Becoming American

The right to be judged by a jury of your peers is a cornerstone of American society. (Source: Photo by janinsanfran)

My journey towards Becoming American reached an important milepost this past month.

I’ve spent over 40 years of my adult life in the United States, more time than I’ve spent in the Philippines, the country of my birth. For many years I had felt like an outsider in this country; I had come to terms being an exile. Lately, I’ve come to see that you’re an outsider only if you allow yourself to stay on the sidelines. 

I was recently called to jury duty–surprisingly, my first time to actually go some distance. It’s an annual ritual: the notice comes in the mail, with the instructions to call the night before your reporting date. An automated message tells you if your group has to report the next day. Even if your group doesn’t have to report in the morning, you’re not home free; you’re told to call at 11 a.m. the next day to see if your group has to report that afternoon. If you’re not part of that group either, you’ve fulfilled your civic duty for the year. 

Every year, I held my breath, waiting to hear if my group would be required to report for jury duty. Most Americans are not eager to be called. The compensation for the day is around $15.00, a little more than one hour of minimum wage. If your jury is for a trial of several weeks, it’s a significant loss of income. And of course, it wreaks havoc on your daily routine: picking up the kids from school, bringing them to their games, and all the other tasks that require you to be a certain place at a certain time.

When my name was called for the alternate jury pool, I resigned myself to finally serving my time. When the judge started speaking, I realized I was given an opportunity to learn more about what it means to be an American. 

I was also glad that I live in this country where women have rights, where domestic quarrels aren’t viewed as part of what you sign up for when you marry someone.

Judge Leslie Landau said: “All of us here have come from another country–if not us ourselves, our parents, our grandparents. We are a nation of immigrants. We came to this country to enjoy the benefits of living in a democracy, one of which is the right to a jury trial. The sixth amendment guarantees this right. There are only a few things that this country asks of us in exchange for the freedom to pursue life, liberty and happiness. One of these is to serve on a jury. The right to be judged by a jury of your peers is an important cornerstone of our society. You play an important part in guaranteeing this right. 

The courtroom gave truth to Judge Landau’s description of this country: We are a nation of immigrants, a global society. The jury pool consisted of people of different ethnicities–white Americans, black Americans, first-generation immigrants, hyphenated Americans (Asian, Hispanic, Indian, Arab). Economically, we were as diverse–a manager, retail clerk, psychiatrist, doctor, another lawyer, a paralegal, nurse, computer engineer, someone who worked in construction; just regular people. The professionals in the group were not those you would’ve guessed at first glance. The Vietnamese immigrant was the doctor, the Hispanic American was the emergency room nurse, the Chinese American was the psychiatrist. People were probably not expecting a Filipina immigrant to be an environmental lawyer; the other lawyer was a white woman. 

Some stereotypes were shattered that day. The defendant was a young black man being prosecuted for domestic violence and child endangerment. His public defender was a young black woman. The district attorney was a white male. During the process of voir dire (“speak the truth”), the judge, the attorneys for the prosecution and the defense questioned the prospective jurors to determine if cause existed for excusing particular jurors because of potential bias for or against the prosecution or the defense.

It appeared that the defendant was involved in an argument with his wife/partner in front of their underage children. 

The public defender said: “Who among us here have not been involved in a fight with our significant other where things got out of hand? Do you think verbal abuse alone constitutes domestic violence?” 

The district attorney asked: “Would you hold it against me if one of my witnesses were a child who did not want to testify? Would you require me to show bodily harm to convict on a charge of domestic violence?” 

In the end, the prosecution excused me. Although I did say I was once on a board for a women’s shelter, I also said that I knew of instances when one partner claimed domestic violence in a child custody battle. 

I left the courthouse, feeling both relieved and deflated. Based on the district attorney’s questions, I was skeptical of his case. I wasn’t sure I could’ve given him the conviction he sought. But, unlike the public defender, I believe verbal abuse can constitute domestic violence–words that cut you down so you are imprisoned in self- doubt and unable to break out of a toxic relationship. It may not meet the legal definition of domestic violence but it meets the essence of what it means to be a battered woman: degraded, invalidated, broken in spirit.

As I was walking to my car, I also wondered if the young man would’ve been prosecuted if he were not black and obviously poor. Perhaps he had a prior conviction. Who knows? But I was glad that I lived in a country that guaranteed him a lawyer even though he couldn’t afford one and that he was going to be judged by a jury that, although not exactly his peers, would take their task seriously and try to enforce the law. I was also glad that I live in this country where women have rights, where domestic quarrels aren’t viewed as part of what you sign up for when you marry someone, incidents considered lovers' spats in more benign societies and the prerogative of husbands in more medieval ones. 

The experience made me think of what it means to be an American. It means becoming embedded in the activities of our communities, engaging in the issues that face this country, such as the widening income gaps, the soaring social inequality and the sacrifice of individual privacy in the altar of national security. By doing these things, we change ourselves from being immigrants and commit to becoming American.   

Thelma King Estrada

Thelma King Estrada

Thelma King Estrada is an environmental lawyer in San Francisco.