Juan Cartagena ’81 Delivers Keynote at 6th Annual Alumni of Color Event

The president and general counsel of LatinoJustice has devoted his career as a lawyer, teacher, and author to advocating for the civil and human rights of poor and Latinx communities.

Watch the full event. 

Juan Cartagena ’81 came to Columbia Law School to make change in the world, and Columbia Law School in turn changed him. “I entered law school with the clear intention to become a criminal defense attorney,” he said at Columbia Law School’s 6th Annual Alumni of Color event on May 13. “I left the school with a clear intention to become a civil and human rights attorney.” 

Cartegena serves as president and general counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF and is a columnist for El Diario. In her introduction to the virtual gathering, Gillian Lester, Dean and Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law, hailed Cartagena as “one of the nation’s leading voices on equality and nondiscrimination [and] a constitutional and civil rights attorney who works to change systems in marginalized communities of color.” 

Dean Lester also shared that the inaugural recipient of the Eric H. Holder Jr. Scholarship Fund, Angelle Henderson ’23, is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, where she excelled as a student, campus leader, and community organizer. She plans to pursue a career in criminal justice reform and human rights law. The fund was spearheaded by George Madison ’80 at the first Alumni of Color event, in 2016. He, along with other generous donors, look forward to reaching their $1 million goal to provide financial aid to students of color. 

In his address, Cartagena described his career as “an American story” guided by two concepts. The first: “opportunity and hard work.” He cited the opportunities provided by Dartmouth College and Columbia Law School where, “by my own sweat and brow,” he excelled. “When I left,” he said, “I had all the confidence in the world that I was going to do exactly what I wanted to do and that is to use the law in service of others.”

The other concept that has guided his career is “that American trait called dissent, which I learned well before I went to law school,” he said. “I grew up at a time of the Vietnam War protests, Cesar Chavez and the grape boycotts, the lettuce boycotts . . . the responses by urban Americans to the outrageous institutional racism that existed then and still in large parts exists today.”

Cartagena lectures on constitutional and civil rights issues at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey; Rutgers Law School in Newark, New Jersey; and Interamerican University Law School in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and has devoted his professional life to advocating on behalf of Latinx and poor communities. “Let me tell you the basic theme of a lot of my work, which is a lot of what I teach today,” he said. “The biggest theme is really invisibility—the invisibility of Latino experience.”

Cartagena said he felt privileged to shed light on this invisibility when Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, asked him to write the introduction to the Spanish translation of her book, El color de la justicia: La nueva segregación racial en Estados Unidos. “I jumped at the opportunity knowing fully well that the entire criminal legal system, entire punishment system, entire private profiteering from caging, and everything that has to do with the criminal legal system has a story to be told from a Latinx perspective.”

He said the invisibility—“that absence of memory”—denies the lynchings, murder, displacement, and intimidation by vigilante groups that Latinx communities experienced. “Race has to be looked at, told, researched, and understood from a perspective that goes beyond a black-and-white binary, a perspective that includes Latinx voices, Asian voices, as well as Native American voices, to get a full understanding of settler colonialism and a full understanding of white supremacy, and how it manifests itself then and even today,” he said.

In closing, Cartagena, who mentioned a recent health scare he faced, opened up about the toll a lifetime of intense, all-consuming public service can take. “Please take this to heart: Make time for yourself, take time to enjoy what you have,” he said. “Restoration, both physical and spiritual, has to be part of what we learn . . . the ability to ensure that you reconnect, that you remember that love is exactly what we all need, and it will find a way to teach us those lessons.”

To make a gift to the Eric H. Holder Jr. Scholarship Fund, visit the Columbia Law School giving page.