Monday, June 30, 2008

Chicano Lawyers Who Write

An essay by Daniel Olivas

[This piece originally appeared in the June 2008 issue of California Lawyer magazine, which is published by the Daily Journal Corp.]

We in the legal profession have grown accustomed to the idea of lawyers who also write fiction or poetry. Poet-lawyers such as Wallace Stevens and Archibald MacLeish often come to mind. And there’s this fellow named John Grisham who seems to have caught on. Indeed, at least one law journal, Legal Studies Forum (edited by James R. Elkins, a professor at West Virginia University College of Law), is dedicated to publishing poems, short stories, and literary analysis by attorneys. So, when I started writing fiction and poetry ten years ago while working full time as a government attorney, I realized I was not alone.

But I am not just a lawyer who writes. I am a Chicano lawyer who writes. Though my activities in the legal profession sometimes make their way into my creative writing, my fiction and poetry are chiefly grounded in and informed by my experiences growing up in a predominantly Mexican American, working-class neighborhood near downtown Los Angeles. Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of reading the work of others who share both my professional and cultural touchstones.

In 1998, when I started writing, I was deeply influenced by Yxta Maya Murray’s 1997 novel Locas (Grove/Atlantic Press), centered on two young Chicanas living in the gang-ravaged Los Angeles neighborhood of Echo Park. Murray, a 1993 graduate of Stanford Law School and a professor at Loyola Law School in L.A., began writing after her clerkship with U.S. District Court Judge Harry L. Hupp.

“I had always wanted to be a writer,” says Murray, “but it was only when I began working on drug, racketeering, and bank-robbery cases that I got the mojo for a novel. I was spurred into action by witnessing so many men of color get sentenced to jail.”

Murray, who considers herself a mixed-race Chicana (her mother is from Mexico and her father from Canada), has published four more novels since Locas, including The King’s Gold (HarperCollins, 2008). “In my first two novels, I deal with urban populations; in my last three, I’ve dealt with the question of colonialism, both historically and contemporarily,” observes Murray. “I’ve become fascinated with the collision of [indigenous] American and European cultures in the 16th century, and how the conquest can be felt by our community today.”

Similarly, novelist Michael Nava has explored this “collision” between cultures, but with the added dimension of being a gay man in modern America. Nava, whose ethnic heritage is Mexican, Yaqui, and Cajun, graduated from Stanford Law School in 1981 and now serves as a staff attorney for California Supreme Court Associate Justice Carlos R. Moreno. In 1986 Nava published the first of seven mystery novels, The Little Death (Alyson), in which he introduced readers to Henry Rios, a gay Chicano criminal-defense lawyer. Rios confronts contemporary issues of bigotry and the ravages of AIDS as he solves gruesome murders and other crimes. Widely recognized as a groundbreaking novelist, Nava’s writing was analyzed through an in-depth interview in Spilling the Beans in Chicanolandia: Conversations with Writers and Artists (University of Texas Press, 2006) by Frederick Luis Aldama, an English professor at Ohio State University.

“It never occurred to me that the character in my books, Henry Rios, would be other than Latino or gay,” asserts Nava. “In the beginning, I was more interested in his experience as a gay man, but in the later books I made a conscious effort to explore his relationship (complex and difficult though it is) to his ethnicity, primarily through his relationship to his family.” Nava adds: “As a lawyer, I am a gay Latino in an overwhelmingly white and straight profession.”

Interestingly, while Murray and Nava have explored ethnicity and culture through fiction, Nicolás C. Vaca has confronted such issues primarily in his well-regarded and controversial nonfiction book The Presumed Alliance: The Unspoken Conflict Between Latinos and Blacks and What It Means for America (HarperCollins, 2004). Vaca has also written in a fictional style about his former immigration law practice. Many lawyers know Vaca from his nonfiction short stories that have appeared in this magazine during the past decade, including “El Borrachito” (April 2007), and “Burnt Beans” (October 2005). Over the years, I’ve enjoyed Vaca’s short stories and appreciate his poignant writing about Chicano and Mexican lives.

A graduate of Harvard Law School and a partner in the San Jose office of Garcia, Calderón & Ruíz, Vaca became a lawyer “to have an impact on society.” But he started writing creatively as an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley, when he took a course on Russian literature and read Anton Chekhov, Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, Ivan Oblomov, and others. Chekhov particularly impressed Vaca because of his “lack of idealization of the peasant class, in that he wrote about them with all their imperfections.”

“In one of my midterm examinations,” remembers Vaca, “I took liberty with one of the questions and answered it by trying to emulate Chekhov’s writing. The professor, a Russian émigré, wrote some very nice things about my answer, and that inspired me to try to actually write short stories.”

Murray, Nava, and Vaca have advice for lawyers who want to become writers: “A page a day,” counsels Murray. Nava advises, “Find a writing group to encourage you, and keep the creative side of your brain active.” And Vaca offers tough love: “Writers write. In other words, do not call yourself a writer if you do not write on a daily basis.”

Julia Sylva seems to have internalized these admonitions. A former partner at such law firms as Ochoa & Sillas and Frandzel & Share in Los Angeles, Sylva now runs her own practice in L.A. Though she has published many articles on such legal topics as the Brown Act, redevelopment law, and public finance, Sylva also “finds time to write creatively as an extracurricular activity — a challenging task for a working mom.”

“I am currently drafting my memoirs,” says Sylva, whose résumé includes a four-year term on the city council of Hawaiian Gardens (1976-80) in the southeast part of Los Angeles County. Through election by her colleagues, she simultaneously served two consecutive one-year terms as mayor of the town when she was in her early twenties. Then in 1979, at age 23, Sylva began attending Loyola Law School. She did not run for reelection to the city council because the dean gave her a choice: continue her legal studies on a scholarship, or seek a second term on the council. Sylva chose law over politics: “I believe I made the right choice,” she says.

Aside from writing her memoirs, Sylva also has aspirations of publishing a cookbook on Mexican and Jewish cuisine, to be entitled Kosher Tamales. “It will include my mother’s childhood recipes,” she says, “and recipes we have jointly created since I converted to Judaism.”

What kind of reaction should Sylva expect from her colleagues when she publishes her first book? If it’s anything similar to what Nava experienced, Sylva may be pleasantly surprised. “Many of my lawyer friends through the years have been frustrated writers themselves,” says Nava. “So they have been keenly interested in how I managed to do both.” Murray says Loyola Law School, where she has been teaching for 13 years, is “beyond supportive” of her writing. Conversely, Vaca wryly notes: “Most [lawyers] are only mildly impressed that I am a published writer.”

But I dare say these lawyers do not write to impress their fellow attorneys. Rather, each is driven to explore through prose the intricacies, conflicts, and richness of their cultural experiences. For that, we as readers can count ourselves lucky.

◙ READING ALERT: Award-winning writer and performer Monica Palacios reads and signs “The Dress Was Way Too Itchy,” a short story from the anthology, Fifteen Candles (HarperCollins). Question and answer to follow with Sara Guerrero, Artistic Director of Breath of Fire Latina Theater Ensemble. Tuesday, July 1st at 6:30 p.m. at Libreria Martinez, 1110 N. Main St., Santa Ana, CA 92701. Phone: 714-973-7900. For more information, visit the bookstore’s events page.


norma landa flores said...

I enjoyed reading your essay on "Chicano Lawyers Who Write." You just present the facts as they are, without bogging us down with pontification about the writer's style.

I especially appreciated how you described their motivation, for writing, in order to,"explore through prose the intricacies, conflicts and richness of their cultural experiences."

It's refreshing to read constructive critiques, as opposed to, celoso critiques. Gracias:Thanks!


Daniel A. Olivas said...

My pleasure, Norma. It was such a fun piece to write. I had to focus on California writers for obvious you might know, Manuel Ramos of La Bloga is a Denver-based lawyer/novelist.

Manuel Ramos said...

Daniel - I enjoyed the post, thanks. I'm always amazed at how some of the busiest people still make time to write. Have you seen "Their Word is Law" (Berkley, 2002), a collection of interviews with lawyer-novelists, edited by Stephen Murphy? Nava is included, as well as Alfredo Véa, another outstanding writer who also happens to be a California lawyer.

Daniel A. Olivas said...

I have to get that book...I'm shocked that I don't know it! Gracias.

Unknown said...

Hi, I am a student taking some Chicanos Studies course at a college. I've read, The Revolt of the Cockroaches by Oscar Zeta Aosta. I am conducting a research. I was wondering if anybody can tell me what was the percent of someone of Mexican or Hispanic decent to become a lawyer in the1960's or the 70's. Also if anyone is a lawywer, can you briefly describe your experience in the law school.

Please email me your responses at:

Unknown said...

As a newbee to your blog let me just say, very nice! I would like to add that I am impressed with the Authors List, I may not have time in this lifetime to read them all but I am going to make the effort. I would like to recommend one of my favorites that you may want to add to the list. Victor Villasenor