You have to understand I didn't go to Los Angeles because I wanted to. I was there because of a job. I'd finished law school at the University of California's Boalt Hall School of Law and knew I wanted to be a public defender. While other public defender offices offered positions, no one offered what the L.A. office offered, an ability to represent people from all walks of life with one focus: give them the best legal representation that you could personally give.
While many of my colleagues were well meaning folks from good, if not wealthy, backgrounds, I knew I was there to do one thing: provide people with cultural sensitivity and a well presented defense. Like the rest of the Latinos I knew who had said "Chale" to the high paying firm jobs, we were there for good reasons. For every home boy and girl who'd ever said, "I can't afford a lawyer, I only get a public defender," we were hoping, praying, to not let them be a statistic, to let every abuelita have her rosaries answered.
But it was not easy. The gangbanger stare, the intense reaction from the judges and law enforcement authorities who wanted to paint every "bad" Latino into the convenient "belongs in jail" corner--all the stereotypes played out like a bad "Hill Street Blues" episode. The arraignment court assignments, the weekend investigation work, the trial preparations on quiet Sunday criminal court building afternoons--all of them memories of a legal boot camp that could happen nowhere else.
I won cases; I lost cases. I gave families reasons to rally around a family members; I consoled families who wondered where they had gone wrong. I learned to lose and I learned to win. But most of all I learned that the criminal justice system will understand some and discard many. The trials taught me many legal lessons, but the people taught me even more.
The memories that strike me most were simple and not earth shattering. I remember working as a deputy public defender in Glendale and delivering a closing argument and seeing a woman come in with about five kids. They all sat in the back as I argued my case. At the end of the trial, the mother stepped forward and asked me to speak to her children. I asked what she wanted me to say. She said,"Please speak to them about your life. I want them to see that a Mexican can become something important in this life." I was humbled by her comments and didn't know what to say. So I said what my heart was feeling: "Like you I was raised by a loving mother. Make her proud. Be a lawyer, be a doctor. Whatever it is make the world a better place." I then shook the hand of each of the children and thanked God for the moment.
I also realized that in L.A. you met people who had a desperation no different than those living in a war zone. I spoke to parents who had tried to keep their children away from gang life and failed. They asked what they could do and I could not give them them the panacea that would give them safe and happy children. Often they realized that they had to leave one child to the gang and hope to save the others. I remember a father telling me how he'd moved from National City in San Diego County all the way up to San Fernando and in each city the gangs had his children by the throat. And though I tried to coax and coach the kids away from the life, often I failed.
Between these two memories I learned the lessons that would stay with me through life. My time in Los Angeles led to many other legal adventures, but nothing would ever replace the effort and heartache that one felt at living through this reality. L.A. is not an image for me now. It's a battle scar that I am proud to wear. I am now working in Northern California and my reflections of L.A. only serve to remind me that all the things I saw and all the things I felt gave me a sense of justice and the will to work for all those facing the intensity scrutiny of the criminal justice system.
Jose H. Varela:
Jose Varela is an Assistant Public Defender in Northern California.