'I Can Smell The Dirt And The Fear': Up From Soil, The Soul Of A Law Career

Apr 22, 2016
Originally published on April 22, 2016 12:40 pm

Vito de la Cruz practices law in Washington state, but his roots actually rest in Texas, where he grew up in a family of migrant farm workers. When de la Cruz was 5, he began working the fields himself in the 1960s.

"The family, we used to migrate. We traveled the migrant farmworkers' circuit," he tells his wife, Maria Sefchick-Del Paso, on a recent visit with StoryCorps. "It was equal parts hardship and poverty."

When he was 13, for instance, he recalls a day when he was working a tomato field. Authorities showed up for an immigration raid, scattering the families working there. And while de la Cruz's family were citizens, and while many of the other workers there were, too, he says some of the other workers were living in the country illegally.

"This caravan of about five or six olive green vans stormed into the field, and people were stampeded into a ditch and beaten and handcuffed and dragged away," de la Cruz remembers. "I could hear the noise that the batons made on the heads and on their bodies."

His uncle grabbed his shoulder and cautioned him to stay put. The agents passed them by, instead chasing others who'd chosen to run.

"To this day, I can smell the dirt and the fear. It's been years, but it's vivid in my memory," he says. "It struck a profound chord in my being. I saw people being afraid of people with authority. That's not the way we should be."

He says he isn't sure that was the day he decided he wanted to go into law — but the moment stayed with him, nevertheless. So did the lessons of his "Nena," his aunt who, when she was still just 19, took him in when he was just a baby and raised him. She instilled in him a desire to learn and pursue his education. She refused to get married until he went to college.

"So I went to Yale. It was a culture shock to the extreme. Our entire family could probably have existed for a month on all the food that was thrown away from just one dining hall at Yale," he says.

Until recently, de la Cruz was a public defender, who took on the cases of those charged with federal criminal violations. Nowadays, he practices civil rights law.

"Laws should be enforced; folks who violate it should be prosecuted — but there is a dignity that sometimes gets forgotten, a human dignity that gets trampled on. And if we forget that, then we forget our own humanity," de la Cruz says.

"So, if the things that I do while I walk this planet help improve somebody's life, then that, for me, that's enough."

Produced for Morning Edition by Emily Martinez and Michael Garofalo.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Time now for StoryCorps. Vito de la Cruz is a lawyer in Washington state, but he grew up in Texas in a family of migrant farm workers. Vito joined them in the fields when he was 5 years old. He told his wife about his childhood and about the aunt who raised him.

VITO DE LA CRUZ: I've always called her Nena. She was, like, 19 years old. And then this bundle of stuff, which was me, showed up on her doorstep. And she embraced parenthood when she didn't have to. And the family - we traveled the migrant farm workers circuit.

MARIA SEFCHICK-DEL PASO: What was it like being a migrant farm worker?

DE LA CRUZ: Well, it was equal parts hardship and poverty. I remember an immigration raid that I experienced when I was about 13 in this tomato field. My family - we were citizens, and there were other folks there. Many of them were citizens, and many of them also were undocumented aliens.

And this caravan of about five or six olive green vans stormed into the field. And people were stampeded into a ditch and beaten and handcuffed and dragged away. I could hear the noise of the batons made on the heads and on their bodies. And my uncle grabbed my shoulder and said just stay still. And they just passed us by. They were chasing people who would run.

To this day, I can smell the dirt and the fear. It's been years, but it's vivid in my memory. And I didn't know exactly at that moment that I wanted to go into law, but it struck a profound chord in my being. I saw people being afraid of people with authority. That's not the way we should be. But also, if there's one thing that my Nena gave me was a desire to succeed in school.

SEFCHICK-DEL PASO: Didn't your Nena say that she was not going to get married until you went to college?

DE LA CRUZ: (Laughter) Yeah, she did. So I went to Yale. It was a culture shock to the extreme. Our entire family could probably have existed for a month on all the food that was thrown away from just one dining hall at Yale.

And now I'm a public defender. And it is an ongoing struggle, you know. Laws should be enforced. Folks who violate it should be prosecuted. But there is a dignity that sometimes gets forgotten, a human dignity that gets trampled on. And if we forget that, then we forget our own humanity. So if the things that I do while I walk this planet help improve somebody's life, then that - for me, that's enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Vito de la Cruz with his wife Maria Sefchick-Del Paso at StoryCorps. Since this recording, Vito has left his position as public defender to practice at civil rights law. His interview is also featured in the latest StoryCorps book "Callings: The Purpose And Passion Of Work." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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