StoryCorps: 'I Can Smell The Dirt And The Fear': Up From Soil, The Soul Of A Law Career Vito de la Cruz grew up in a family of migrant farm workers in the 1960s. And, though the civil rights lawyer is now far from those fields, he's still motivated by the memory of a brutal day.
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'I Can Smell The Dirt And The Fear': Up From Soil, The Soul Of A Law Career

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

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

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LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Time now for StoryCorps. Vito de la Cruz is a lawyer in Washington state, but he grew up in Texas in a family of migrant farm workers. Vito joined them in the fields when he was 5 years old. He told his wife about his childhood and about the aunt who raised him.

VITO DE LA CRUZ: I've always called her Nena. She was, like, 19 years old. And then this bundle of stuff, which was me, showed up on her doorstep. And she embraced parenthood when she didn't have to. And the family - we traveled the migrant farm workers circuit.

MARIA SEFCHICK-DEL PASO: What was it like being a migrant farm worker?

DE LA CRUZ: Well, it was equal parts hardship and poverty. I remember an immigration raid that I experienced when I was about 13 in this tomato field. My family - we were citizens, and there were other folks there. Many of them were citizens, and many of them also were undocumented aliens.

And 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. I could hear the noise of the batons made on the heads and on their bodies. And my uncle grabbed my shoulder and said just stay still. And they just passed us by. They were chasing people who would run.

To this day, I can smell the dirt and the fear. It's been years, but it's vivid in my memory. And I didn't know exactly at that moment that I wanted to go into law, but 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. But also, if there's one thing that my Nena gave me was a desire to succeed in school.

SEFCHICK-DEL PASO: Didn't your Nena say that she was not going to get married until you went to college?

DE LA CRUZ: (Laughter) Yeah, she did. 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.

And now I'm a public defender. And it is an ongoing struggle, you know. 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. So if the things that I do while I walk this planet help improve somebody's life, then that - for me, that's enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Vito de la Cruz with his wife Maria Sefchick-Del Paso at StoryCorps. Since this recording, Vito has left his position as public defender to practice at civil rights law. His interview is also featured in the latest StoryCorps book "Callings: The Purpose And Passion Of Work."

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