The phone rang. This would be my call. Sometimes, we, the interns, would play an unspoken game of seeing who would give in to picking up the phone first. We did this especially when we were under pressure with briefs or policy research projects. That day, I quickly claimed the call and answered with my opening lines. There was silence on the other side. Then, I heard, “es-cuz me.” It was a nervous voice, definitely dripping with a thick Spanish-speaker accent.
I immediately repeated my introduction in Spanish. I heard a sigh of relief. He kind of laughed a bit, and then his voice seemed to get weepy.
“Oh Señorita,” he said. “You have no idea how much I prayed that someone who could understand me would pick up the phone. You are the answer to my prayer.”
As a law student, when I was accepted to intern in Washington, D.C., I was thrilled. That summer, I worked in the immigration sector. Every day, I would receive calls from immigration detention centers and jails across the country. Detainees would call asking for information packets and cases for their pro se proceedings (self representation, without a lawyer). We, the interns, would hear the detainees’ terrible stories. Some detainees would call only to hear our voices. Some called often and asked for us by name. Behind my computer, on my cubicle wall, was a rainbow of sticky notes with names and notes.
Every day had some elements that were always the same. Every morning, I would talk to my mother on the train until it’d dive into the underground tunnel as it approached the metro area. When I had no signal, I would read my copy of Sonia Sotomayor’s My Beloved World that my mother had given to me for my birthday. As I sat on the train, I would think of the many people I had spoken to the day before and the many more I would speak to on that given day.
I would sit by a window watchful, making sure I didn’t miss my stop, since I could seldom understand the announcement on the intercom. When I arrived to my stop, which was blocks away from the office where I was interning, I would go up steep escalators into the muggy warm D.C. morning. I would get off at the Federal Triangle with pep in my step, the collar of my blazer sticking to the sweaty back of my neck. I would resume my conversation with my mother while I took my morning stroll past the White House.
Every day was also different. I have notebooks filled with names and so many stories. The stories I heard, engraved themselves into my mind, my consciousness and my heart. Though I am Puerto Rican and a U.S. citizen, all of my life, through church and family friends, I was surrounded by Latinos who had gone through a lot to be in this country; some who still lived in fear.
At the commission where I worked, many Latinos, especially from El Salvador and other Central American countries, would call. They would often get transferred to me if other interns could not understand them because I was the only native Spanish speaker. Their stories gave me insight into the people who have surrounded me my entire life. When I was younger, I had no idea what being detained or deported meant; all of the horrors that come with the immigrant’s experience in America became a reality to me that summer. It was no longer a story. It was no longer someone I knew who was talking about the past. It was someone behind bars somewhere, suffering, calling me every day.
I spent my days that summer answering the phone, sorting through documents, researching, printing country conditions and compiling other resources for the detainees who would call asking for help. The job came with paper cuts, nightmares, tears and “my detainees” lingering on my mind even after work; even after that summer.
The phone call of the man who got weepy on the phone was one call of many. However, it is a call I will never forget. It was probably one of my shortest calls, one of the calls I remember almost no details about, but I remember the feeling it left me with after I answered it.
That day, I knew that I was supposed to answer that call. Life weaves a web causing many of our lives to intersect at pivotal moments. I will probably never cross paths with this gentleman, but at that moment, when he was scared and locked up in an immigration detention center calling for help, we met.
At that job, I learned to value my language skills and culture in a different way. My Spanish language, my warmth, my faith, my passion, my service—all which are deeply embedded in what being Latina means to me, became more than a label. Being Latina no longer belongs only to me. It symbolizes a strong hand outstretched, ready to help and uphold the hand of my brother or sister in need. It is a strong hand outstretched, assuring the lonely that they are not alone. Yo amo; yo hablo; yo lucho; yo estudio; yo ayudo; yo inspiro Yo soy Latina.