There is so much about Maria that we will never know. The snippets that were recorded leave out nearly everything important. However, we know something about her from how her children turned out. After all, a mother is a child’s first teacher. Maria’s firstborn son, the day he was elevated to manhood, chose the verse recorded at Luke 4:18 (The Spirit of the Lord [is] upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised) as his personal creed. Maria must have been like the virtuous woman of Proverbs 31:20 “She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy” just as today’s Modern Day Maria, Nicole, is.
I’m Nicole. I am originally from the northeast, lived in the deep south for six years where I worked as a federal public defender, and now I live in Baja California Norte near the U.S. border. I’m a human rights lawyer working with asylum seekers and deported persons who are trauma survivors. All of my cases are either low bono (meaning low fee) or pro bono (meaning free). I do contract work for other attorneys in the U.S. writing expert reports or serving as a mitigation consultant in federal criminal and immigration cases. Basically working one job to fund my non-paying dream job.
I’m still working on a website. Here is the Facebook page: Law Office of Nicole Ramos
Living in Mexico has changed me. I no longer take people or things for granted. I appreciate every little thing that I have because financially I have struggled here as I’ve been working to get my human rights project off the ground. I have spent many a night eating beans and tortilla, and have not bought a stitch of clothes in over a year until recently when I finally reached a point where I could buy two shirts. Yay. I am happy every day of my life, whereas I used to be sad most days before. Even when I get angry on some days, I am still incredibly happy over all. People’s compassion and resilience inspire me. Listening to live classical music or watching live dance inspires me, CBP angers me. A lot.
Here I’ve also realized how precious family and relationships with friends and neighbors can be. Working with asylum seekers who have had to flee their homes, leaving behind all the people in their lives whom they love, I realize how lucky I am to live in a place where I can grow my personal relationships in safety, and not be forced to run and leave people behind. I cherish people in a way that I never imagined.
My belief system has not changed, but it has become stronger, even more of what it has been at its core for so long. Mexico has given me the chance to test how far I am willing to go and how much I will personally sacrifice for my beliefs — that the most vulnerable among us deserve justice and the quality of that justice should not be measured by a person’s ability to pay, even if that means that I must go without material things and creature comforts. Thus, I have become even more passionate, and more aggressive in righting wrongs for people whose rights have been violated. Because the border is a militarized zone and in order to protect my clients’ rights, I have to be as aggressive as the government agents who would seek to disregard those rights.
I had to learn Spanish. I was not raised speaking Spanish, and only spent 8 months living in Argentina following law school. My Spanish coming to Mexico was rudimentary. It was very overwhelming at first, and my Spanish will never be perfect but I work hard at it and have improved more than I thought possible. My single motivator is that in order to help my clients, they have to feel like I speak their language on some level, and not only speak through my translator and that I think unfettered communication is important enough to work hard to learn their language.
I have also learned how to use a comal (Mexican cast iron griddle), how to roast chiles on an open flame and do other cool things with food, and how to drive aggressively but safely. There are still so many things I have to learn but I’d really like to learn how to make candles and how to garden.
I struggle with the fact that I am trying to do the work of an organization as a solo practitioner. So I struggle with the fact that there are only 24 hours in a day, and that my body needs sleep and food. I receive a never-ending stream of phone calls and emails and have no time that is my own from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to bed.
I also struggle with the fact that I do not have a formal source of funding yet. This project unfolded organically, but very quickly over the last 10 months. So I have had to take contract work from other attorneys, writing expert reports and doing consulting work, in order to make money to pay the bills, while at the same time, working a second unpaid job of sorts with my pro bono asylum cases.
Coffee and the unconditional support of my partner keep me going. My partner is with me every step of the way, helping to interview clients, to comfort them, to help me make sure I remember to sleep and eat, and never says no to me when it comes to helping people and sacrificing comforts in our own lives.
It isn’t a professional achievement per se, but I am most proud of losing my fear. I used to have really incredible anxiety. I would worry myself into a state of sadness. But since my move to Mexico, I can say I do not have fear anymore the way that I once did. I feel braver, even the moments when I am still a little afraid. I think my clients have given me this courage. They have been the bravest people I have ever met in my life, setting out through uncertain and hostile territories to get their families to safety. They have survived unimaginable horrors. But they keep going, refusing to be killed, refusing to lose their resilience. They make me want to be brave.
I miss my family. I miss being able to hug my mom more than the amount of hugs that I can get in during one visit a year. I miss some of the foods, like arroz y gandules and tostones. I miss the art museums in Philadelphia and New York, and the big leafy green parks. I miss walking through the woods in the Wissahickon Park.
I used to have a killer designer wardrobe. Even though I was a federal public defender, I was still well compensated for a non-profit sector attorney so I could afford to shop big. And while I still appreciate fashion, I’m just never going to be able to afford it again and that’s okay. I have no free time. I would love to have just a week of laying on a beach reading books and sleeping. In another life, I enjoyed museums, live music, dancing all night in clubs, and weird performance art.
I would say that the defining moment in my life here in Mexico was when my cat was killed by people who broke into my home (albeit likely accidentally but it still sucked). She was a kitten, not more than 18 months, and she was my favorite. She sat on my lap all day while I worked. I cried for a week. I did not shower. My hair got so matted I looked like I was in the early stage of dreadlocks. I couldn’t eat. I’m fairly certain I smelled bad. But I got to the point where I realized I could not sit around in my own pain all day because even though I had lost someone very special to me in a violent way, others had lost so much more and that I had to get off the couch and stop behaving like my pain was so special and tragic.
My current goal is to incorporate my now unfunded project, The Border Rights Clinic, into a formal nonprofit. This will require me to register in both the U.S. and Mexico. I need funds for start-up costs such as registering an organization and other associated costs, i.e. notary costs, as well as funds for things like paper and toner. People can donate to the Border Rights Clinic at firstname.lastname@example.org. The clinic is based in Baja California Norte and represents individuals seeking asylum in the United States. All proceeds go toward funding the project’s monthly legal clinics which it is hosts in partnership with other community organizations in Tijuana, and also funds the pro bono legal representation of low-income asylum seekers from the moment they try to present themselves to CBP through their subsequent detention and the process of applying for asylum in the U.S., including their representation in court.
I am also always in need of qualified volunteer interpreters and document translation. I also need help building the website. If you can volunteer in any way or know of someone who would benefit from services that I can offer, please contact me through my Facebook page.