Unforgettable Journey

by Cynthia A. Mertens |

Cynthia A. Mertens is a professor of law and the executive director of the Katharine and George Alexander Community Law Center, which uses Arrupe Center volunteers as interpreters. She went on a faculty immersion trip to El Salvador in 2001 and then organized and led an immersion trip there for law students in January.

Change is absolutely essential to continued growth. Facing new challenges, putting aside fear, embracing differences— all are part of what keep me motivated, intellectually engaged, and happy. In March 2001, I anticipated the experience of traveling to El Salvador on a faculty immersion trip with some trepidation. I knew I would not come back exactly as I had left, but little did I know that the trip would change the direction of my life in a significant way.

The immersion experience was more intense than any of us could have anticipated. We were exposed to the warmth and openness of people who had suffered the horrors of war and who lived in extreme poverty. Their resilience and honesty amazed us, and we were touched by their request that we tell their story—a story filled with oppression, loss, sadness, and tremendous hope that life would get better. All of us returned from our week uncertain of what we would do but with a commitment to do something. I wrote the last entry in my journal on the plane coming home: “I hope to create the opportunity for law students to feel the same passion, the same flame—the need—to make the world a more equitable place.” 

Yet I had no idea how I was to go about doing this. I knew I had to figure out a way to give a voice to the voiceless, to return to the roots of why I had gone to law school, to do something that would allow me, a California lawyer and law professor, to use my talents within our own society right here in Silicon Valley. Within two weeks of returning, the answer literally knocked on my door. Dean Mack Player had a request. Would I take over as director of the law school’s civil clinical program, located in an East San Jose ware

The trip’s intensity is impossible to put into words. It was an educational expe- rience with tremendous emotional impact. In short, it was the best educational experience I have provided students in my 29 years of teaching law school and rates as the best professional experience of my career as a lawyer.

house, serving Silicon Valley ’s most underrepresented? In light of my recent El Salvador experience, I knew I could not refuse the dean’s request, although it meant facing a new and difficult challenge. I put aside my fear and embraced the job of “managing partner” of a firm that employed five supervising attorneys who in turn educated over 100 law students a year as they served over 1,000 individuals who would otherwise have no access to legal services. Little did I realize what the job would entail.

The three years I have spent as director of what was formerly called the East San Jose Community Law Center and is now the Katharine and George Alexander Community Law Center have been some of the most rewarding of my academic career. I see the profound impact that the clients and their stories have had on hundreds of law students. I know that the experience is instilling a lifelong commitment to provide some type of pro bono service to those most
in need. Many students feel the same passion I felt after returning from El Salvador, the same flame—the driving need—to do something to make our world a better, safer, more equitable place.

However, there was another desire that continually re-surfaced after my return from El Salvador. I had made a commitment to myself that I did not articulate to anyone at the time because it seemed so unrealistic. I wanted to give law students the opportunity to go to El Salvador to study the justice system and its relation to human rights. I wanted it to be an immersion experience: short and profound and life changing. Finally, after much thought and planning, I presented the idea to Dean Mack Player, who was immediately supportive. A Bannan grant allowed me to offer a course in Fall 2003 entitled “Legal Systems in El Salvador” taught primarily by experts from around the country. The Arrupe Center undertook the organization of the trip, working closely with a group in El Salvador to incorporate numerous visits focusing on the justice system, something that neither the Arrupe Center nor the El Salvador-based organization had ever done. In January, fourteen second- and third-year law students and I embarked on an eight-day immersion trip to El Salvador. (Fifteen was the maximum number that could be accommodated. Many students were turned away.)

The trip’s intensity is impossible to put into words. It was an educational experience with tremendous emotional impact. In short, it was the best educational experience I have provided students in my 29 years of teaching law school and rates as the best professional experience of my career as a lawyer.

The trip began with a visit to two women who founded one of the first domestic violence programs in the country, located in the town of Suchitoto. After explaining the extent of the domestic violence problem (they estimated that 90 percent of women and children in the countryside experience some form of physical abuse), the women accompanied us to Copapayo, a remote village in the “campo” or countryside, where we met with the village council. Council members related the villagers’ experience of walking under cover of darkness to Honduras in 1982 to a refugee camp during the civil war as their area was being heavily bombed. During the day, they hid under the vegetation, hoping to escape the ever-present eye of the military. The council carefully explained the role of the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees who arranged for their repatriation a couple of years later. The intricacies of the endeavor and the reality of the struggle could only be understood by listening intently to the stories of those who had experienced it. Several hours later, the SCU students had a real-life perspective regarding the role of the UN in a civil war, the politics involved in repatriation, and the hardships endured by the innocent victims.

The village embraced us in a way almost incomprehensible to the “American” (U.S.) mind. We were a diverse group, including many individuals who did not speak the language. Yet we were welcomed into the lives of the villagers. The families brought mattresses and light blankets from their simple dwellings so we could spend the night in comfort on the floor of the community build- ing. There was no running water in the village, although electricity and even a television or two were obvious. The serenade of the cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, roosters, dogs, and cats awakening us about 5 a.m. is a sound none of us will ever forget.

The next day, the village leader had us all board his little boat to cross the lake bordering the village. An elderly couple then led us on a rather long hike through the jungle to a makeshift graveyard where several of the young teenagers (including two of their own) from the village were buried, innocent victims of random attacks during the civil war. There, Tita, one of the women who runs the domestic violence center in Suchitoto, kept the group mesmerized with her stories of her life as a guerrilla during the war. Once again, we saw in vivid detail the realities of politics, greed, and misunderstanding, and the effect that misguided power can have on individuals.

After that weekend in the countryside, we began our study of the legal system in the capital of San Salvador. Two law professors, one criminal and one civil, and two law students from the National University introduced us to the basic structure of the Salvadoran legal system, which differs substantially from the U.S. legal system. (An example is the law relating to gangs. If a young per- son has a visible tattoo, that individual may be picked up by the police and jailed immediately. There will be a hearing soon thereafter, but many judges simply uphold the allegations. The prisons are filled to overflowing with young people falsely accused of being gang members because of tattoos.)

The dialogue with these two law professors lasted late into the evening.

Our encounters during the next several days are difficult to recapture. They ranged from meeting with union leaders and lawyers involved in the labor struggles of the maquilas (sweat shops prevalent in El Salvador), to sitting in on domestic violence cases in a nearby small town where the judge was attempting to mediate very personal and complex family disputes. In one case, an older woman, who turned out to be the defendant, sat on one side of the table, and a young mother with a nursing infant was on the other. The defendant was the

Our encounters during the next several days are difficult to recapture. They ranged from meeting with union leaders and lawyers involved in the labor struggles of the maquilas (sweat shops prevalent in El Salvador), to sitting in on domestic violence cases in a nearby small town where the judge was attempting to mediate very personal and complex family disputes.
There is much to be learned from the people of El Salvador, and immersion trips are an extremely effective way to bring this knowledge home. The law students agree that this trip is one they will never forget. The psychological impact is impossible to put into words. The educational value will be difficult, if not impossible, to duplicate. Without a doubt, the experience changed the life of every student who participated.

young woman’s mother-in-law who was threatening to take the children away from the mother. The husband (and mother-in-law’s son) had died in an accident, which complicated the matter substantially. After the tears and mutually recriminating statements were exchanged, the judge got the parties to agree to try to work out a solution. The two women sold fruit along the roadway together, which was their sole source of income. They needed to get along. The judge gently reminded the young woman, “This is your children’s grandma. You chose her son as your children’s father.” The judge also stressed that if they couldn’t work out a solution, the case would go to trial and could even become a criminal case, resulting in one of the parties going to jail. We last saw the plaintiff and defendant in the courtyard, both very emotional, struggling to come to terms with each other.

In the cases we witnessed, poverty and unemployment obviously contributed to the problems. Before the hearings, the judge explained the procedures and law even though her calendar was packed. Court personnel took the time to explain many other aspects of the system. For instance, domestic violence, both psychological and physical, is common in El Salvador. The Family Code now allows even the poor to bring charges without paying a fee. Access to justice is slowly becoming a reality for abused spouses and children.

Each day was filled with a wide variety of educational experiences. We met with a lawyer/legislator from each of the two major political parties, personnel at the U.S. Embassy, and lawyers involved in current human rights work, among others. The visit culminated on our last day in a two-hour dialogue with El Salvador Supreme Court Justice Mirna Perla who related some of the issues facing the legal system today. Justice Perla, a human rights lawyer during the war, continues to fight for rights of those unjustly accused and wrongfully imprisoned. We will always remember her courage and commitment to justice.

There is much to be learned from the people of El Salvador, and immersion trips are an extremely effective way to bring this knowledge home. The law students agree that this trip is one they will never forget. The psychological impact is impossible to put into words. The educational value will be difficult, if not impossible, to duplicate. Without a doubt, the experience changed the life of every student who participated. The law school, the profession, and the community will benefit from the perspective that these students will bring to their courses and eventually to the practice of law. These students, like many of the students who work at the law center, feel the same passion, the same flame—the burning need—to do something to make our world a better, safer, more equitable place.

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