With his stellar credentials, Andrew Manuel Crespo, 34, could have had a gilded entree to the elite worlds of finance, academia or government. He graduated from Harvard College magna cum laude. At Harvard Law School, he was the first-ever Latino president of the Harvard Law Review and he clerked for two Supreme Court justices.
But when it came time to get a job, Crespo became a public defender in Washington, D.C. His first client was eight years old.
The way his young clients and their families trusted him, Crespo remembered, was something that he never took for granted. "I was working in juvenile criminal court, and my clients were 12, 13, 16 years old," Crespo said. "There is something very powerful about meeting people for the first time when they are literally behind bars. You are introducing yourself when they are at one of the most broken, vulnerable moments in their lives."
Now Crespo is an assistant professor at Harvard Law School, one of only two Latinos on the faculty. He remains fascinated by the gap between the ideals of our criminal justice system and its real-life practices - and looks back fondly on his time in the legal trenches.
Crespo recalled walking from his job at D.C. Superior Court to visit colleagues working at the Supreme Court. "It was striking how that walk - it was less than a mile - encompassed two vastly different worlds, each dealing with a different slice of the law."
In our criminal justice system, Crespo sees a disconnect worthy of exploration. "Ever since Gideon v. Wainwright, we've told ourselves that whether you are imprisoned for years should not depend on whether you are rich or poor. Most Americans, liberal or conservative, accept that basic principle. But any lawyer who has set foot in a courtroom would probably agree that resources and money do make a tremendous difference for those interacting with our legal system."
That chasm between our legal ideals and the reality on the ground, Crespo believes, is one of the major civil rights issues of our time - especially for Latinos and people of color.
Of Puerto Rican heritage, Crespo grew up in Monroe, New York and attended public schools. As far back as 2000, when he was in high school, a local newspaper profiled him in an article about "super-achievers."
Crespo is used to being asked about following in the footsteps of Barack Obama, who was elected the first African American president of the Harvard Law review in 1990. Crespo has been asked about his presidential ambitions for over a decade now. Instead he prefers to concentrate on his writing, both scholarly and mainstream, and on his current position.
Married with a newborn daughter, Crespo sidestepped questions about a possible political future. "The more I have come into life as a lawyer and a legal academic," he said, "the more I have been drawn to the law and the legal system as the type of public service I find most rewarding."
What historical figure would you like to have a cafecito with? Thurgood Marshall.
What do you do in your free time, for fun? I did mention that I have a 4-month old, right? Free time is a bit of a memory.
What's your random regret? I never should have told Harvard Magazine that I used to perform with an a cappella singing group (The Veritones) in college, because my students Google me and do not let me forget it. But that was before the Pitch Perfect movies came out, and a cappella singing became popular. Hey, I was ahead of my time.
The #NBCLatino20 honors achievers who are making our communities and our nation better. Follow their fascinating stories throughout Hispanic Heritage Month.