Camelia Valdes’ life has been a series of firsts. She is the first in her family to graduate from high school. The first in her family to attend college. The first Latina prosecutor in the history of New Jersey. And the first lead prosecutor of Dominican ancestry in the United States.
Former Gov. Jon Corzine appointed Valdes, a Wayne resident, to the position of Passaic County prosecutor in 2009.
“It is incredible that in 2009 were we speaking about ‘the first’ of anything,” Valdes said. “As the chief law enforcement officer, we represent and serve everyone, including minorities and there is a certain level of comfort they experience when they see someone like them.”
Valdes was born in Bronx, N.Y., and grew up in Newark. She moved to Wayne in 2003. She said her upbringing had a lot to do with her choice of vocation.
“The messages that I got back then as a young Hispanic woman from Newark who was poor were pretty clear,” Valdes said. “For my parents, the big push was to finish high school because no one in my family ever did.”
It wasn’t until Valdes began critically examining the community she grew up in that she found something she could do with the rest of her life.
“When I looked around at my community and my neighborhood I saw a lot of things that I thought needed to change. I saw a lot of inequality and people who were not fairly represented. I thought that I needed to do something to change that,” Valdes said. “I wanted to have hard working people from my community be safe.”
Valdes received her jurist doctorate from Rutgers University in 1996. She has served as president of the Hispanic Bar Association of New Jersey and frequently speaks about the value of diversity in the legal workforce.
Valdes confers regularly with the Passaic County Sheriff’s Department and the chiefs of the 16 municipal police departments, William Paterson, and Montclair State universities. Law enforcement is often perceived as a male-dominated profession. But for Valdes, that doesn’t matter.
“When you strip it all away, it’s not about men and women, it’s about the work and getting down to the nitty-gritty of things, which is what you have to do in this job,” Valdes said.
Beyond her role as prosecutor, Valdes spends a lot of time with her family and as an advocate for Autism research and education. Her 8-year-old and 6-year-old daughters have the disease.
“My real job is to be a special needs mother and to advocate for them. My priority everyday is to make sure they are taken care of,” Valdes said.