American Dreamer

Zulima Farber arrived from Cuba at age 16 and today is New Jersey’s first Hispanic attorney general

Published in 2006 New Jersey Super Lawyers — April 2006

It’s a story as old as America itself. An immigrant raised in a country with a repressive regime makes it to the United States, puts in long hours learning the language and culture and rises to heights scarcely imaginable in her native land. Zulima Farber, New Jersey’s attorney general, is such a success story.

In 1961, two years after Fidel Castro came to power, Farber’s family decided to leave their homeland of Cuba. She was 16. Her 13-year-old brother had been arrested for having anti-government propaganda and was released only because of family connections. Farber’s parents feared for the family’s future. They spirited their four children out of the country — one son, a fifth child, was already in New York — and followed them in 1963.

“It was a scary time, but I understood we had to leave,” Farber says. She and a sister and a brother stayed with an aunt’s family in New Jersey until their parents and her two other brothers joined them, which expanded the group to nine.

The family had been fairly well-to-do in Cuba — her father was a doctor and her mother a nurse — which made the adjustment especially difficult. “We lived the immigrant experience when we first came,” she says. “We were crammed in a small apartment, and cash was extremely short. We probably qualified for welfare.”

Farber and her sister delayed college to support the family. Her first job, in 1962, was packing belts at a factory — a job she kept for two summers before she was hired as a legal secretary. She knew some English but not much; she had to work hard to become proficient. But once she did, she took off, both in her job and later in school.

She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Montclair State and planned to pursue doctoral studies to become a research psychologist, but her husband inspired her to follow a different path. Eugene Farber, now deceased, was a law student at the time, and his studies so intrigued her that she changed course and attended law school. She graduated from Rutgers University School of Law in 1974.

Farber looked to public service early in her career, which should come as no surprise considering her heritage: Her grandfather had been mayor of a town close to hers in Cuba, and her father was a councilman. “I grew up in a home where we had to help others,” she says. “My parents were very public-minded.” Influenced by their service, she worked as a legal analyst for the Department of Health and Welfare in Newark for parts of three years. Then she did a stint at the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office in Hackensack, where she and Sybil Moses, now a judge, were the only women. “It was a novelty to find women in the prosecutor’s office,” Farber says. “It took another 18 months before a few more were hired.”

The North Bergen resident went on to serve as assistant counsel to Gov. Brendan Byrne from 1978 to 1981 before starting with Lowenstein in 1981. She planned to stay for a couple of years and move into government but “things worked out differently — and better.” In 1986, she was the firm’s first female to be named partner.

In 1992 she left her position at Lowenstein to serve as public advocate and public defender in Gov. Florio’s cabinet, becoming the first Hispanic woman to serve as a state cabinet officer. And in early 2006 she made history again when newly elected Gov. Jon Corzine tapped her to be his attorney general. She is the first Hispanic to hold the position.

“I am honored and humbled,” she said in a statement after accepting the nomination. “These are particularly challenging times and I look forward to working with Gov. Corzine and his cabinet to improve the lives of all New Jerseyans.”

Looking back on her American odyssey, Farber remembers thinking that it would be difficult for her to become successful in this country. “I was short-sighted about what America is and how giving people here are,” she says. “I didn’t understand the resources and resourcefulness of the American people — from scholarships to low-interest loans. I am so grateful.”

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