The personal statement section of the law school application can sometimes seem like an artificial reconstruction of particular stories in a person’s life that is carefully molded solely to convince administrators that they should choose one individual over the thousands of other people they evaluate. And, for some, the statement turns out to be exactly that. Yet, the process of writing my personal statement forced me to re-evaluate my pedagogical journey in attempting to justify to myself why I was going to law school and what I could possibly do afterwards. Thus, I can think of no better introduction to who I am for the readers of BC Law: Impact than the personal statement that put me on this path.
I see each person as an accumulation of his or her experiences. More specifically, they are a representation of the events, cultures, opinions, ideas and ideologies that shaped who they are and inform their perspective. This perspective, in turn, shapes how they see the world, and how they understand their responsibility to other people.
Now, what is my perspective? I was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico to parents of Spanish and Cuban ancestry. My maternal grandmother was raised in San Juan by her grandfather, Jose de Diego, an active voice of the Puerto Rican independence movement in the late nineteenth century. As an independentista, he fought for sovereignty and the equal rights of Puerto Ricans under colonial rule. My grandmother was a firsthand witness of his struggle for equality, as the status of our island was debated and its future decided. Although neither of my parents were able to attend college, they worked long hours to start a cargo business from the ground up. Consequently, my grandmother took care of me during much of my early years and I have vivid memories of coming home to sit on her lap and listen to stories of de Diego’s battle for the people of Puerto Rico.
My father was born in Las Villas, Cuba in the 1950s at a time of great political instability for the country. Although the Castro regime placed heavy restrictions on emigration from Cuba, my paternal grandfather participated in a special agricultural program that allowed some Cubans to engage in rigorous manual labor on the state-farming collectives in exchange for the ability to leave the country. After long years of strenuous work, his family was able to make Puerto Rico, a nearby island with a familiar culture, their new home. Although my father arrived in Puerto Rico at a relatively young age, his experiences with radical revolution would fundamentally shape his political ideology throughout his life. Needless to say, conversations at my dinner table were often intense and contentious. While my grandmother echoed the idealistic outlook of her upbringing, my father warned of the suffering that can result from unsuccessful implementations of utopian concepts.
When I reached the age of nine, my parents had earned enough from their business to seek greater opportunities on the mainland for my sister and me – so, we moved to Miami, Florida. Thanks to the vibrant Caribbean community and rich Latino culture, it was a relatively seamless transition; however, I now had to focus on developing my English language skills, so I could succeed in this new educational environment.
In middle school, I enrolled in an introductory Speech and Debate class and, after a few weeks, the teacher asked if I could fill in for a high school debater that had gotten sick the day before the biggest tournament in the country, ‘The Glenbrooks’ in Illinois. Although the one-day crash-course on logic and politics was not enough to get me to the elimination rounds, the experience sparked a new passion within me: I fell in love with the discussions on serious political issues, the critical thinking about different philosophical concepts and, of course, the thrill of competition.
Debate quickly took over. It transformed from ‘just another class’ to become my defining passion. I joined the high school team and committed myself to being great. I spent every summer attending debate camps at institutions like University of Michigan, Georgetown University, and Dartmouth College. I spent hours upon hours listening to lectures from scholars, discussing argument construction with my peers, and researching everything from local news to law reviews in the library. I went on to win various national tournaments and eventually reached a top-three ranking in the country; but the most meaningful moment came in my senior year, during the semifinals of the ‘The Glenbrooks.’ In front of hundreds of people, I delivered the final speech of the round. As the timer went off, I turned to see my partner smiling confidently. My persistent determination had proven to be enough to secure our spot in the final round of the very same tournament that had inspired my obsession five years earlier.
Competitive debate provided me with a foundation in rigorous research, persuasive argumentation, and critical thinking – but it also gave me the tools to analyze my own perspective. Although the activity was ostensibly open to people from all walks of life, the most privileged students from the best schools were consistently at the top and the norms of the activity reflected the ideologies of this elite class. As a child of relative poverty from a colonial territory, I found myself questioning my participation in this restricted educational enterprise.
I was recruited to the prestigious debate team at UC Berkeley – but once I made the transition to college and I saw more clearly the stratification of educational opportunities, my doubts began to resonate to an even greater degree. At the same time, I began noticing that the activity was having an adverse effect on my relationship with learning. I was exposing myself to various ideas and philosophies purely for the sake of competition. I would immerse myself in scholarship and literature with the primary motivation of manipulating these schools of thought to suit my strategic needs, rather than seeking a genuine understanding of what these thinkers believed and why. I tended to focus on polemical writers at the extremes of their subjects, who were more likely to make grandiose, absolutist claims that could lend more ‘firepower’ to my arguments. The careful consideration of contingent circumstances and contradictory counternarratives, demanded of a more distinguished scholar, did not suit my needs. And, whereas in high school I was happy to simply be exposed to these new ideas, I feared that this impoverished relationship with learning would now undermine my ability to authentically engage with the topics I cared about. I left debate behind to begin a new pedagogical venture centered on finding truth and understanding.
As an undergraduate, I put myself in varying educational environments to see which subject matters triggered my highest sense of curiosity. I focused on gaining insight into topics that inspired me to be a scholar: a consistent theme was vigorous examination of the rules that govern our society, the history of the institutions that implement and interpret these rules, and the effects these rules have on our daily lives. I chose Legal Studies and Political Economy as my two majors because the study of institutions, rules and social consequences helped me better understand my community’s history in the context of political, economic and legal traditions. Upon graduating, I wanted to put my studies into practice by working in immigration law to learn how legal institutions work to shape ideas of membership, participation and inclusion in society.
Since June 2015, I’ve been a Paralegal at Simmons and Ungar, LLP, one of the oldest immigration law firms on the West Coast. I’ve had the privilege of advocating for people from a wide diversity of backgrounds: both humble beginnings in family-based cases and high-level executives in employment-based cases. I’ve also done volunteer work providing translation assistance and legal support for the Lawyers Commission for Civil Rights, on behalf of those seeking asylum in the U.S. With every case, I’ve gotten exposure to the real effects that the law can have on a person’s sense of identity, security, and belonging. I’ve witnessed the importance of establishing and defending protections for fundamental rights. These experiences have convinced me that my calling is to use the opportunities that I’ve been blessed with to give a voice to people who may not otherwise have one.