Legacy and Light, and the Lost Month of November

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Willie Santana
Assistant Public Defender for the Third District

In 2019, I lost the month of November.  That loss taught me something about legacy.  Let me explain: I am the son of a paranoid schizophrenic single mother from the slums of Puerto Rico.  I spent part of my childhood being raised by my grandmother and my mother and the other half being raised by my aunt and uncle.  During the month of November, I made four trips to Orlando, because my mother and my aunt both laid in the hospital suffering.  My aunt would eventually recover, although she is still not fully recovered, but my mom died from complications of pneumonia on November 13th, 2019.

During one of those trips to Florida, I realized my mother left no worldly possessions worth keeping—except one photo she kept of me and my sister, her two children.  This is the same woman who lived through the civil rights movement and the Korean and Vietnam wars, saw man’s first steps on the moon, and witnessed the fall of the Soviet Union.  She saw the transformation of Puerto Rico’s economy from agrarian to industrial and its economic decline at the turn of the 21st century.  She gave birth to two children, moved to the mainland, and lived a full life.  Yet, this is the same woman who left nothing of material value behind.  Thinking back on her life and being confronted with that single photo forced me to consider this: surely, despite being haunted by voices only she could hear, she left a legacy in this world.  She had to have or the life she lived was meaningless.

That realization forced me to reconsider what a legacy truly is and what it truly means to leave one.  The “classical” definition involves stuff—things, property, money.  Respectfully, I have to disagree with that definition.  Accepting that definition would mean accepting my mother’s life did not matter.  And that cannot be, because I know the world is a better place for her having been in it.  I know I am a part of her legacy, as are my children; my sister, too, and her daughter.  Indeed, I do not think legacy is about material things.  No, I think legacy is about people.

In my line of work as a public defender, I often remark that while we all share one planet, we all live in different worlds.  I do not live in the same world of my clients—indigent people, often suffering from addiction and at the fringes of society, who are facing challenges that I can only imagine.  Except for the brief periods that our worlds do intersect, we live different realities. All of that brings me to this beautiful syllogism: if legacy is about people and if each person has their own world, then legacy must be about changing people’s worlds.

Using that definition, my mother left a rich legacy indeed.  She was beautiful, brilliant, and bohemian.  She loved deeply and uncompromisingly, and she was selfless when it counted.  She affected many lives intersecting with the worlds of others in her sixty-eight-year course through this planet.  She made people happy.  She made people richer.  I know she did both for me.  But more importantly, her legacy lives in me—in what I do from here on to change people’s worlds in a meaningful way.

I am the son of a paranoid-schizophrenic single mother from the slums of Puerto Rico.  That terrible start in life should have put a limit on what I could achieve.  Yet, because of the road that I have been on, and the power and privilege I acquired by my chosen profession, I have the capacity and ability to enrich my corner of the world and continue to build her legacy through my own.

My mother’s name was Luz.  Quite appropriately I think, for “luz” means light in Spanish.  Undoubtedly, her legacy is a light that will live on in me in many ways—in my fire to be a leader and in my drive to leave many worlds richer than I found them.  From my mother’s death, I now know more than ever that I have a responsibility to be a light in someone’s world.  We all do.  Because that is what leaving a legacy truly looks like and that is what leaving a legacy truly means.

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