I met Ulster County sheriff Juan Figueroa for the first time at the Gardiner Library the night of the tornado watch in New Paltz. I was teaching a reparative justice workshop. He was in uniform, but took off his hat as he entered, sat down, introduced himself, and participated in the discussion.
He’s the first Latino sheriff in Ulster County, born and raised in the Bronx, his family originally from Puerto Rico. As on most official occasions at events in Ulster County, he was the only person of color in the room. And he knew he was the only person of color in the room, he later told me.
He always notices how many other people of color are in the room. Didn’t I know most people of color do this? I did not.
That was a reparative justice moment for me, an awareness of what it was like to walk into a room of white people, the courage it takes at times, the self-confidence.
Juan Figueroa has an abundance of both. A long stint in the U. S. Marines helped. “Once a Marine, always a Marine,” he says.
He joined up in 1983 after the Beirut bombing, just out of high school. He was eighteen, and nineteen by the time he finished boot camp and shipped out to Okinawa.
I was curious how he felt about the United States the first time he went overseas. His response was immediate: “How spoiled we are, how entitled.”
The poverty he had witnessed overseas resonated, and brought his childhood into perspective. “I grew up poor,” he said. “There were days when a meal was sugar water and bread. But we had electricity. Even in Okinawa, so many years after the war, electricity was on eight hours, and off eight hours. People did not have indoor toilets.”
Figueroa is running unopposed for re-election in November. I wanted to have a more formal sit-down conversation with him, so we met again at the Gardiner Library, coincidentally on the day after the massacre in Uvalde, Texas.
The flag in front of the library was at half-mast. A guitar class of very young children, their protective parents hovering, was in progress in the conference room.
That morning, a school morning, I’d met a mother and her eight-year-old son in the check-out line in the supermarket. There was no way she was going to allow her son to go to school that day, she said.
I asked the sheriff, who is not a parent, what he thought of the flood of fearful Facebook posts on the local community pages. He answered using the trope about “mental health support.” Yes, of course he was in favor of background checks and sensible gun-control legislation, but he’s skeptical that more armed guards in the schools, endless lockdown drills, and even more control of guns will make a difference.
We don’t know enough, I said. More research has to be done. But we do know that the United States is the only developed country in the world that kills its own children and that the surviving children are having a terrible time, so many traumatized. Even the drills themselves can cause trauma. Some children have written goodbye text messages to their parents from shelter-in-place closets, assuming they will die. Some have written their wills.
Figueroa’s cautious, muted response might be attributed to his political campaigning, or it might have something to do with his background and career thus far — the Marines, the State Police. Like all soldiers and law-enforcement officers, he’s seen a lot of hardship, violence and pain, even within his own family. which he describes as “dysfunctional.”
His father was alcoholic and violent. Figueroa and his three siblings often tried to protect their mother. “I was a Mama’s boy,” he said. The protective, caring persona he developed became ingrained, as did a determination to serve the community.
“I love my job,” he said multiple times during our talk, as if to persuade himself, as well as me, that he wasn’t cynical or numb to pain and violence.
There was drug use within his family also, which explains his intense pro-active interest in the opioid epidemic. “The criminal justice and law-enforcement profession need heart,” he told me. “It’s time.”
It’s past time, perhaps, to segue from criminalizing the disease of addiction to providing proper well-funded support and care. Figueroa has initiated several social-services programs. “Mental health and addiction still have stigma,” he said. “I want everyone in Ulster County to know my door is always open.”
The sun was setting over the ridge as we continued our dialogue, We didn’t often disagree. As we got up to leave, I asked what he did to relax. He’d arrived after his workday in a suit, driving a car unmarked but for the antenna on its roof.
“One glass of bourbon and a pipe,” he replied.
Carol Bergman, a much published writer, editor, and writing coach is the co-owner of Mediacs, an independent publishing company based in New Paltz.