Longform

Rivera's Edge

Page 4 of 5

"I have that same mother," Rivera says.
But he reads those novels in English translation, even though his first language, and the language of his family, is Spanish.

Rivera was born in Zacatecas, Mexico, in 1950 and named Jose de Jesus, to specify not just any Saint Joseph, but Joseph, the father of Jesus.

His mother was born in Flagstaff; his grandfather worked in a lumber mill there but moved to Zacatecas when he heard that silver had been discovered there. Rivera's mother, an American citizen by birth, drifted back to Flagstaff and brought her young family with her.

One of Rivera's earliest memories is of moving from Mexico to Flagstaff when he was 4 years old, and what made it memorable was how badly he had to pee for much of the trip.

His mother had preceded the rest of the family. Rivera, his father and a younger brother came later, boarding a bus in El Paso, Texas. Rivera's father had filled the boys with food and Coca-Cola so that they wouldn't have to get off the bus anywhere to eat, afraid that if they did, the bus might leave without them. And since none of them spoke any English, he was afraid they'd be hopelessly lost in a strange country. Finally he succumbed to the pressure at a rest stop outside Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, but then father and sons had to deliberate long and hard over which of the two outhouses was the men's and which was the ladies'.

Rivera started public kindergarten without knowing a word of English. He transferred the next year to a Catholic school, where the language of instruction was English, but the majority of the students came from families that spoke Spanish.

He recalls the day he was sitting in class and suddenly realized he was thinking in English.

"I think I would have been lost in the public school," he says. "[The Catholic school] showed a lot of patience with my whole family. I'm not the world's best Catholic, but you know what? I think without the time I spent there, I would not be where I am."

He did well enough to win a scholarship to Brophy Academy in Phoenix, but his father wanted him to stay home.

Rivera majored in history and education at Northern Arizona University and helped pay for his education by serving in the National Guard. He went to law school at Arizona State University and intended to return to Flagstaff, but luck and fate took him elsewhere.

The summer before finishing law school, he did an internship with the Mexican American Legal Defense Education Fund in San Francisco, and his supervisor suggested he apply to the Justice Department. In 1976, he got a job in Washington, D.C., as a Justice Department civil rights lawyer. One week after getting the results of his bar exam, he was sent to New York to work on a federal case against the infamous Willowbrook school.

Willowbrook was an institution for the mentally retarded that burst into the media when a young Geraldo Rivera secretly videotaped the horrendous conditions under which its residents were confined. A lawsuit subsequently was brought against the state of New York, and the Justice Department appeared amicus curiae on behalf of the plaintiffs.

On his first day in court, Rivera introduced himself to the judge.
"He looks at me and says, 'Who are you?'" Rivera remembers.
"I'm Jose de Jesus Rivera, and I represent the Department of Justice," he answered.

The judge shook his head and said, "Oh my gosh, not another Rivera."
The courtroom broke up, and Rivera was left wondering what to do next.
He spent two years with Justice, traveling to Pennsylvania and Puerto Rico and points beyond handling civil-rights cases. But he wanted to go home to Arizona.

He had a girlfriend there, Nina, a single mom with two children, who was a student at ASU law school. Now they have been married for 21 years and have three more children. She is a lawyer attached to the U.S. Small Business Administration in Phoenix.

Rivera came to work at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Phoenix in 1977.
"He showed up in a pair of black Earth shoes," quips his former colleague at the office and a later law partner, Gary Scales. It was a hint that he was a bit different.

"I remember we all had brown," Scales continues. "He was the first who had black ones."

Scales also remembers that Rivera was full of the liberal idealism that the shoes would suggest. Among his first challenges was a case that resonates eerily with the current mood at the Arizona-Mexico border.

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Michael Kiefer