Op-Ed: On Hispanic Heritage Week

By Sonora Williams

At the University of Florida Levin College of Law, the school honored Hispanic Heritage Week through a variety of events on campus.  Free Mi Apa at a panel discussing Latinas in Law, “Salsa Horror Nights” and a “Tailgate Fiesta” were just a few examples of how the Latino Law Student Association celebrated Hispanic Heritage Week.

These events, while fun, also hold a deeper meaning for the future-lawyers that make up UF Law’s campus.  They remind students of the culture’s importance and led one student, Sonora Williams, to ponder how careers in law link with the Hispanic population:

In the interest of full disclosure, I’d like to open this reflection with the disclaimer that I am not Hispanic. I am a mix of African American, Irish or Scottish, and a few other flavors. Growing up in Arizona, the closest I got to being Hispanic was being pulled over by police questioning my citizenship status.

Therefore, even as a member of another racial minority with its own history of strife, I will not begin to suggest that any similarities grant me the authority to speak for the Hispanic community.

However, for the sake of being a good neighbor, I believe a little introspection on the matter can go a long way, regardless of one’s race or ethnicity.

Last week was Hispanic Heritage Week at UF Law, and I got to thinking about the greater significance of championing diversity in the legal field. Of the 323,127,513 people in the United States counted in 2016, 17.8 percent are Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Unfortunately, of just the Hispanic men born in 2001, 16 percent of them will serve time in prison over the course of their lifetime, according to the White House Council of Economic Advisers in 2016.

Don’t get me started on why those inequalities exist. I have no good answer, and more importantly, I have no quick fix.

Before Hispanic individuals are incarcerated they have the opportunity for a defense. Alas, that defense is not always adequate because there are also a disproportionate number of Hispanic lawyers and Hispanic judges that work with Hispanic defendant’s.

Only 3.8 percent of lawyers are Hispanic, and the number for judges is only 3.2 percent, based on a 2008 survey of employment demographics.  These statistics can be a rather persuasive argument for championing interest in the legal field amongst Hispanic community.

We might infer that Hispanic lawyers would be better able to connect with their Hispanic clients through their shared culture, and could thus mount a more passionate defense than their counterparts who are not Hispanic.

The same could be said for judges. A Hispanic judge would be less likely to exhibit the ingrained prejudices, that plague many other judges.

There almost seems to be an inherent duty owed by Hispanic students to consider a legal career. Each additional Hispanic lawyer or judge could have a significant impact on the legal field.

These individuals could advocate for improved equality and really change the face of legal ethics as they pertain to matters significant to the Hispanic community.

But at what point does this notion place an undue burden on Hispanic up and comers?

Caucasian American law students can go to law school driven by a profound interest in sports law, or just for the sake of bringing in the “Benjamins”. Why can’t a Hispanic law student have the same freedom of motivation?

Why does any marginalized group have to work harder and achieve more for the sake of others in their group? When does this responsibility to provide the Hispanic community with the representation it deserves become a responsibility shared among people of all ethnic backgrounds?

If Caucasian Americans make up the greater percentage of lawyers and judges, then there should be just as much impetus on raising the next generation of Caucasian American legal minds to be champions of racial and ethnic equality.

Now this is of course no easy feat. Many Hispanic students have, just by growing up with their heritage, been cultivated to be the perfect heroes of the Hispanic community. But all hope is not lost for those who, not being Hispanic, are at a slight disadvantage without this superpower birthright.

Exposure and immersion is a great first step.

Professor Lea Johnston encourages her criminal law students considering a career in law enforcement to visit the prison. Future prosecutors need to understand the implications of a conviction beyond the mere factual ramifications to the point that they can grasp the long-term effects on a more personal and emotional level.

If your understanding of Hispanic culture begins and ends with what’s covered in the news, the latest “bad hombre” meme, or your passion for Chipotle, then you, like I, have more work to do.

Take the time to learn about all that makes the Hispanic Heritage amazing.

Trust me that there is so much more good to appreciate than relatively inconsequential bad that might color your unconscious perceptions of Hispanic individuals.

If the first step is knowing you have a problem, then please let the next step be doing something about it. Hispanic Heritage Week may be over, but that does not let you off the hook.

You don’t need to quit your day job and dedicate yourself to learning fluent Spanish. Simply take a moment to learn about the history of Puerto Rico, or appreciate Lin-Manuel Miranda’s genius beyond Hamilton, or just enjoy the glorious existence of a Hispanic student in your least enthralling law class.

In the end, every little bit helps. Your efforts will only make you a better lawyer if not also a better sentient being overall. I leave you with one simple goal as you set forth on your path to enlightenment.

Make it your mission to carry a little Hispanic Heritage Week with you year-round.

 

Sonora is a 1L, working towards an MD/JD degree and a future in pediatric neurosurgery. At Duke, she majored in biology and classics, where her research studied the effects of adverse early life events in both animal models stateside and ancient human remains in Greece. After her undergraduate studies, Sonora spent two years completing her preclinical studies at UF College of Medicine. She enjoys overthinking everything and truly appreciates her newfound friends at Levin who keep her grounded.