Public Service Voices

Public Service is Not Just a Job: An interview with Carlota Canales

By Angelita Chavez, Class of 2009

We cannot change our past ... The only thing we can do is play on the string we have, and that is our attitude ... Life is 10 percent of what happens to me and 90 percent of how I react to it. And, so it is with you ... we are in charge of our attitudes. – Charles Swindoll

Public service is lifelong work. It is work that goes home with you, dreams with you, and lives in you. It is the attitude of giving because it fulfils your life. Attitude is one of the mechanisms by which we as humans handle what life brings and gives us resilience. The attitude we demonstrate every day is a reflection of how we view different aspects of life. For some, going to work is just something that they have to do. Whether it is because of the need to, because of the prestige, or sense of security it brings. But rarely does one identify with work, make it a passion, and part of one’s identity and life.

Serving the public is what Carlota Canales does. It is part of her identity and life. She demonstrates her love for helping her community through her work and the attitude that she brings in with her to the office every morning.

Carlota Canales began her career serving the public in 1975 when she was hired as a receptionist for a farm-worker clinic in Toppenish, Washington. Since then she has worked for Evergreen Legal Services and Northwest Justice Project. She currently works as support staff for Columbia Legal Services in Kennewick.

Coming from a family of six, all born and raised in Texas, Carlota’s family history goes back to the time when Texas was independent from the United States. She grew up in el barrio, where the community was almost completely Spanish speaking. She learned how to read and write fluently in Spanish, and despite being an honor roll student, counselors did not encourage her, or any of the Latino students, to pursue college.

The year Carlota graduated from high school in 1968, her father decided that as a family they would begin doing migrant farm labor. Up to that point in time, Carlota’s family had only done farm labor locally, picking cotton. Her father quit his job, and the family began to follow the crops up to Salinas, California where they would pick strawberries. Picking strawberries is backbreaking labor, where one has to stoop for many hours. After the strawberries, the family would move up to Toppenish, Washington and prepare hops for harvest and then to Crabtree, Oregon and pick green beans. After Oregon, they would make their way back up to the hop fields of Washington to finish the harvest, and end in Texas. This was the path taken every year for the first four years until she married.

Her family taught her the value of work, and how to always do it with respect and dignity regardless of the difficulties. Her experiences as a migrant farm-worker and the values her family taught her have carried over to her dedication and work in providing free services to low –income and the farm-worker community in the legal arena.

Soon after getting married she began working for the farm-worker clinic and was eventually hired to work for Evergreen Legal Services in 1979 where she was one of the few bilingual legal aids in the state. Evergreen Legal Services was a non-profit organization that provided free legal services for low-income people. Carlota experienced the transition of the organization becoming the Northwest Justice Project (NJP) and to what is now Columbia Legal Services. Just as the organization has evolved and expanded, so has Carlota’s work and her desire to help her community, especially farm-workers.

"I have the same background as the people we serve; we speak the same language, have had the same struggles, they are my people and I love being able to provide them with services and help. When we go out on outreach, we see people still living out of tents and vehicles in order to stay close to their jobs. You see workers with no housing or bathing facilities, and the same abuse and discrimination that has always been there. People are not being treated as people, but like animals. These are the reasons why I am passionate about helping and being involved in free legal services. I know I make a difference with the work that I do.

I remember when we were Northwest Justice Project (NJP) and our offices were in Kennewick. We had a group of undocumented workers come in looking for legal advice. Because of our non-profit status and funding, we could not serve them and they could not use our facilities. We had to have another attorney come from another legal service program to do their case in-take. The workers had to meet with the attorney outside in the parking lot in the middle of a very hot summer day and do the paperwork. My heart just broke because all we could do for them was to offer water and let them use our restrooms."

All people in the United States have certain basic rights that need to be protected. The need to serve people regardless of their citizenship status has been recognized and services have expanded. Because of this, Carlota feels her work has become more fulfilling; now, no one is turned away because of their non-citizenship status.

For Carlota, helping individuals is very rewarding because she knows that even the smallest things make a huge difference in a person’s life. "Something that could be a simple as making a phone call from our office can mean so much for the client who may be unable to do it themselves. We have a direct impact on their lives" says Carlota.

Carlota believes it is crucial to have individuals in public service who care about the community and are willing to go that extra step for those they serve. Her first managing attorney at Evergreen described her once as "eres muy gente," which simply put means a people person, and this is the attitude she embodies.

"I love what I do. If I can make an attorney’s job a little easier, I support their work. When I support their work, I know I am helping them serve their client that much better. I also manage the office, I am conscious of what it needs to run smoothly. Every day I think about how I can improve. This is not only a place of work or business for me. Doing this is who I am. It is me. Public service is about taking ownership and doing what you can to serve your community. That is why I love to come to work, and never a day goes by that I do not want to come here. Knowing that with what I do, I give something back, it makes me happy. When you give yourself, the benefits you reap are that much more. That is why I am very fortunate."

To Carlota Canales, public service is not just a job; it is a way of life that comes with a forward-looking attitude and the desire to help and to give because it fulfills who she is.

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