Cover Story: The White Crusader?

Sean Arthurs is a lawyer for the right reasons, and Cincinnati's growing Hispanic community May be better for it

Natalie Hager

UC law student Sean Arthurs talks with Hugo (far right), Hilda and their children Hugo Jr., Fernanda and Monica.

Daniela Castro and Sean Arthurs don't know each other. But because Castro numbers among the area's rapidly growing Spanish-speaking population and Arthurs intends to use his legal ability and penchant for social justice to better represent this community, their paths could've crossed.

Almost three years ago Castro, now 22, was new to Cincinnati. Police approached the car she was in as she left a club with a man she barely knew.

"The cops knocked on the window and he rolled down the window just a little bit," says Bolivian-born Castro in English thickly accented with Spanish. "He said, 'What you need?' When the cop said, 'Get out of the car,' he took off going 120 miles an hour."

She laughs now at the memory that could have ended tragically.

Turns out Castro's companion had outstanding warrants and a gun. The man led police on a high-speed chase that ended in a wreck.

Castro was ejected from the car.

During the subsequent search, Castro says police confiscated her green card "because they assume it's false." When she tried getting it back, police gave her the runaround, she says.

"I called and they'd say, 'Call this number, and then call this number and this number,' " she says. "Now I speak English and it was getting on my nerves. For people who don't speak English or speak limited English, it's fucked up."

It cost Castro $400 and took three or four months to replace her legitimate green card. Meanwhile, she earned money off the books doing construction work. Site supervisors hired her despite not believing her Latin-American tale of undocumented woe.

"It happens all the time," she says. "Working at Su Casa, I learned (the police) pull you over, take your shit and just bounce."

Castro says at the time she didn't get a lawyer, Legal Aid or otherwise, because she didn't think she could afford one.

But she's become a fluid Latin American — that is, she's found her niche in Cincinnati, knows her way around various networks and straddles the Puerto Rican, Mexican and Guatemalan communities via her poetry and painting. An after-school art instructor at the Kennedy Heights Art Center, Castro once worked as an interpreter at Conversa Center.

Still, misinformation about rights and services exacerbated by a language barrier keeps many area Hispanics clustered within their communities, segregated from quality education and health care. Add to that the nagging fear felt by undocumented Hispanic immigrants, and it's easy to see why they would and do forego basic legal rights in favor of virtual anonymity, dodging even the U.S. Census, which can't accurately keep count.

Because of skewed numbers, the basic social service infrastructures of Hamilton, Fairfield and Greater Cincinnati don't keep pace with the growth in their respective Hispanic populations. It's a repetitive cycle due to get a nudge from its rut.

Arthurs, a 32-year-old third-year student at the University of Cincinnati College of Law, will try closing the gulf between the law's response to the Hispanic community and that community's interaction with the law.

He's the first-ever UC student to nab the prestigious Skadden Fellowship, which supplies a $37,500 salary with a second-year renewal, establishing a two-year commitment. It'll take at least that long to implement his ambitious plan.

Beginning in September, Arthurs will work with and through the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati doing outreach to the Hispanic community, says Elaine Fink, a senior attorney with Legal Aid.

"Starting in Butler County and western Hamilton County, we're going to use him to be aggressive to establish contacts with clients," Fink says.

Arthurs will focus on educational advocacy and family law, which Fink says will center on battered immigrant women.

In grappling to serve their Spanish-speaking clients, Legal Aid has few Spanish-speaking staffers. Of the organization's 35 attorneys covering Hamilton, Clermont, Brown, Butler, Warren, Highland and Clinton counties, only Fink and a paralegal — and now Arthurs — speak Spanish.

"This is something we have needed to and would have addressed," Fink says, "but Sean's involvement will help put resources to work. We know we've taken certain initiatives — churches or whatever — but as there started to be a greater low-income, Spanish-speaking community, that community is growing faster than we can commit resources. That's one of the reasons we're excited about the Sean Arthurs initiative. Part of Sean's fellowship focus will be just that: How do we bring focus to that community?"

If this all sounds like The White Shadow Saves the Day, in a way it is. Arthurs, who'll be the first to cop to being a güero (a white boy), was also a new American once. Only, he says, he doesn't mind admitting he's benefited from white male privilege.

He takes passionate yet earnest responsibility for it.

"At Notre Dame University, I was all about how I was gonna make money," Arthurs says. "My senior year I started interviewing with banks and I thought, 'I can't do it.' "

He graduated in 1994 with a degree in finance and Japanese, and two years later he earned a master's degree in teaching from the University of Portland.

Since then, Arthurs' work has been a collective and collected attempt to uncorkscrew the stereotypes of white, middle-class comfort. He's taught in poor Catholic schools in Shreveport, La., making $7,000 a year and at mostly black Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Md.

Teaching only whet Arthurs' appetite for social service work.

"We talked about how Columbus didn't discover anything," he says. "At the same time, I'm taking my students to protests. We went to the protests for the new trials of Mumia (Abu-Jamal) and Leonard Peltier."

He knew he'd be more effective as an attorney.

"After a while, I thought I could make a bigger difference if I was inside that courtroom," he says, "but I wanted real human rights experiences."

Arthurs did a stint as a member of Peace Brigades International as an unarmed guard accompanying prosecuting attorneys to court in Bogota, Columbia, and then worked in Africa for the United Nations' Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Sierra Leone.

He chose UC Law School as a framework for his crusading spirit.

"I went to law school because I knew it'd be the best avenue for me to do social service work," he says.

Strange, the way America sometimes inexplicably binds us to one another and to her, all in the name of good works.

Born in Belfast, Ireland, Arthurs was 8 years old when his family emigrated to Long Island. How can this Irish lad possibly relate to the plight of Latin Americans?

"There's definitely an immigrant tie," Arthurs says. "When I came over, I wore corduroys for three days in a row. I didn't know football and McDonald's. What I suffered doesn't compare to not speaking English, no jobs, being told you weren't wanted, you're Latino."

With no prompting, Arthurs sets forth on a closing argument worthy of a moot court victory.

"Do I have to be Latino to work with the Latino community?" he asks. "Do I have to be black to work with the black community? Is that America? My rights are protected, and I hope to protect the rights of others. If the fact that a white person can get more attention to this Latino issue, then I am gonna use that to my advantage. What am I supposed to do? Apologize for being white?

"I feel very much (like the) white male of America. I'm an immigrant and was made fun of, but that lasted two or three years. I feel very fortunate to be where I am. When I got here to Cincinnati and learned there was this massive Latino explosion, who would've known?"

'Working hard, very quietly'
The 2000 U.S. Census low-balls its estimates of Hispanics living in the eight-county Tristate region at a mere 22,000, with only 9,514 in Hamilton County. Arthurs estimates the eight-county population to be upwards of 40,000.

Besides the disparity in legitimate numbers, the Census also had to figure out how to universally label Spanish-speaking people in America so numbers would be accurate in the first place. "Hispanic" and "Latino" are defined as people who classify themselves as Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban or "other Spanish, Hispanic or Latino" and that these people may be of "any race."

According to U.S. Census Web site, "The federal government treats Hispanic origin and race as separate and distinct concepts, asking separate questions on Hispanic origin and race in surveys and censuses. Starting with Census 2000, the question on race asks respondents to report the race or races they consider themselves to be. Thus, Hispanics may be of any race."

According to the Census, as of July 1, 2003, there were nearly 40 million Hispanics living in America, making them the nation's largest minority group and accounting for half of the 9 million people added to the American population since 2000.

Many of Greater Cincinnati's Hispanic immigrants end up, at one time or another, at Fort Hamilton Hospital in Hamilton. And they likely meet Marta Gonzalez.

"I'm not allowed to get sick," Gonzalez says, laughing.

But her significance as Fort Hamilton's patient services representative who interprets for the hordes of Spanish-speaking patients there is no joke.

Born in Paraguay and raised in Argentina, Gonzalez has been at the hospital three and a half years. She was a child psychologist in Argentina before moving to West Chester, where she has family.

At Fort Hamilton — where, she says, 23 percent of the childbirths are to Latin Americans — Gonzalez explains billing, patients' rights and medication, interprets for doctors and even advises patients on what questions to ask hospital staff.

Because trust is an issue among the mostly poor, mostly Spanish-speaking patients, once Gonzalez has earned it she speaks frankly to the immigrants about education, safe sex, their rights as patients and, most important to her, learning English. She tells them not to live merely on a just-get-by basis and that when they emerge from their cloistered communities to get better jobs and education they'll feel more welcomed.

"I have friends who work in schools and they have the same problem we have — they need someone to communicate with the kids," she says. "When kids take a test, the school has to provide an interpreter. We have to educate our people (on) the basic things instead of providing everything. We have to educate them because we have people who have very low income and very low educations.

"I always tell the patients, 'You have these choices to learn English for free (refering to available English As a Second Language courses).' I tell them, 'You cannot go around in this country not knowing the language of getting basic things.' "

Gonzalez says the distinct cultural differences between disparate Latin American countries add to the self-imposed segregation among the Spanish-speaking in America.

"Every country has a different way of life," she says. "I see a lot of Mexicans, and they are very quiet and listen to you. They can accept advice. (Latinos) from other places, not so much."

Castro says the cultural nuances give way to pockets of segregation within the larger community.

"Many people from Guatemala and Mexico chill together, and then there is the South Americans (who) chill together with los boricuas (Puerto Ricans)," she says. "There is racism amongst us, too, I think not so much because of color but social status like if you are from el campo or from the city."

Still, both women say language remains the greatest barrier between the Spanish-speaking and America. And there's always racism.

"People always think I just crossed El Rio Grande," Castro says. "When people meet me for the first time, they talk to me stupid, assuming I don't speak well or don't understand well. If I have straight hair, I have to be Mexican. If I have curly hair, I have to be Puerto Rican. Or if they talk to me they say (speaking slowly), 'Hi, my name is....'

"Or," she starts again, her speech quickening, "they assume I'm Spanish, which I hate because Spanish are the people who oppressed me. Those are the motherfuckers that raped my grandparents."

Gonzalez has formed a loose network with her Spanish-speaking counterparts at other hospitals, like Vanessa Nino at University of Cincinnati Hospital.

"Every time I have any problem, I just call Vanessa and I know that Vanessa will know someone who can help," says Gonzalez. "There's a lot of people working hard for the Spanish-speaking community, and very quietly."

'A crusading movement'
Becoming an attorney is a glamour profession, one that attracts its share of six-figure seekers. But Mina Jefferson, UC Law's Assistant Dean of Professional Development, says it's the heft of post-law school debt that hinders many graduating attorneys from accepting social service posts.

"It's not the nearness of money but the reality of debt," Jefferson says. "In From Paper Chase to Money Chase: Law School Debt Diverts Road to Public Service, a nationwide Equal Justice Works survey conducted among the national law school class of 2002, 66 percent of respondents stated that law school debt kept them from considering a public interest or government job. This study also revealed that 94 percent financed their studies through school loans and 50 percent graduated in 2002 with loan debts of $75,000 or more."

Jefferson says she "identified Arthurs as a strong post-graduate fellowship candidate" during the professional planning meeting in his first year. A Legal Aid board member, she also told law school faculty connected to the Skadden Foundation about Arthurs and arranged for him to be at a presentation by Skadden Director Susan Butler Plum at Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law.

"Let's face it," Jefferson says, "once you meet Sean you become convinced of his greatness and become vested in his goals."

Talk to Arthurs at any length, and it's obvious his blood runs deep with social activism. He tics off a long list of businesses he boycotts with vigor, and not based on the flimsy urban myths of atrocities but on practices he saw himself while in Colombia of, say, a highly profitable Seattle-based coffee emporium located on every corner in America underselling poor Colombian bean farmers.

"Don't buy Nike, don't buy Eddie Bauer, don't buy Starbucks," he says. "I haven't been to see a movie at night in five years. Hollywood is ridiculous."

Arthurs might sound self-righteous. Even if he is, he's putting his degree where his heart is. In change.

"Somebody said to me Cincinnati is known for its horrible race relations," he says. "In 10 years, if we don't do something about the Latino community, Cincinnati will be known for its horrible race relations with the brown and black communities. I hope to be part of a crusading movement." ©

Supporting Hispanics
Here's a quick list of agencies and services available to Latino immigrants in the Greater Cincinnati area:

· Coalicion por los Derechos y la Dignidad de los Inmigrantes (Coalition for Immigrant Rights and Dignity)

P.O. Box 371005, Cincinnati, OH 45222

[email protected]


· Marta Gonzalez, Spanish interpretor, Fort Hamilton Hospital

630 Eaton Ave., Hamilton


· The Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati (serving clients in Brown, Butler, Clermont and Hamilton counties)


· Su Casa Hispanic Ministry

115 W. Seymour Ave., Carthage


Upcoming events of note:
· On April 3, Marta Gonzalez, an interprtor with Fort Hamilton Hospital, will be at Su Casa to explain patients' rights and services. Admission is free. Contact Su Casa for details.

· On April 17, Fort Hamilton Hospital takes part in a health fair at St. Julie Billiart Church (224 Dayton St., Hamilton) geared to Spanish-speaking residents. The fair will offer health screenings, information on nutrition and domestic violence prevention, tuberculosis screenings and a Spanish-speaking OB/GYN physician. Admission is free and open to the public. Call 513-867-2000 for details or to hear the hospital's 24-hour Spanish-speaking line.

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