Cara Mia!

Dartmouth Partners in Community Service Reflection

Before I begin to describe my work this past winter at inMotion, Inc., the legal services firm in New York at which I interned under the Dartmouth Partners in Community Service grant from the Tucker Foundation, I would like to thank you all for the incredibly generous gift and the opportunity you afforded me though your contribution to my internship.  I’d like to share a reflection of my experience of service and the meaning of community to illustrate the very profound effect the internship had on me.
I’ll never forget what an impressionable event the Community Days retreat was for my senior class in high school, the closeness with which we grew over that week away from school work and the pressures of college applications, and the way we looked at one another and ourselves after that occasion.  We were not the same strangers that had appeared on the steps of Jesuit College Prep in Dallas, Texas just three years earlier.  The cliques that had partitioned our class for various reasons during those three years seemed to absolutely melt away that week and for the remainder of the year after that.  Football players ate lunch with the debate team.  The wealthiest pupils spent the night after class wide parties at the homes of their friends who were on work grant scholarships.  The retreat was an awakening of sorts in the truest and most Christian sense.  Together we realized a common goal that we had collectively been blind to before that weekend.
I had regarded that experience as the most humbling lesson in community, a united group of people whose solidarity for each other transcending the boundaries of color, class, religion up until this winter.  While an inspiring sense of community was born from that event, not every oneness and happiness that should be derived from community can be discovered in the luxury of a retreat.  From January 7th, 2008 through March 14th, 2008, I broke from the tradition of the D-Plan and decided to follow other pursuits—an off term in lieu of graduating early from the College in order to pursue an unpaid internship with inMotion Inc., a legal services agency, at their office in the Bronx, New York.  It was a community different from any I have ever known, because, though my father grew up in northern New Jersey and I still have family in that area, I, myself, had never resided in that part of the country.  The area in which I worked and the community I served were completely new, which at first was a bit of a shock, but the fruits of my labors facilitated my quick adjustment to the community more quickly than I could have imagined.
After half a day of orientation, I had already begun to meet with and start the process of legal aid that inMotion provides to the families in the most dire of circumstances throughout the five boroughs of New York, and specifically to their clients from the Bronx and Queens.  Given the fact that I am bilingual in English and Spanish, many of the clients I dealt with are immigrant women and their children who can’t afford legal representation in their court proceedings to procure an order of protection from their spouse, who is their abuser in the home.  Other clients have legal documentation to live and work in the United States but earn such low wages that they can’t afford to hire an attorney to file their papers to become legal permanent residents or even US citizens.  The clients that inMotion aids by connecting their clients with staff attorneys and out of house attorneys who work at major firms and take on pro bono cases with inMotion as part of a long standing commitment to justice, often come from the most abject poverty, conditions one wouldn’t think possible to exist in the United States.  But the resolve of the attorneys with whom I worked, graduates of Harvard Law and other top law programs on the national level who could have made ten times the amount of money they currently make if they practiced with a corporate firm, have chosen a different path, a path that allows them to directly influence and ameliorate the circumstance of members in their community who truly come from the most adverse situations.
Because of the experiences that I had in the short time working with inMotion, and the fact that I was given the unique opportunity to be able to see the effects of the direct impact the work I’m doing has on the lives of the people in the community that inMotion serves, I can’t think of a better way to spend my next two years after Dartmouth than to be directly serving and living among a community in need.  That is why I applied and was recently accepted the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education graduate degree program, thereby accepting my appointment as an English teacher at Ascension Catholic High School in Plaquemine, Louisiana for the next two years, while I complete coursework for my degree during the next two summers to be eligible for a Master’s degree in two years.  The opportunity to see and follow what drives me would not have been made possible if it were not for the generous funding of the Tucker Foundation.
I learned a great deal while working with inMotion.  For one, I have a much greater fluency in legal language, in both Spanish and English, something I hope to use at a later point in life when I pursue a law degree after graduation from Notre Dame.  But the greatest lesson I learned, as is the topic of this reflection, is really a life lesson, one guided by my Catholic faith, about the meaning of community.  Due to client confidentiality policies, I cannot disclose details of the work that performed while at inMotion, but I would like to conclude this response with the reason why I chose to stay at the Bronx office and not take the position I was offered in the Manhattan office, even though it meant a two hour or more commute each way, everyday from where I lived in New Jersey, while the Manhattan office, offered a comparatively short 45 minute train ride and five minute walk each way.  One day at a walk-in legal clinic that inMotion takes clients on a first come, first served basis, after meeting with a client for nearly an hour, assessing her matter, and deciding the best way that our staff attorneys could provide her with legal services, her face showed the most sincere gratitude I’ve ever witnessed for my help in her matter.  Before she left, holding back tears of relief, she told me, “Que Dios te bendiga,” meaning, “May God bless you.”  That was a gift enough for a lifetime.  Thank you for making that experience possible for me.

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The following is a poem I wrote shortly after beginning my internship in New York.  Reading David Shipler’s The Working Poor, and personally working with clients who belong to the ethnic and socio-economic groups that Shipler profiles in his non-fiction work, I felt really inspired by the drastically portraits of people riding the same MTA subway train as me in the Bronx, from those riding the commuter NJ Transit train as me.  Given that the Christmas season had just finished, and the remainders of the advertisements were still pretty ubiquitous around New York, the poem took on a response the commercial theme as well:

El sacrificio de la navidad

It’s amazing how much faster we quicken our pace
while walking to the tune of the “Carol of the Bells”.
The street records our kindled heels,
pulsating a sort of mantra,
the lifeblood of commerce.

And our veins sing the verse:
“Rush to the Wall,
buy all the stock.
Sell it before
strikes 5 o’clock,”
a mesmerizing ding-dong, tick-tock
so familiar that we take if for our heartbeat
but what does it realize?

This clock has become a laurelled idol,
flanked on each side by dollar signs,
a gilded trinity, the golden calf to godless men
who rush past unseen faces to start it over again.

But tonight, on the street, I see them, these faces,
their skin wrinkles with battle wounds
from a war waged on poverty
not that we have won, but that they have lost!

Like the old black woman in the formal uniform,
apron beneath a well worn overcoat—
the frayed edges of its pockets hide hands
that cleaned up a mess made by a man like me.
Such messes have peppered her hair,
so that now she slinks past me, hurries home,
invisible, a floating powdered wig on a crowded street;

And like the young Spanish woman—
Leaving the restaurant, we did not see her
behind the swinging kitchen door
as she scrubbed the dishes on which we had eaten lunch,
but she is clear to me now
as the street light illumines her face,
sniveling back a string of snot that freezes in evening air
as she wets her parched lips with tip of her tongue,
the same tongue that curls around rolled ‘r’s
when she teaches her son words like
‘burro’ and ‘ferrocarril’
from a picture book she bought for him last Christmas,
his first Christmas.
But her eyes drop sadly to the street, now,
at the end of the day
in much the way they fall when her son extends a digit
and plummets it into the book page, correcting:
‘donkey’ and ‘train’.

Call me nostalgic.
‘Fine,’ you permit.
Call me religious.
You greet me with obstinate silence.
Religious is a dangerous thing to be in today’s world.
I will be dangerous, if you will listen!

Defeat is written on their faces, my loved ones.
And we have authored it!

To the tune of the “Carol of the Bells,”
the metronome of our heels and hearts,
we have crossed out the ‘Christ’ in Christmas.
An ‘X’ over CHRIST–
a sacrifice negated where a box is checked,
a spot marked,
our names signed.

Consumed by commercialism,
we have cast off compassion.
What will it take to regain that
which is holy in holiday?

And I ask you: “Why do I write today?”
William Carlos Williams responds:
“Because their faces like set pieces of mahogany move me to it.”
And your faces, loved ones, move me, too,
but not in the same way.

So I offer, humbly: when we face the Christ
in the faces of our forgotten,
we will arouse, revive, awaken
and say: CARA MIA!
You are my face.
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