By Roberto Martinez, Amate House Volunteer
By many standards, I’m very new to Chicago. I’ve spent 8 months here so far, and my first Chicago winter barely counts as winter (not complaining). It amazes me, however, how much more of Chicago I’ve seen than many of my clients who have lived here for decades. For many who emigrate from Mexico, they choose a place close to their family and stay, and often they rarely go outside of that neighborhood. Going with these individuals on accompaniments to the Loop, six miles away, I always see their faces gaze upwards at the skyscrapers because they don’t venture there. And in conversation about what I’ve experienced here, they can’t relate when I mention anything outside of their immediate vicinity.
The barriers are much more than distance, though. Much of the hesitancy related to going to new areas comes from only speaking Spanish, or having no knowledge of what happens outside of their neighborhood. Whereas I can ask around and have a natural tendency to explore this city, their inclination is to remain secure with what they know. Unfortunately, this leads to circumstances where their voices are overlooked or hidden. In some instances, it’s leveraged against them purposefully for selfish gain.
Bianca* found herself in such a situation. Her dog bit a passerby, and she found herself on the wrong end of a hefty $50,000 lawsuit. According to her, the incident didn’t match the amount they were asking. On that day, she spoke to the person, apologized, and asked if they needed help so that she could call for it. The person dismissed it, saying that he was okay, and to not worry about it.
Shortly after, the same individuals hired a lawyer to start the personal injury suit, going against their word. Bianca didn’t find out until two years after the case began because her ex-husband was tied to the address she lived at. Unfortunately, after her ex-husband withdrew from the case, it left Bianca with the sole responsibility of defending against this person and their lawyer.
Everything was stacked against her, and there were no legal aid options willing to take her case. I felt defeated that I couldn’t assist her with the solution I had in mind. She couldn’t afford to hire an attorney, and no pro bono attorney was willing to help. Her words remained kind, however, as she told me, “We gave it a shot, and you tried more than anybody else I’ve talked to.” Her resilience astounded me, but there was still the pending matter of going to court.
I couldn’t be available to accompany her, but I made sure that one of our compañer@s would be with her. It’s completely different going alone, without any knowledge of how to navigate the Daley Center, and with nobody to translate for you. In similar instances, some individuals choose to not go to court at all because they fear going alone. And if she didn’t go, I knew that the case might be defaulted against her. I told her, “It’s very important that you show up. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but you need to go to at least explain your side.”
On this particular hearing, the lawyer of the other side withdrew. Even better, on the next court date, the petitioner didn’t show, and the case was dismissed. In a matter of weeks, we went from uncertain to relieved, all because she was able to show up. In this instance, we were aided by a lot of luck, but many times, things start falling in place simply by showing up. As a bilingual person willing to try to understand the lives of my clients, it also puts me in the position to advocate for them when simply showing up is not enough.
It’s this integration of different parts of the city that I believe breaks down those visible and invisible barriers in Chicago. When I go with my clients to court, or a police station, or the hospital, they gain access to parts of the city they couldn’t otherwise. And in advocating for them, my hope is that that understanding grows in the minds of service providers. For Bianca, one of the exciting things I mentioned on our way to the Loop for the second court date is the summer outdoor orchestra concerts in Grant Park. She plans on going since she now knows how to go there via public transit. If she goes before I do, she’ll even one-up me on Chicago experiences.
If you are interested in hearing more stories like Roberto’s and learning more about some of Chicago’s unique architecture and history, we hope you’ll consider joining Taller de José on our “Caminata” tour on May 7th, 2016! Visit our Upcoming Events page for more details.
*Names and details have been changed to protect client privacy
Photo Credit: Adam Alexander Photography, accessed via Choose Chicago