Navigating the Social and Legal Norms of Hispanic Culture

December 20, 2011

I will never forget the moment I passed through customs in the Juan Santamaria International Airport in Costa Rica.  Sure, I knew the basic verb tenses and common phrases such as “buenos dias”, “muy bien”, “tengo hambre”, and “bienvenidos”, but I quickly realized that wasn’t going to be enough to navigate the country.  Luckily, in the chaos I saw my host family holding a sign, rescuing me from trying to use my useless Spanish vocabulary.

It was that experience of living inCosta Rica for six months as a law school student that gave me a new level of compassion and respect for immigrants in the United States.  Especially for the Hispanic community in my home of Minneapolis, Minnesota.  As a result, I began my small law practice working with a litigator who spoke fluent Spanish and shared a love for the Hispanic culture.  Within a few months, I was also counseling Hispanic men and women and saw just how hard it was for them to navigate the legal system with English as a second language.

In counseling not only Hispanic clients but all clients, I have found that before we even begin to delve into the legal issues, I have to go back to that first day I arrived in Costa Rica.  I treat the client as if they know nothing about the laws or legal norms of our society.  While I don’t like to generalize, in my eleven years of practice, I have witnessed that many immigrants can be overwhelmed with what seems to be second nature.  This includes: what to do as a victim of an auto accident, how to get a local driver’s license, how to buy a vehicle, how to complete a rental agreement or job application.  While these seem relatively easy to most of us, now consider the more weighty concerns that most immigrants are faced with: immigration laws and requirements, violations of their civil liberties such as housing discrimination, employment discrimination, loss of a loved one in a tragic accident,  or an injury at work…only to name a few.

Practicing law, as we all know, is not a one size fits all profession.  That is even truer with my Hispanic clientele and other immigrant clients I work with on a daily basis.  This is one of the reasons I am compelled to help victims of car accidents, wrongful death claims, or the worker who suffers an injury on the job.  Otherwise, they are thrust into a maze of dealing with insurance companies and their representatives, law enforcement, doctors, and lawyers.

And the plight of many immigrants is that their language barrier causes them to fall victim.  Sadly, the legal services industry can be part of the problem.  I have heard of more than one lawyer who has taken advantage of an unwitting immigrant, only because the client did not understand the legal issues or was desperate with nowhere else to turn.

My job is to provide clients with many tools and services, such as a staff that speaks Spanish, interpreters (if clients feel my Spanish is not adequate), and cost-effective alternatives, so we can begin to understand why they are seeking legal advice and to allow the clients to get the help they need.  The biggest part of what they need is an advocate who can help them navigate the legal system and protect their rights and interests.  In ways, this is not so different than my host family that welcomed me into their home and guided me each day through life in a foreign country, took me to the bank, and ferried me off to school.  They had my back and prepared me so I wasn’t another tourist who was taken advantage of or fleeced in what otherwise appeared to be a simple purchase.

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