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

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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.”

To view the full NPR article, click here.