As part of our celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month, we sat down for a far-ranging interview with ACLU of Michigan investigator Giancarlo Guzman to talk about his experiences growing up in Detroit and at the University of Michigan, where he received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, the latter in public administration.
He talks about how the experiences of his formative years made him particularly well qualified for the work, some of the bigger cases he’s been involved in, and why he can’t recommend just one movie or book for people to check out this month.
Q: What was life like for you as a youngster?
A: When I was growing up in Detroit, a lot of people in my community lived by certain rules: Don’t talk to the police. Don’t get involved in legal disputes. Nothing that might draw the attention of immigration officials. Keep your mouth shut and your head down.
It wasn’t that way in my house, where both of my parents were interested in social movements. My father started out as a revolutionary and a member of the Brown Berets, modeled after the Black Panther Party. After attending college and becoming a social worker, he took over a community healthcare clinic in southwest Detroit with the attitude that healthcare is a human right, and no one who needs it should be turned away. That was in 1970. The clinic’s still there. So, he never stayed quiet or kept his head down.
My mother is also a social worker, but she preferred working with seniors. Both were the first people in their families to attend college. Unlike my father, my mother is more conservative. Like a lot of Hispanic people, she was heavily influenced by the Catholic Church. So, as a young person, I was able to see the world from a lot of different perspectives. I was also able to learn about the importance of giving back to your community.
Q: Do you think that the examples they set helped lead you toward working for an organization like the ACLU?
A: Absolutely, but it was one of those situations where I didn’t know it till I got here. I knew that my purpose in life was to serve my community in the non-profit sector and to improve the quality of life for people. Being at the ACLU, though, is really like the big leagues of the non-profit sector. The ACLU’s ability to impact systemic change is like no other organization I have ever been a part of. I consider it an honor and privilege to do this work alongside some of the sharpest minds and most caring souls I have ever met.
Q: What was school like for you as a kid?
A: It was a challenge, but it was also an opportunity for me to learn about different cultures, and how to get along with people from different backgrounds. When I was in kindergarten, the teacher threatened to hold me back because of the difficulty I was having learning English. Until I was 5, only Spanish was spoken at home. But when I started having problems in school as a result, my parents would only allow English to be spoken. It helped me learn English, but it also stunted my ability to speak and understand Spanish fluently.
I was also always in the minority. I started out attending Golightly Elementary, a public school in Detroit where 85% of my classmates were Black. After 5th grade, I began attending school in the suburbs, where 85% of my classmates were white. In both places I heard things like, “Hey beaner, go back to Mexico.” Experiences like that can toughen you up. You have to be strong, and able to push back and take care of yourself. Attending a Catholic high school, where most of the kids came from money, was particularly challenging. I got a first-hand view of how affluent children think, and how to get along with them.
I was able to see how different people within various cultures were, and made friends with people open to accepting me as a person. I learned the necessity of evaluating individuals based on who they were, not primarily focusing on race or ethnicity first. One of the things all my experiences as a young person taught me, and the different friends I was able to make, is that I really love diversity.
Q: After high school, you attended the University of Michigan. What was that like?
A: Being in Ann Arbor for undergrad was a great experience. I can say it was one of the best times of my life. I grew close with some other kids from urban areas, and we helped each other acclimatize to Michigan and to keep each other in school. But it was also a tough time, but in a different way. The Latinos I was close with were mostly from Detroit, however, many Latinos from other states looked at us differently. Many of them would dog us for not being Mexican enough. That hurt, because it was coming from my own people, which is hard to deal with.
Q: Taken all together, were there any overarching lessons all those experiences taught you?
A: Yes. I learned the importance of accepting people for who they are. I didn’t really fit in with any particular group, but I could also fit in with anyone from any group. It also taught me how to seek the middle ground, and how to be a uniter. I also learned that I had to find my own way.
Q: Well, you have certainly succeeded in carving your own path. After coming to work for the ACLU of Michigan seven years ago, you were made staff investigator, a position that hadn’t previously existed. Do you think your previous life experiences made you particularly well-suited for that job?
A: I do. Not only do I feel like I can fit in anywhere, and get along with anyone, no matter what their background is but I genuinely enjoy being in different environments with different types of people who may or may not have anything in common with me. This involves being able to read a situation, and adapting. I feel like I’ve been learning about that my whole life. And I think it’s a skill vital to being both a good organizer and a good investigator.
For me, the transition occurred after coming to the ACLU to work on our Flint education case, which was launched to obtain help for kids damaged by the excessive amounts of lead that was in their drinking water as the result of an appointed emergency manager making the horrible decision to start drawing the city’s drinking water from the Flint River. As that case progressed, my ability to find people, and relate to them, and get them connected to the case, began to show itself, leading me to becoming an investigator.
Q: Are there any particular cases that you’ve worked on that stick out?
A: Oh man! There are so many impactful cases I’ve been able to be a part of I can’t name just one. We already touched on the Flint work. Then there is the successful Detroit tax foreclosure case, which allowed thousands of poor Detroiters to get their homes back after they failed to pay taxes that should never have been accessed in the first place. There’s the Detroit bail case, which led to the transformation of the bail system in Detroit . There was also a case where the U.S. government deported a Michigan man to Iraq in violation of a judge’s order. The judge told the government to try to find him, but the State Department said it was unable to do so. I was able to track him down and help get him returned home. We also won a jury trial involving a Black Detroit police officer who sued the city after being subjected to excessive force at the hands of fellow officers, then wrongly suspended after reporting the mistreatment. All of these cases, and so many more, have a huge, positive impact, not only for the people we represent, but also through the systemic change we always push for.
Q: Are there any books you would recommend people read during Hispanic American Heritage Month, or movies they should see?
A: Rather than talk about any one book or movie or piece of music that provide only a sliver of insight, I’d rather offer up a wide variety of suggestions of work created by people from across Latin America to show how widespread their achievements and influence are. You can find my list here.
|Kamchatka – Marcelo Figueras||My Family – (Movie)||Suavemente – Elvis Crespo|
|The Hummingbirds Daughter – Luis Alberto Urrea||Emily the Criminal – Aubrey Plaza (Movie)||Invisible People - Chicano Batman|
|Solito – Javier Zamora||Maya and the Three – Netflix series (Animation)||Negro - J Belvin|
|Trejo: My life of Crime, Redemption, and Hollywood – Danny Trejo||John Luegozmo – Latin History for Morons (Netflix)||Bendiciones - Bad Bunny|
|Revolt of the Cockroach People – Oscar Zeta Ocasta||Gentefied – Netflix (Series)||Mi Lugar Favorito - Natalia Lafourcade|
|The War of the End of the World – Mario Vargas Llosa||Stand and Deliver – (Movie)||Ella Baila Solo – Esloban Armado|
|In the time of the Butterflies – Julia Alvarez||Pan’s Labyrinth– (Movie)||Chan Chan – Buena Vista Social Club|
|1000 years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez||Primo – Prime (Series)||Obsesion - Aventura|
Q: Do you have a motto, or favorite saying?
A: If you’re not improving the quality of life for people in the community, then what are you really doing?