people, for the most part, had good intentions.
She refined her skills and gained confidence in her performance thanks to the Socratic method of teaching. Students studied a case and the professor contested their stances to help them improve their understanding of the case’s progression.
“It was a very competitive environment as all students were future attorneys,” Evelyn said. “But I would let them know that I wasn’t there to ride, I would let my skills and knowledge speak for itself.”
That earned Evelyn’s peers’ respect and admiration.
She had always believed in fairness and justice and she knew that few Latinos were in law school, so she helped rekindle a student group called Latino Law Students.
Membership grew over the years and it became a more inclusive group that brought people from all ethnicities together.
She also started practicing law under a 711 license, which gives students the permission to practice law under the supervision of a law professor. She did it through the John Marshall Fair Housing legal clinic, and it was life-changing.
“You take a civil rights class and you realize that people are being denied housing based on the color of their skin, ethnicity, disability,” Evelyn said. “I was able to represent them and that is where I learned how to become a leader.”
Evelyn was one of three Latino students in her class to graduate from John Marshall Law School in 1998. She graduated with strong self-confidence and developed a deep commitment to serving her community. Her goal was to help those who might never be in a position to help themselves.
“My involvement in politics came from learning what people go through, and how to help them overcome the challenges they face. That’s what leadership is about,” she said. “That’s how you are able to lead them, by being compassionate.”
Evelyn served as an assistant attorney general in the Illinois Attorney General’s Office under Jim Ryan before transitioning to private practice. She began teaching as an adjunct professor of law at the John Marshall Law School in 2008.
In another turning point in her life, Evelyn suffered a slip and fall accident in 2007, and subsequent medical examinations revealed that she had multiple sclerosis, but she vowed to never let it stop her. She ran for city council of Wheaton and won in 2011.
Evelyn still lives in Wheaton with her husband and three children. She has been involved in Franklin Middle School, Lowell Elementary School, and Jefferson Preschool Parent-Teacher Associations. She also is a member of the Wheaton Chamber of Commerce and the DuPage County Bar Association.
With persistence, passion and determination, Evelyn continues serving the community she loves.
When asked what advice she would give to people reading her story, this is what she shared:
“When you turn on the TV it seems like everything is negative, but my message to you would be to find the opportunity to help and find mentors. There is always someone who will be curious to learn about what you’re doing and willing to help you out. Find out about opportunities that are available to you, like I did. The American dream is still very much alive. Latinos are the largest minority, and I’d like to see more of us run for office. I hope I was able to open that door through my journey. Hopefully, this will inspire some girls to say, ‘I could do that.’”