Tomás Castellanos Shares His Life Journey and Highlights the Importance of Mentorship
Holland & Knight's Diversity Council and Hispanic Affinity Group are proud to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month and pay tribute to the generations of Hispanics who have enriched America's history and continue to play a role in its future success. This year, we took time to speak to some of our Hispanic attorneys, who shared their stories with us. We now present a video series showcasing some of these conversations. We hope that the stories conveyed in these videos inspire those struggling with recognizing their roots and shine light to the contributions that Hispanics have provided to the United States.
In this episode, Miami Associate Tomás Castellanos talks about his life and career path after arriving from Cuba at a young age. Tomas speaks about his involvement in Hispanic organizations and other pro bono work he has participated in, including asylum cases for immigrants from Central America. He also talks about his passion for mentoring young adults and lending a hand whenever he is able to.
Tomás Castellanos: My mother and I left Cuba in the summer, in August of 1994 on a boat. And we came to the U.S. through the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo. We were at the base for seven months in a refugee camp between August and March of '94 and '95. And then we arrived here in South Florida in March of 1995. And at that time, my uncle had been living in the U.S. for about a year and a half. He had arrived in 1993. And we went to live with him in Hialeah for a month until my mom found a job and we were able to get our own small apartment. I grew up in a pretty tight knit family. My grandparents arrived from Cuba later in 1995, right in time for Thanksgiving. So since then, we've lived very close to each other and pretty tight community. And when I was in middle school, my mother and I lived in Phoenix for two and a half years. And in Phoenix, it was interesting because the main misconception was that if you spoke Spanish, you were from Mexico. And then there was also the misconception of if you spoke Spanish or you were Hispanic, you should look a certain way. And my mother and I, who are both very fair skinned, we would oftentimes go into Hispanic grocery stores in Phoenix and be mistaken for Anglos. And, you know, people would try to speak to us in English and sometimes even they would say things near us about us in Spanish thinking that we did not understand. So those those were always interesting encounters.
But look, I think the biggest misconception is that we're honestly a very diverse group of people. We're honestly just like everybody else. We want the same things that most other Americans want, you know, to have good homes, good education, good jobs. You know, family is important to us. I don't think we're that different. And we're also diverse, we're not just one group. When I arrived in college, I realized that we didn't have any Cuban American Student Association. I was able to gather three or four Cubans who I found as a freshman and we kind of restarted the club. And that was a very big part of my extracurricular life on campus during my four years in college. Later on when I went to law school, I was involved with the Hispanic Law Student Association. I got involved with CABA, the Cuban American Bar Association, when I was in law school, actually. But I've been a member since I've been a law student. I participated in their mentorship program as a law student, which is great. I was assigned a mentor who was really good to me and really helped me a lot. Now as an attorney, I got involved when I was a younger associate with some pro-bono work with immigrants from Guatemala who were seeking asylum in the United States. And that was very rewarding. In law school, I actually was able to successfully get asylum for an immigrant from El Salvador as part of a clinic that I did. So that was really rewarding as well. And honestly, a lot of the stuff I do for the Hispanic community is more informal. I tend to mentor a lot of younger people who reach out to me who are looking to go to law school or are currently in law school, who are from South Florida, who are Hispanic, who are trying to get jobs or trying to figure out what they want to do. So I do a lot of that type of informal mentoring as well. For me, it's important because I felt that I didn't really have anybody close to me when I was young to guide me in that sense. I'm the only lawyer in my family. Nobody else in my family has gone to law school. Even though my parents are well-educated people, they were educated in a different country and a different culture, different educational system. So when I was growing up, I kind of had to figure it out on my own with not a lot of guidance. So if I can help somebody younger who maybe is in the situation that I was in when I was younger, then I'm very happy to do that because I wish that maybe I would have had more guidance myself. The few people from Central America that I've helped when it comes to asylum cases have all had really interesting stories. There was a man from El Salvador that I worked with when I was a law student. His brother had been killed by one of the gangs in El Salvador because the family had refused to make one of those payments. This family, their dad lived in the United States, so they knew that they had some access to money. So the gangs demanded some kind of payment for security purposes and they refused to make the payment. And as a result, they killed one of his brothers. And soon after that, he fled the country and came to the United States to live with his dad and his dad's wife in the United States. And so he was seeking asylum and it was it was very interesting, because a lot of people in that situation are scared of authority. They can't distinguish the difference between their attorney who is representing them and the state that is trying to deport them. And it takes a lot of time to meet with them multiple times before you gain their trust and they start telling their story and they start really opening up because they are afraid of telling their story to anybody, particularly somebody that they feel has some kind of authority. And you have to really explain to them, "No, I'm not to the state. I'm not here to deport you. I am your counsel. I'm here to try to help you stay in this country." And I think also they really appreciate and I hope more native Spanish speakers do this, because I think that when you're able to connect with them, you know, as a native speaker in their language, it really helps them become comfortable with you, open up to you in a way that maybe they won't to somebody else who they feel it's more is more culturally foreign to them.
More Videos in this Series
Episode 6: Tomás Castellanos Shares His Life Journey and Highlights the Importance of Mentorship (You are currently viewing Episode 6)