The theme of this year's Hispanic Heritage Month is "Unidos: Inclusivity for a Stronger Nation." Ms. Ily Soares, who submitted the "Unidos" theme, said, "We call on citizens of this nation from all walks of life to look around and welcome new voices to the table."
NNJLS is proud to acknowledge the long history, countless contributions, and thriving culture of Hispanic communities in the U.S. including that of our staff and community members we serve.
Angela Rodriguez is the Managing Attorney for our Family Law unit. She spoke with us about family, work, and the strength she draws from her community and her roots.
A sense of family
I grew up with very strong Latina roots. Latinos tend to migrate toward one another due to our sense of community. My mom, my sisters and I experienced this sense of community when I was two years old, having fled Puerto Rico because my mother was badly abused by my biological father. When we first came to the United States following more family issues, we became homeless. We lived in East Side Park in Paterson. None of us spoke English. There was a bodega on Park Avenue where my mom would go to see if she could get us food. The owner, who was Dominican, welcomed us, and every day he would provide food for us. There were four of us, and he would call us Menudo, after what was then the biggest boy band around. He kept my mom from feeling like a stranger, kept us from feeling like strangers. He treated us like family.
He introduced my mom to the man I call my dad, and from there we met other people in the community who all looked out for one another. In Latin culture, because we all speak Spanish and have this commonality, we consider one another family. That sense of community is extremely important to us to this day.
Latinos in Paterson still have celebrations every year and whenever possible, I like to attend the celebrations for the Puerto Rican and Dominican Day parades. It is still very much part of who we are, celebrating our culture, celebrating how lively we are as a people! The person I am today is a culmination of all of that.
Also, a large part of how I grew up and what made me the person I am today is growing up very poor on public assistance, my dad worked in a factory, and my mom worked when she could also in a factory. Sadly, we experienced alcoholism and domestic violence in our household as well. But in spite of those things, I have very fond memories of my childhood. My dad and my mom tried to provide as much as they could for us, and instilled in us the importance of doing well in school and wanting more for ourselves. Luckily, I did well in school. I got scholarships, I got my college degree, and then I went to law school.
Connecting with clients
Right out of law school I got what I thought was my dream job in the public defender's office, but it introduced me to what I considered a very unjust justice system. I applied to work at NNJLS in 2009. Since then, I’ve worked for the Housing, Benefits, Immigration and Family law units at NNJLS.
With my Latino clients, it helps me greatly that I do not need an interpreter, and that I understand the terminology that they use to refer to certain things. It helps me find a sense of commonality with the clients so that they feel comfortable sharing with me. It helps me effectively advocate for them.
For example, the proper term for “basement” in Spanish is “sótano.” But in P-town [Paterson] people say “baeman”--”basement” with a Spanish accent. It’s an important word in housing because a basement could be an illegal dwelling. So it is not just understanding the law and knowing the law, it is also being able to apply the law in my client’s particular circumstances. That connection with my clients helps to build that trust. Because they understand that I understand.
Bias in the court system
Judges have told me that my client’s words had greater weight because I was the one representing them, compared to the client representing themselves. That makes me feel good, because it’s a good thing for my client, but it makes me sad, too. There is much more awareness of bias issues in the justice system, and judges are supposed to be neutral, but even so, biases remain. For example, even when the decision in a domestic violence case is a favorable one, the commentary can make it seem like the victim was partly at fault for returning to those circumstances. But life doesn’t exist in a vacuum. We have clients who are like my mom, who among other reasons, went back because she couldn’t do it on her own, with five girls.
And of course, there is a need to improve cultural competency in the courts. I’ve had my share of standing next to my client and the judge doesn’t recognize me as the attorney, and addresses me as my client. So we need to continue raising awareness.
Reaching the next generation
I always said I wanted to mentor high school students, and sometimes I have been asked, why high school students, well, one, you are helping mold young minds. They might say, “You know, I never thought about joining public interest law. If I thought about being a lawyer, I wanted to be Johnnie Cochran.” Those are the roles they are seeing, all private sector attorneys making beaucoup money. They are not thinking about coming back to serve the community.
And two, they don’t know about our services. They may not need our services, but their families might. Quite often the children that are going to school are the ones that provide information to the parents, especially in Latino homes where the parents don’t speak English and have their children interpret and translate for them. You are letting the community know you are here.
I wish I knew about legal services as a child, because my mom could have really benefited. I wonder if she knew about her rights as a survivor of domestic violence, and the options she had. I always vowed that I wanted to help people like my mom. I wanted to open a battered women’s shelter, or do criminal justice work. In my law school admissions essay, I wrote that I wanted to represent victims of domestic violence. It has come full circle, because this is the work I do every day. I think about my mom, and I think about the communities in which I grew up, and how many people really need it.
That is why I do the work I do. It’s part of who I am.