Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A Latina Lawyer's Perspective on "Why Women Still Can't Have it All"



by Debra Mares

I was recently intrigued by the debate on “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.”  Arguments and articles have surfaced after Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article was published on the topic in The AtlanticSlaughter, who once worked as the director of policy planning for Hilary Clinton had been warned against admitting that being a top professional and a mom was a constant struggle.  Slaughter admitted that she helped blame millions of women if they could not “manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot).”   
Since the article broke, many have reacted.  Some argue women can have it all, just not at the same time.  Other’s argue women can have it all if they do things like find a spouse willing to share the duties.  I’m invigorated by the debate, regardless of what opinion is taken.  The dilemma reminds me of the annual New Years brunches I’ve been having with my two dear friends over the past five years.  One of my girlfriends is a stay-at-home mom and the other is a never-been-married lawyer, who has spent a good share of her career working her way up the corporate ladder.  I am a divorced lawyer that was on her way to having it “all” (husband, home, career, kids) before it was cut short six years ago by a divorce.  
It never fails that I leave our annual get-togethers with the reminder that “the grass is always greener on the other side.”  I listen to the stories of my married girlfriend who has a young son.  She envies our education and careers.  I in turn envy her role as a wife, her perfect husband and remarkable son.  I always leave with a fresh perspective - that you can’t have it all.  I’m forced each year to ask myself - what is my purpose in life?  Is it to be a wife, mother, family-loving, career-driven, community-serving woman, or all the above.  
It’s important to ask ourselves not whether we can have it all but rather, what is it that defines us at this moment of our lives.  Today, my purpose is to be a community serving, family loving and creative driven role model, to my thirteen year old niece and the young women I mentor.  Two years ago, that wasn’t who I was.  I was striving to be a career driven prosecutor climbing to the top of the ladder.  I was awarded top prosecutor of the year twice and managed a team of attorneys.  
As women and professionals, we cycle through phases of life and career.  Last year, community service, mentorship, and creative writing became more important to me.  So I left the “ladder” to excel in the others, just like Anne-Marie Slaughter left Washington to focus on her family.  “Having it all” is being in control of your decisions and honoring your future-self and your goals.  “Having it all” is nourishing your passions and goals, whether they are being a devoted wife, mother, sister, student, writer, athlete or career woman.
Once a year, I make a vision board.  On that board, it has everything I will strive for over the following year.  Last year, I cut out letters from a magazine and posted them to my board to spell out “Author” and “Novel by.”  Over the year, I made decisions to honor the goal of publishing a novel.  Sometimes those decisions dictated how or with who I spent time with.  Making a new vision board every year is critical because we are constantly growing as women and as professionals.  Our passions evolve.  Having it all means having a choice to pursue your dreams, whatever they may be at any given moment. 

What do you think?  Why can't women still have it all?  Or can they...at the same time? 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Too Sexy for Community Prosecution?

by Debra Mares

What if police officers and prosecutors put their law books and police reports down to focus on preventing crime? Instead of arresting and prosecuting people, they would intervene early and steer a slipping individual back on track. Does this make for a good story? Or a good movie? Gaby Ruiz, the main character and Latina prosecutor in my debut novel, The Mamacita Murders seems to think so. Gaby Ruiz runs The Mamacita Club, a community outreach effort, from her chrome vintage Airstream motorhome. Gaby travels in the Airstream with her angel friends to different trailer parks in the fictional Tuckford County. They host interventions and meetings to help women, who are at risk of becoming victims of crime or committing crimes themselves. Gaby’s special angel powers help her see who needs help. Plus her gut intuition tells her. In real life, this is called community prosecution. Attorneys, paralegals, police officers, and probation officers go out into the community and bring awareness about crime and how to prevent it. They monitor youth and come up with strict programs to get them back on track.

But community prosecution is rarely depicted in the media or crime novels. Traditionally, the prosecutor is depicted in the courtroom, not the community. The detectives are seen out in the street solving crimes, not preventing them. Why is that? Is community prosecution not sexy enough? Is it not as juicy as a crime scene or interrogation? Whatever the reason, it doesn’t matter. It’s a facet of the criminal justice system that the public should be more aware of. Community prosecution is a proven method at reducing crime rates; it’s just not frequently used. The media has the power to move people and motivate social change, and indeed community prosecution is a sexy enough facet of the criminal justice system worth moving. It can make for good story telling as well. Take for example Freedom Writers, a film starring Hilary Swank grossing over 43 million dollars based on the New York Times Bestseller The Freedom Writer’s Diary. This movie portrayed the real life story of school teacher Erin Gruwell and Room 203 at Wilson High School in Long Beach. Gruwell transformed her classroom made up of “rejects” into motivated graduates, many who went on to college. It was all because she believed in them and intervened early to help steer them back on track. Gruwell’s creative education wasn’t boring on the big screen or in Room 203. Perhaps it was the real-life story of Erin Gruwell combined with the stories of her students, which made it the success it was. Regardless, it made for a great story. And it transformed education. Teachers today employ Gruwell’s lessons and students everywhere are still motivated by them.

Following similar suit in the context of a crime fiction, The Mamacita Murders tells Gaby Ruiz’ story. She goes out into the community to help troubled women, which has always been Gaby’s mission, at least since she was twelve years old when her mother died and became the angel on her shoulder. Gaby Ruiz’ story and The Mamacita Club is not that far off from what real life community prosecutors do today. And it’s not very different from what heroes like Erin Gruwell have done. So what do you think? Does community prosecution make for a good story? Is it sexy enough for crime fiction and the big screen? Does it work in The Mamacita Murders? Would it work in non-fiction? Email me your comments to Debra@DebraMaresNovels.com. I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

Angel On My Shoulder, But In The Courtroom?

by Debra Mares

Television has no problem allowing angels and witches to work their magic in classrooms or at crossroads. Touched by an Angel, which ran for over 200 episodes, brought angelic messages of hope to individuals at a crossroads and gave them guidance. The Secret Circle unites teens at a high school, who descended from witches, and hones their magical powers. But shows like Law & Order and CSI have nothing resembling angels, ghosts or witches in the courtroom or in the crime lab. And proponents of writing traditional detective fiction advocate crimes should be solved by natural means. Since the reader must match his wits with a rational detective, not a world of spirits, angels are thought of as taboo. But fiction, by its definition, is a literary work whose content is produced by the imagination. So what should a crime fiction protagonist do when she has an angel on her shoulder? Ignore it? Or liberate it?

The Mamacita Murders incorporates angels into courtroom drama. Latina sex crimes prosecutor, Gaby Ruiz, is strapped with an angel, namely her deceased mom. She is sent messages and given guidance, even in prosecuting her own cases. And Gaby’s angel is certainly allowed in the courtroom. Some would say having an angel on your shoulder when dealing with crime scene investigation and courtroom drama is not a far stretch from reality. Surviving family members of real life crime victims have reported seeing warning signs and premonitions of the impending tragedy of their loved one. Other times in losing a loved one, the survivors turn to spirituality looking for answers.

Some would argue the criminal justice system is fraught with angels who protect and guide human beings. Everyday, people go the extra mile to solve a crime in the pursuit of justice. Persistent investigators work tirelessly to solve cases. Judges make rulings to protect the public. Prosecutors guide jurors to the truth. Defense attorneys protect the rights of their clients. Victim and witness advocates use their own tragic pasts to offer strength to surviving victims and next of kin, sitting next to them in court and letting them cry on their shoulder. Young abuse victims muster up the courage to come forward and testify, something most adults can barely do. The jury comes together to reach a decision holding someone responsible. It’s a miracle and a mystery that the criminal justice works as it does.

No one can deny a big part of real life crime investigation and courtroom strategy is good old fashioned gut intuition. It’s an age old friend that is no different from an angel. When at a crossroads in making a decision, an investigator, prosecutor, defense attorney or judge has to tap into their gut. This happens when deciding whether to cut a defendant a break or predict future dangerousness. It happens when deciding whether to trust a jail house snitch or whether someone is telling the truth. Defense attorneys listen to their gut when it tells them their client is innocent. In most instances, gut intuition is supported by cold hard facts. But sometimes it comes from no other place than deep within you that resonates when sitting in quiet silence -- no different from listening to that angel on your shoulder.

What do you think? Do angels have a place in crime fiction? Or in the courtroom? Does The Mamacita Murders effectively incorporate angels into a courtroom drama? Email Debra @DebraMaresNovels and let her know what you think.

The Latina Writer’s Perspective on Cartagena

by Debra Mares

The Mamacita Murders is partially set in the fictional Walled City. The chapters were written over my five day stay in Cartagena, Colombia back in 2011. Little did I know when I was walking through El Caribe Hotel that six months later, U.S. Secret Service men would be caught there allegedly hiring female escorts.

The U.S. Secret Service scandal has been downplayed by government officials in Colombia. The mayor of this Caribbean city has wondered what all the fuss was all about. Mayor Campo Elias has said, "it doesn't bother people at all,” pointing out, “first, because adults were involved and, second, because here, it's normal.” But I’d disagree and so would many others. Mayerlin Vergara who directs a city shelter for sexually abused adolescents and child prostitutes has said, “sexual tourism degrades Colombia and its women.”

Sex tourism runs the risk of degrading the tourist’s experience. Not every tourist that visits this culturally rich beach destination is looking for sex. In fact, some are trying to avoid it. During the evenings of my brief stay in Cartagena, my female friend and I were approached by men at bars. They weren’t looking for sex, but rather were confirming we were not sex workers. The male tourists complained about the women they were meeting would unsolicitedly discuss the price of their services. Talk about killing the romance!

Some believe the country must continue developing the infrastructure and attractions that keep a tourist entertained. A tourist should return home telling stories not about the sex, but about how beautiful the colonial architecture is, how friendly the people are, and how overwhelming the culture is. And indeed, Cartagena did just that for me. My attraction to Cartagena is three-fold -- as an American tourist, a Latina, and as a writer.

As an American tourist, my attraction to Cartagena was the beautiful Caribbean, the culture, the history, and the food. It is no different from what attracted me to other countries in South America. Walking along the cobblestone streets of El Centro, the historic part of Cartagena, flashed me back to the past. Hearing the clip clop of the horse driven carriages through the streets took me to a time I can imagine when cars didn’t exist. It’s a slower pace of life, where street vendors peddle their handmade goods and locals mingle on restaurant patios. The quaint historic hotels, churches, illustrious balconies decorated with flowers and the vibrant casitas are the same things that attracted me to San Juan, Puerto Rico. The colonial architecture is visually stimulating. And outside the Walled City sits the warm water of the Caribbean, which is far different than the cold Pacific Ocean.

The attraction to Cartagena for me as a Latina was the music and romanticism. Salsa dancing and the Caribbean inspires flute melodies that would drift me away each night. Even after experiencing the Salsa culture in Los Angeles and Puerto Rico, the live music in Cartagena filled my heart on a new level. It was so common within El Centro to stumble upon a bar and find the most beautiful sounds. The romanticism came not only from the music, but from the people I met along the way. It varied from the driver of our horse-ridden carriage to the man who serenaded me with his guitar on the side of the cobblestone street, to the Spanish tourists who we shared a drink with overlooking the Caribbean. The romantic spirit is undeniable.

The attraction to Cartagena as a writer is my favorite attraction. The mystery of the Walled City becomes a character in The Mamacita Murders. The huge stone wall, which engulfs the entire town, reminds main character Gaby Ruiz of her own walls she has forged in her love relationships. When Gaby meets her mother’s love interest Señor Santiago-Borges in the Walled City, his compassion helps Gaby deal with a past that still haunts her over her mother’s death. My attraction as a writer to Cartagena is no different from that which inspired writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The parrots still flock inside the infamous Sofitel Santa Clara Hotel, which still attract Hollywood starlights during Cartagena’s Film Festival. Although I stayed at the lower priced Hotel Monterrey outside El Centro, it’s interior lush garden provided a similar experience. The streets of Cartagena inspire film scenes from Gabriel García Márquez’ epic novel Love in the Time of Cholera. Like Gaby’s love for Investigator Dylan Mack in The Mamacita Murders, García Márquez’ novel tells the story of an unrequitted love. Florentino, rejected by Fermina, his young lover, waits for over half a century for an opportunity to win her heart again. Cartagena won my heart as an American tourist, Latina and writer. And hopefully it captures the heart of the reader of The Mamacita Murders.

What do you think about the Walled City in The Mamacita Murders? Does the writing capture the spirit, beauty, culture and people of the Walled City? Let me know by emailing me your comments to Debra@DebraMaresNovels.com. I’m looking forward to hearing from you.