The goal of this column is to enlighten our readers about the private endeavors of attorneys who are part of the MCCA network. By examining lawyers and their work practices by day in contrast to the personal interests that they pursue outside of the office, it is our hope that this series of articles allows our readers to see the other side of lawyers who manage to pursue unique interests despite their demanding careers.
Juan Cartagena’s legal vocation and his musical avocation might seem wildly at odds, but closer examination reveals an undeniable affinity — both involve a pursuit of justice and a distinct sympathy for the underdog. As general counsel and vice president for advocacy for New York City’s Community Service Society (CSS), Cartagena is part of an organization engaged in advocacy, research, and direct service to champion better opportunities to break the cycle of poverty experienced by low–income New Yorkers. Similarly, Cartagena’s passion for authentic bomba and plena, the traditional drum music of Puerto Rico, comes not only from a sense of ethnic identity, but also his desire to pay tribute to a folklore–oriented musical form that, he feels, deserves its due among the island’s more celebrated artistic contributions.
In July, Cartagena added “vice president for advocacy” to his title at CSS, giving him responsibility to do more advocacy work beyond his legal duties. “For me,” explains Cartagena, “the best type of advocacy comes from the grassroots level. I like to work with those who are directly affected and are looking for any way to change policy, and [we] are using lawyers and the courts to compliment a broader social justice movement. In these instances, litigation is just one of many weapons in the arsenal. Now is my time to take advantage of the moment at CSS. I really want the policy work to inform the litigation, and vice versa.”
The 160–year–old CSS strives to identify problems that create a permanent poverty class in New York City, and to advocate for the changes required to eliminate them. “The majority of New York City’s poor is composed of minorities and women,” asserts Cartagena. “Today, the most pressing issue for the poor is lack of access to jobs and job training. Issues of poverty and employment involve systemic barriers, including legal barriers that affect people who have been arrested. Work is the best remedy to stop recidivism and offer a way out of poverty.”
As a kid growing up in a rough Jersey City, N.J, neighborhood, Cartagena possessed a precocious awareness of his surroundings. “I did well in school and was considered smart,” he explains, “but even then I knew there were a lot of other guys where I lived who were just as smart as or smarter than me, but they were mired in really bad circumstances that prevented them from succeeding. I was lucky. I was raised by my mother, and even though she only made it through the sixth grade in Puerto Rico, she was certain that education was the way for me to rise above our situation; she encouraged me and she created an environment where I could concentrate on school.”
Cartagena discovered early on that he wanted to be a lawyer. Like his fellow Nuyorican — a New Yorker of Puerto Rican birth or descent — and friend Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Cartagena was introduced to the profession through old episodes of television’s Perry Mason. Cartagena was intrigued by the fictional defense attorney’s cool demeanor and control, and aspired to be like him. “After all,” notes Cartagena, “Perry never lost a case.”
At Columbia School of Law, Cartagena imagined he too would be a criminal defense lawyer, but an internship that exposed him to civil–rights litigation on behalf of entire communities and individuals changed his mind. After receiving his J.D, Cartagena worked for the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund doing civil rights work. Prior to CSS, Cartagena was the first legal director in the New York office of the Department of Puerto Rican Affairs (known locally as the Office of Puerto Rico), where he assisted recent migrants with finding employment, made legal referrals, and provided amicus briefs to cases that affected the Puerto Rican community. Cartagena joined CSS as general counsel in 1991.
Though he was born in New Jersey, Cartagena’s love for Puerto Rican music runs deep. (His parents came to the New York City area as part of a great wave of Puerto Rican migrants looking for work in the 1950s.) As the director and member of the Jersey City–based Segunda Quimbamba, a percussion and dance ensemble that performs bomba and plena, Cartagena plays large free–standing and handheld drums alike at cultural festivals, concerts, parades, and workshops; he also teaches dancing and drumming. Bomba and plena are lively dance–inducing, percussion–driven musical traditions dating back to the 18th and early 20th centuries, respectively. Both styles of music reflect the African heritages of Puerto Rico.
Cartagena was formally introduced to percussion instruments in college — he took a course in West African drumming at Dartmouth, where he majored in psychology — and was almost instantly smitten with the instruments and their history. “Because the drums were the instruments of the slaves in the Caribbean, they historically took a back seat to the more European orchestral– and guitar–based musical traditions in Puerto Rico,” explains Cartagena. “It’s important to teach the significance of drums in our culture, and to keep the Puerto Rican percussion tradition alive. The island is a musical crossroads; many Puerto Ricans know other peoples’ music, but very little of our own.
“I was lucky to have grown up with bomba and plena. We listened to it a lot and loved it,” he continues. “In college, I listened to John Coltrane every day and loved that, too, but I never let the drums go completely.”
Traces of Puerto Rican drumming can be found in various contemporary musical forms, including American jazz, Caribbean salsa, and most recently reggaeton (a popular mix of reggae/dancehall, traditional Latin, and hip hop). “Many Puerto Ricans aren’t aware of this,” notes Cartagena. “There is conformity regarding ‘official music’ and what a country allows to be popular; consequently, drumming was never really pushed or recorded properly. A lot of Puerto Ricans don’t know the difference between bomba and plena, and have never grasped it as one of our own treasures.”
In addition to opening the Segunda Quimbamba Folkloric Center in Jersey City to promote Puerto Rican traditional drumming in 1997, Cartagena actively performs, writes, and lectures on the subject across the country, and was recognized as a master folk artist by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts in 2004.
Last year, Cartagena and Segunda Quimbamba had the opportunity to collaborate with the gospel choir of the Bethesda Baptist Church in Jersey City. “It really struck a chord with audiences,” recalls Cartagena. “Joining the two traditions was tricky, but also incredibly gratifying.
“The act of drumming is very curative; it relieves stress and helps people to better relate to themselves and others,” he reflects. “My work at CSS and my passion for the drums both bring me into the realm of the marginalized in some way. I’ve embraced this music, and am able to use it to help break down barriers and stereotypes. My day job and the music? They’re not really all that different.” DB
Patrick Folliard is a freelance writer based in Silver Spring, Md.
From the November/December 2009 issue of Diversity & The Bar®