In recognition of National Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15-October 15), which celebrates the contributions of Hispanic and Latino Americans to the United States, the Texas Bar Blog connected with Donald Delgado, a College Station-based attorney focused on civil litigation and vice president of the Texas Young Lawyers Association. A first-generation attorney and Texan, the Bryan native discussed learning Spanish first and then English and how helping his parents become U.S. citizens at an early age was a sign he’d one day be a lawyer.
Tell me a little about your background. Are you originally from College Station?
I have lived in the Bryan-College Station area almost my entire life. I grew up on the west side of Bryan, which has predominately been the low income area of the city. Growing up there, either your friends or family friends had some kind of connection to Texas A&M University. It helped instill the want and need for higher education despite the fact that no one in my family had ever gone to college. After I graduated from Bryan High School, I received my undergraduate degree from Texas A&M and then I attended law school at the University of Texas School of Law.
What was it like growing up there?
We didn’t grow up with a lot of money so we lived for several years in the housing projects in Bryan as well as in a couple of trailer parks, but my parents always encouraged us to be active in school and in extracurricular activities so that we would not be tempted to run with the wrong crowd. The city and school district offered a lot of activities to be involved in, but being in Texas A&M’s backyard also provided a lot of great opportunities. There were a lot of things I probably wouldn’t have been able to do as a kid because we didn’t come from any means or money. In the summers, there were free sports camps and other camps that A&M would host. My parents were big on us participating in those activities. If I were to have grown up somewhere else, I probably wouldn’t have had those opportunities, especially at a university like that.
Tell me about your upbringing and your immediate family.
My younger sister and I are first-generation Americans. My mom is from a small, rural town in Mexico and my dad is from a small town right outside of Havana, Cuba. Growing up, my parents only spoke Spanish to us at home. They were very adamant that we know how to speak it. Looking back, I’m very grateful because it has proven to be a great skill to have. However, when I started school I didn’t really know how to speak English very well. So I started off a little behind in school and the school asked my mom if she wanted me to be in an English as a second language program. But my mom was adamant that I stay in regular classes so I could be immersed in English because she thought that would be the best way for me to learn and master the language. I’m glad she did. That is not to say there is not a benefit to ESL or bilingual education programs. There is. But for me and my particular situation, it was best to stay in the class that I was already in. Speaking Spanish has also helped my sister as she is now a bilingual education teacher at the same elementary school that she and I attended when we were kids.
What was something your parents taught you that has stuck with you today?
Their work ethic and their attitude for working hard. There were many times growing up when my mom and dad would both be working three different jobs each. To this day I’m in awe of how much they were able to do without sacrificing family time and being with us. They would always make it a point to be in the stands for all of our extracurricular activities. They would find a way to do it even despite holding down all those different jobs. I try my best to emulate their work ethic every day. Now it’s a little bit different because as I’ve grown in my career, sometimes it’s not about how much you work or how long you work. I have learned that it’s about working hard, smart, and efficiently. Obviously, it’s different with the career that I have and what they had. They didn’t have that luxury. Hearing the stories of other first-generation Americans I have learned that my parents’ work ethic is a common trait that is shared by many first generation immigrants.
You mentioned they sometimes had three jobs apiece. What kind of work were they into?
They mainly did custodian and maintenance work. That has been their primary source of income. I remember as a kid telling my dad that I wanted to be just like him when I grew up and he would always tell me, “no, I want you to be better than me.” As I grew older there were times when I would tell my parents that I felt they worked too hard for the little pay and the thankless job that they had. My parents would always respond by telling me that one should always strive to do the very best job that they can, no matter what the task is, even if it is scrubbing toilets. That has really stuck with me throughout the years.
When did you decide you wanted to be a lawyer?
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact time, but what I always recall is growing up with two people who didn’t know English. My sister and I would always be the de facto interpreters or translators. Anytime they’d go to the doctor, we’d go to the doctor. It’s different now—they’ve mastered the English language—but I remember we’d have to be the translators for these kinds of things. I liked the feeling that gave me of being able to help my parents. That planted the seed of wanting to help.
I remember vividly my parents applying for citizenship. I was probably in the fifth or sixth grade, helping them with applications and documents and everything they needed. Somehow, someway we were able to get it done. My mom became a citizen first. I remember feeling some sort of accomplishment knowing that by helping her in her application, she became a citizen. I liked that feeling. It felt good. That’s when the seed started being planted of being a lawyer and helping people.
Can you recognize the traits of a lawyer in your child self?
My parents instilled a love for reading at an early age. Reading and writing for me was always my strong suit. I always loved when the book fairs came around, or just having a library card and going to the library. It’s helped me now because unlike what I thought a lawyer did while I was growing up and watching movies and TV and being in a courtroom, 95% of my day is reading and writing. That’s one of the things that I can see from my childhood that’s in practice now.
It seems like you cover the gamut in business issues from commercial transactions to construction disputes to malpractice. What was appealing about focusing your practice there?
I do civil litigation, and it really does run the gamut from commercial business contract disputes to personal injuries to construction disputes to probate disputes. When it crosses my desk, it’s because it’s either about to be in litigation or there has been a lawsuit filed. I love that because at the end of the day—litigations, lawsuits—it’s basically all the same. There’s a problem that we’re using the court systems to figure out and everybody plays by the same rules. And it’s never boring. I get to learn about new things every day. I don’t need to necessarily be an expert in a particular subject—that’s what you hire experts for. We take our client’s situation and litigate it; fight it in the court system.
A little bit of that is because of our community. Bryan-College Station is in the middle of a lot of big cities. We’re an hour and a half from the courthouses in Houston, two hours and 30 minutes from Dallas, an hour and 45 from Austin, there’s a federal courtroom in Waco that we’re an hour away from, and in between us and all those big cities are all these other counties. We’re able to service those as well, which adds diversity to the practice that we do.
Do you have a case you’ve worked on or even a moment where you thought to yourself, I really love what I do for a living?
That same feeling I was telling you about when my mom became a citizen after I had a little hand in helping her—I still get that feeling anytime we get a positive result for the client. Sometimes it is when we win a weekslong case or two-weekslong case; whatever the case may be. I get the same satisfaction winning a big trial that I get when I resolve a probate dispute where there’s not much at stake—it really doesn’t matter the amount of controversy or type of dispute.
You’ve been a TYLA director since 2016—what are some projects you’ve gotten to work on and which one stands out the most?
I’ve been lucky enough to have my hand in a lot of the different projects. Because of my background, I liked being able to help with Proud to Be An American because I think it’s important. In the moment we’re in now and our political climate—the polarization and bipartisan politics—it’s very easy to think our country is in ruins and that things are just bad regardless of whatever side of the political spectrum you’re on right now. But Proud to Be An American helps us realize we have it better than most countries in the world. Are we perfect? No. But there are all these people who would love to trade places and be an American. We’re arguing about important issues, but I think as Americans, we tend to forget that we actually live in a great country even with all its faults. That project was near and dear to me, and I’m glad Sally Pretorius had the vision for it. I personally liked presenting that to students. I’ve been able to present that a few times and tie that into my family’s journey here in America. We’re very privileged to have the rights that we do have. And along with those rights come responsibilities.
This year, I’ve also loved Victor Flores’ initiative of attorney wellness because a lot of times as attorneys we put ourselves second and everybody else first. We’ve got to take care of ourselves first before we can take care of anybody else. If we don’t, we can’t help people. Unfortunately, in the last couple years and last couple of months here in Brazos County and Bryan-College Station, we’ve had attorneys who’ve died by suicide. I’m really honored to help Victor and the rest of the directors in making attorney wellness a priority for all of us, especially young lawyers. Sometimes it’s hard to reach out, but we’re trying to break that stigma.
How would you describe what you do for a living to a kid in middle school or high school?
TYLA has a project called What Do Lawyers Do?, which I’ve presented to classrooms. Of all the questions that we get, this one’s the toughest for me. I found the best way to sum it up is that we help people. We help people when they’re faced with a problem they cannot handle on their own. When somebody comes to us, it’s because they’ve either tried or they can’t handle the matter, the problem, the issue, or the situation that they’re in and they need help. So we help people by giving them the best advice that we can.
Why should kids consider a career in law?
Because you get to help people. Not saying that it’s the only profession where you get to, but it’s one in which the reward in helping somebody is big and you know you’re making an impact on somebody’s life and making it easier for them regardless of what it is. If you like to analyze and critically think of ways to help someone in whatever situation that they find themselves in, that’s a reason why somebody who’s in middle school would consider the law.
I always used to hear: “My mom says I should be a lawyer because I like to argue about everything.” That may be part of being a lawyer—crafting an argument—but just because you argue one way, doesn’t make you a good lawyer. You have to be able to critically think about your arguments and think about why it is that you’re making certain arguments and not making others. That’s why I think the critical aspect would be if you want to help people. That’s one of the traits you’ll find across the board for most lawyers. At some level, at some point, that’s what brought us here.
Is there anything else you want to add?
The only other thing I’d like to point out is that in terms of being a young lawyer and having the urge to help people, TYLA has been a great outlet for me to fulfill the need to give back. I grew up in the projects and trailer parks of Bryan. I know that I wouldn’t be where I am today if people didn’t help me help my family some way. It wasn’t necessarily in the legal capacity or anything having to do with the legal field, but there are people I know who sacrificed things to help my family help me. As young lawyers, we’re trying to build our careers, we’ve got families—we’re still young in both. Sometimes we feel it’s daunting to put something else on our plates, but for me, TYLA has been a great way to help me give back. I would encourage any young lawyer out there who wants to help to reach out to their local young lawyer affiliate or reach out to TYLA. We’re always in need of great young lawyer talent to help in fulfilling our mission as the public service arm of the State Bar of Texas.