You received your Bachelor's Degree from the University of Valencia...
Yes, I studied law there, and then I came to the US and studied law there, too. The law programme in Valencia was meant to last for six years, but I finished it in five. I met a boyfriend, and I was in a rush to finish my studies and begin working.
What was your first job when you arrived in the US?
In 1997, I was working at a law firm in Spain when I learned about immigration issues. My boyfriend at the time was an American citizen, and he didn’t have any papers while he was in Spain. The laws in Spain did not provide for a work permit. Until that time, I wasn’t even aware that people needed a work permit. The ordeal sparked my interest in immigration issues, and this was the beginning of the rest of my life. To help my boyfriend, I asked for advice at labour unions in the city. These unions directed me to immigration centres, where I discovered lines of people - from West Africa, North Africa, the Arab world, Central America and the Balkans - waiting. One of the lawyers at the centre told me that there was nothing that could be done for these people, but he wanted to take down all their information, in case a new law came up that could be of use to the immigrants. I decided to volunteer for the centre in the evenings.
My boyfriend and I came to San Francisco in 1999, and my first job was at an immigration law firm downtown called Park & Taylor. One of the reasons they hired me is because Park was obsessed with the Spanish Civil War. Both of my grandfathers fought in the War, and one of them was even part of the Anarchist movement. I told Park my grandfather's story, and I think that got me the job. Working as a paralegal for Park & Taylor taught me a lot about professional life. We moved to San Francisco with no money and no relatives in the city. I figured that as long as I could work, I would be fine. I have never been afraid of hard work.
Could you practice in the US?
No. I took the California Bar in 2002, but I failed the multiple-choice section (although I did very well in the essay section). To be honest, I think the language barrier was my problem at the time: I arrived in the US in 1999, and I did not have enough professional experience in English to be able to pass the Bar. The multiple-choice questions largely focus on reading comprehension, and require deduction and a grasp of the language that I just didn't have. In the end, my experience with the Bar exam was a big lesson. I was devastated at the time. I’m not a hysterical person, and I had already experienced sad moments in life, but failing the Bar exam was very painful for me. I was burned out, working so hard at Park & Taylor, and I thought passing the Bar would be the way to liberate myself. Culturally, American lawyers often look down on individuals who are not a qualified, if they have an accent, or if they are from another country entirely. At the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), we have a lawyer from South America who kicks ass, but he’s not a white man from the US. There are people who want to make sure that he notices it, and I hate it.
I felt discriminated against because I had an accent, I didn’t pass the Bar, and my dreams had been shot. At the same time, I was too proud to go back to Spain. Returning home was never an option.
Did you get involved with CJA at this point?
When I was studying for the Bar, some Salvadoran men approached me about the CJA. They were frank about the organisation, and told me: “This is a bunch of ‘gringos' trying to do the right thing, but they have no idea how to do it. You know so much about the Central American political climate, you should volunteer with them.” I knew enough about the indictment and arrest of Augusto Pinochet (from my life in Spain), and I loved the idea of these officials being brought to justice. The CJA was building a case around El Salvador, a country I was very familiar with because of my work at Park & Taylor. In a year and a half at the immigration firm, I probably processed more than 800 immigration applications from Salvadoran people. I listened to many stories about the violence in El Salvador and the solidarity movement.
I approached the Legal Director of the CJA at the time, and he tested my Spanish by just shoving a case file from Honduras at me, and asking me to make sense of it. I had no idea what I was doing, but I took an investigatory approach to the work. I would call people in Honduras and use whatever contacts I had to ask for evidence. Suddenly the investigation became outrageous. I located two witnesses that had never been found and lived on a Caribbean island. They agreed to testify because they trusted me, and I was so thrilled and proud of my work, and moved by the way the trial was moving forward. All of this occurred while I was studying for the Bar, and a colleague turned to me and said, “Isn’t this why you’re taking the Bar in the first place?” I soon came to the realisation that I didn’t need to pass the Bar in order to do the work that I loved. I stayed on at the CJA as a volunteer.
When did you transition into full-time work for the CJA?
I was a volunteer for some time, and then I left for a few months. I felt hurt because I had put in the time as a volunteer, but they constantly hired other people instead of me. They never offered me a position, and I didn’t feel appreciated. When a new Staff Attorney opened the Honduras file that I had worked on, he saw the depth of my investigation and told the Executive Director that the CJA needed to hire me back. They found some money, and I was paid $4,000 a year for my work for the CJA. I had to work two extra jobs to be able to work for them, but I was very happy to be back.
What other jobs did you do?
I worked at the Spanish Consulate in San Francisco - that job paid my rent. I also worked as a freelance paralegal for two immigration attorneys in San Francisco. Another interesting opportunity arose to assist a disabled Spanish woman in Modesto, California with her divorce. Her family lived in Madrid and could not speak English. They didn’t trust the divorce lawyers in the US, and they wanted a Spanish lawyer on the team, so I joined, and made some money there.
Tell us more about your role as the Transitional Justice Program Director at the Center for Justice and Accountability. What does a typical day entail?
I love this question! The beauty of my position is that it is advisory and strategy-focused, and I spend a lot of time reaching out to contacts and influential people who could do something for our organisation. I wake up really early, and I am texting or WhatsApp-ing with Europe by 6:30am. I am a member of a British Chambers called 9 Bedford Row, and we are working with Syrian groups and refugees to discuss accountability mechanisms for the Assad Government and his administration. We also work with a Belgian organisation called the International Center for Justice and Accountability. Before 10am, I speak with Central America - Colombia, Guatemala, El Salvador, and maybe Ecuador. Then I take care of my child, and take him to school.
I bike to work at the CJA, and I am here for eight or ten hours a day. About 80% of my time is spent on the phone - talking to clients and civil society players, and trying to develop new projects.
Speaking of CJA projects, a US Court recently decided to extradite Salvadoran Colonel Orland Montano to Spain, where he will stand trial for his role in the murders of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in San Salvador in 1989. Thanks to your team at the CJA, Spain opened an investigation into these killings. When did you start working on this case?
When I first arrived at the CJA, the organisation had a lot of Central American cases in the works. At the time, we were preparing to go to trial for the Romagoza v. Garcia case. Unfortunately, the CJA lawyers didn’t have a lot of success reaching out to Salvadorans. So, I called, and was able to investigate and develop the cases. My work helped me gain many friends in the region. Soon enough, we started talking about the Jesuit case. Spain was heavily involved in these justice and accountability trials, and in many ways, my connections to Spain, Central America, and the US put my work right at the centre of these trials. I had already made connections with the lawyers in the Pinochet and Argentina cases in Spain. They became good friends of mine, and I offered help through CJA. These Spanish lawyers opened the doors for me, and helped us bring this case up.
Do you reckon that justice will finally be attained for the eight people murdered?
I’m pretty convinced that the trial will happen, and Colonel Montano will appear in court. We hope to get a lot of Salvadorans in the courthouse, and treat everyone involved with respect. We hope this will have a huge impact in El Salvador, and I’m hopeful that the case will precipitate some sort of commotion in El Salvador, and make people rethink existing accountability mechanisms.
Almudena Bernabeu | Programme Director | Center for Justice and Accountability
20 years' experience
CV in brief
Languages spoken English and Spanish
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Exclusive interview by Aisha Babalakin, 23 February 2016
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