BY TERI R. WILLIAMS | PHOTOS BY DAPHNE WALKER
As the first Filipino American judge in Georgia and soon-to-be 72nd president of
the Young Lawyers Division of the State Bar of Georgia, Judge Rizza O’Connor
has become a role model of leadership for young women in our community.
“Rizza’s grandfather wanted to be
an attorney his entire life,” said
Evelyn Palmares. “He prayed that
someday one of his grandchildren
would become one. Rizza visited
the Philippines at three years of age. It was
the first and the last time she would see her
grandfather. At the airport as he was saying
goodbye, he prophesized that this child would
become a lawyer in the future.” Judge Rizza
O’Connor would learn of her grandfather’s words
about her for the first time only this year.
Rizza’s mother, Evelyn Palmares, left the
Philippines for America in 1979. “Her family was
sugar cane farmers, and they were very poor,”
said Rizza. “She was the one of four in a family
of ten children to go to college. Becoming a nurse
was her ticket to America. She had many offers
from New York, Detroit, and other big cities, but
chose to go to work in Statesboro.” A short time
later, her mother took a position at St. Joseph’s
Hospital in Savannah.
Rizza’s mother and father first met at a sugar
cane plant where they worked after college. While
Evelyn studied to become a nurse, Orly Palmares,
her father, studied Business Administration.
The two maintained a long-distance relationship
until 1983 when Rizza’s mother returned to the
Philippines to marry her longtime sweetheart.
Finally, together in America, they determined to
build a life together that would provide a better
opportunity for their future family. Two years
later, their first child, Rizza, was born.
As a child, Rizza remembered how her
48 Toombs County Magazine
parents adjusted to fully speaking English.
Although Tagalog is the official language, there
are more than 170 languages spoken in the
Philippines and hundreds of different dialects.
“My parents spoke Ilonggo,” said Rizza, which
they spoke in her home. “I can remember my
father having to adjust to speaking English in
everyday activities. He worked several jobs
when he first arrived in America from a gas
station attendant to an employee at Byrd Cookie
Company. Her father eventually ended up landing
a job at St. Joseph’s Hospital in the Admission
Unit where he has been for over 20 years.
As a first-generation child of Filipino
immigrants, she was taught to value the many
opportunities here in America. Instead of a
burden, her parents’ hopes and expectations
only fueled their daughter’s aspirations. Rizza
was always a leader. She served as President of
her junior and senior class and led the French
Club and the National Honor Society. She played
basketball and volleyball and served as captain of
her high school soccer team.
“The program in high school that probably
influenced me the most was the Chatham
County Youth Commission where I served as
Vice-Chairperson,” said Rizza. “The Youth
Commission was composed of two high school
students from each public and private school
in Savannah. Through Youth Commission, I
really began to understand the world beyond my
small private school bubble. Youth Commission
exposed me to kids who were of all races,
religions, and from families of all economic levels.