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HAMMOND — Thrust into the national spotlight last year when then-presidential candidate Donald Trump brazenly questioned his performance as a federal judge because of his Mexican heritage, Northwest Indiana native U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel returned to his roots Friday night. 

The 1971 Bishop Noll Institute graduate and this year’s graduating class keynote speaker offered words of encouragement in a time of great division in the United States.

He highlighted what he called a “beautiful multicultural” melting pot that is his hometown of East Chicago while acknowledging the widespread de facto segregation that exists in the United States.

“I was in a community where I had Greek friends, Polish friends. I had Puerto Rican friends. African-American friends … We were all the same,” said Curiel, who grew up in the city’s Harbor section. “And that’s the aim of the American dream, to bring all those together and give equal opportunity so that we can stand together, so that we can raise our families and become better people.”

East Chicago native Gregory Vega — best friends with Curiel, fellow Bishop Noll graduate and a former U.S. attorney in the Southern District of California — said while introducing the judge to the 125 graduating students that they should look to Curiel as a role model for how he handled the glare of public scrutiny last year.

Last summer, Trump — who campaigned on the promise of building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border — grilled Curiel in the media about his ability to objectively preside over a class-action lawsuit targeting then-Trump University. Curiel's parents are natives of Mexico.

“Many of us have never been tested the way Judge Curiel had been tested. The attributes of trust, strength and courage and class were instilled in him here at Bishop Noll Institute,” Vega said.

Though the Southern District of California judge not once uttered now-President Trump’s name, Curiel received a standing ovation and applause when he offered his own interpretation of Trump's ubiquitous “Make America Great Again!” campaign slogan.

“This great mosaic, made up of people from all over the world aiming for the American dream; this is what made America great,” Curiel said. “This is what continues to make America great, even today.”

Curiel’s parents were from Mascota, Mexico, a small town near Puerto Vallarta. His father came to the U.S. in the 1920s through the Bracero Program and followed a cousin to East Chicago after hearing about better jobs in the steel mills. 

Curiel graduated in 1979 from the Indiana University Maurer School of Law. Curiel worked as a private attorney in Dyer before moving to California to work as an assistant U.S. attorney in San Diego and Los Angeles. He was a San Diego Superior Court judge when President Barack Obama in 2012 appointed him to serve as a federal judge.  

He is now overseeing a deportation case centered on Juan Manuel Montes, a 23-year-old and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient who has lived in the U.S. since he was a young child but was deported by federal agents earlier this year to his native Mexico.

In the lead up to Curiel’s speech, graduating senior and salutatorian Daniel Cuevas posed the question to his fellow, mostly minority classmates: In a nation so divided, "What does it mean for a Latino from Hammond, for a black girl from East Chicago, and for a boy in Gary to graduate from Bishop Noll?"

The answer came later, as Curiel challenged those seated before him to not complain, but "to act" when faced with discrimination.

“We have succeeded in taking on discrimination in many forms, but it still exists … We’re not done,” Curiel said. 

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Northlake County Reporter

Lauren covers North Lake County government, breaking news, crime and environmental issues for The Times. She previously worked at The Herald-News in Joliet. She holds a master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting.