Public Defender & Fairhaven Faculty
What made you decide to concentrate on American Cultural Studies?
I stumbled into AMST 203 during my first quarter at WWU, taking it to round out my course load so that I would be full time for financial aid purposes. I figured, “I’m part Mexican, this will be interesting.” Little did I know that studying with Larry Estrada would change my life to the extent that I’d be teaching that same class in through a WWU study abroad program in Mexico ten years later.
That class caused me to choose an ACS major, in addition to my upside down degree from Fairhaven, and allowed me to finally pursue the histories and experiences of people who’d been systematically excluded from discussions of “American culture.” I knew that a better understanding of our collective community would help to make me a more effective advocate as I continued in my pursuit of a law degree.
How did you choose your career/field?
I knew that I wanted to go to law school before I came to WWU, so it was part of a lifelong thought process. What ACS did for me, though, was help to solidify my goal of serving underrepresented communities within the legal system and using a liberal form of activism to work to effect change from inside the social institution of “the law.”
What has your path since ACS looked like?
Random…I went directly to law school after graduation, starting summer orientation the day after ceremonies wrapped at WWU. From there, I came back to Bellingham to study for the bar exam and was looking for work during this liminal period for me ACS Program Director, Dr. Larry Estrada, offered me a temporary position as his assistant in the ACS Program and working with the National Association for Ethnic Studies, which was housed at WWU. That one year commitment turned into nearly five and ultimately led to my adjunct status at Fairhaven College and my teaching within the American Cultural Studies Program. I now work full time as a Deputy with the Skagit County Public Defender’s Office, representing indigent clients in Skagit County District Court with primary responsibility for the Spanish-speaking case load. I stay connected to the ACS program, though, by offering my courses at WWU in the evenings.
How did ACS influence that path?
The faculty in ACS are some of the most inspirational and supportive people I have ever met. That network was the foundation that gave me the confidence and the guidance to continue through my educational process, even in the face of challenges.
They have continued to be wonderful colleagues and mentors as I shifted toward teaching in the program. I can honestly say that I wouldn’t have pushed myself in the ways that I have, to grow professionally, without the contributions of the ACS faculty.
One cannot understate the value of the ACS courses and faculty in terms of retention of WWU students from traditionally marginalized communities. While WWU faculty in general are an incredible group, I have personally witnessed ACS profs advocating for and otherwise supporting their students in ways that can only be described as “above and beyond.”
What kind of training, licenses, and education were required?
For my work as an attorney, I am required to hold a Juris Doctor, pass the Washington State Bar exam and complete yearly continuing legal education training in order to maintain my license to practice law.
I would have to pursue similar licensure in other states if I chose to practice there, but at this time, I only hold a law license here in Washington.
What kinds of prior experiences were essential?
No prior experience is required, but I knew that working in a law firm before attending law school would be critical. I had the opportunity, through Fairhaven classes I included in my ACS degree, to observe trials and get a sense for the day-to-day realities of trial practice, as opposed to media representations.
What other attributes (personal or otherwise) were essential?
Perseverance is crucial, especially in terms of law school. Critical thought and analysis, as well as high levels of written and verbal communication skills, are also key. Research abilities are essential, but you have to have all of the above to be an effective legal advocate: go to or know where to find the key sources, critically analyze them from not only your position, but the position of opposition counsel as well, then communicate that information both in written pleadings and orally in court. Fairhaven and ACS helped me to grow in all of these areas, in addition to giving me the insights into the social conditions that often lead us to need legal representation in the first place.
Reflecting on your time as a student, what was the best/most important/influential part of your experience?
Working with the incredible faculty/mentors in ACS and definitely being an active part of MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantíl Chican@ de Aztlán). The latter gave me many opportunities to put education about social movements and activism into practice.
What advice would you give to entering or current students?
Take your time…there is no “right” path to reaching one’s educational goals. This is why both ACS and Fairhaven are such wonderful places to explore; they give you the solid academic foundation, but the freedom to figure out what it all means for you as an individual and then take it where you need it to go.
Please describe a typical day for you.
There literally is no typical day for me, which is why I love this kind of work. If I had to do the same thing each day, I’d probably get quite good at it, but it wouldn’t be satisfying in an emotional or intellectual way. Through ACS and Fairhaven, I gained the confidence to know, and go for, the kind of work that would be satisfying on multiple levels, including the fact that it is honest work in the service of others.
In general, I hold client appointments, draft motions, conduct research, investigate cases (interviewing witnesses, law enforcement, etc), and appear in court. I work with inmates in the county jail, as well as those who are out of custody. I represent people who are income eligible for a public defender, so they are often facing other issues associated with poverty, like transportation, housing, employment and health care barriers. Many of them struggle with literacy, substance abuse, immigration, mental health and a host of other issues, as well. I have to be able to cross all kinds of socially imposed boundaries in a way that ensures my clients truly have access to justice in a meaningful way. This is a hard job that can be extremely challenging emotionally, especially when you believe that the “justice system” has failed. Those days where things just click and you know that you were really there for someone when the chips were down…well, that’s what keeps you coming back for more each day.
What does the future hold for you?
Who knows? But I’m ready for just about anything that could come my way and not knowing exactly what’s ahead is part of the fun of life, really.