As a kid, a salesman knocked on our door one day and after a few hours successfully talked my father into purchasing an expensive accordion and accompanying music lessons for me.
My father, who loves music and regretted not having the opportunity to obtain a musical education himself, thought it was good for me to learn to play a musical instrument. Thus, he paid little attention to the high price and paid even less attention to the contractual fine print. As expected, we couldn’t afford to make the payments, which grew out of control once the hidden finance fees, accrued interest, and penalties kicked in.
My mother earned minimum wage at a factory in Boyle Heights and my father struggled to find steady employment. Our small family income, my mother insisted to my father, was better spent on basic necessities than on “Norteño” music lessons. My mother, ever persistent, convinced my father to surrender his dream of a musically talented son.
However, the salesman was nowhere to be found. My mother ultimately sought help from a non-profit law firm, Public Counsel. An attorney there helped us negotiate with the finance company, but that soon failed. The attorney refused to give up. Instead, she prepared court filings, appeared before a judge, and successfully argued her case.
She was able to rescind the contract and free us of the financial chains that had tied us down for so long.
Twenty plus years later, I have become an attorney myself, and I sometimes think about looking for that attorney who helped us so long ago. I quickly silence those thoughts and instead choose to envision her not as an individual but as an idea; the idea that instead of paying her back, I pay it forward; thus, if I help someone now, he or she will owe me nothing, but will instead be expected to help others in the future. I even envision an attorney many years from now speaking of his childhood and a curly-haired attorney from Downey who once took the time to help out his family in a time of need.
I have also sought other attorneys to do the same. Last year, I helped organize a legal fair that brought over 80 attorneys to Bell Gardens to provide free legal advice to families with legal questions in many different areas of law. We helped over 600 individuals.
This year, I hope to increase the number of people we help. I am currently helping organize three legal fairs with different organizations that I hope will bring dozens of attorneys to the cities of Bell Gardens, Compton, and the Pico-Union neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Recently, I explained these plans to my father. He admitted to me that he admires my passion for the law. Before I could boast, however, he quickly humbled me by adding: “even if you do lack an ounce of musical talent.”
Ricardo Perez is an attorney and Downey resident.