I first met Ulster County Sheriff Juan Figueroa at the Gardiner Library the night of the tornado in New Paltz. I was teaching a workshop on restorative justice. He was in uniform, but he took off his hat as he entered, sat down, introduced himself and joined in the discussion.
He is Ulster County’s first Latino Sheriff, born and raised in the Bronx, his family is originally from Puerto Rico. As on most formal 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 told me later.
He always notices how many other people of color are in the room. I didn’t know most people of color did that? I do not have.
It was a moment of restorative justice for me, a realization of what it was like to walk into a white room, the courage it sometimes takes, the self-belief.
Juan Figueroa has an abundance of both. A long stint in the US Marines helped. “Once a navy, always a navy,” he says.
He enlisted in 1983 after the Beirut attack, just out of high school. He was eighteen and nineteen by the time he finished boot camp and shipped off to Okinawa.
I was curious to know how he felt about the United States the first time he went overseas. His response was immediate: “How spoiled we are, how entitled we are.”
The poverty he witnessed abroad resonated and relativized his childhood. “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, the electricity was on for eight hours and off for eight hours. People didn’t have indoor toilets.
Figueroa is running unopposed for re-election in November. I wanted to have a more formal conversation with him, so we met again at the Gardiner Library, coincidentally the day after the Uvalde, Texas massacre.
The flag in front of the library was at half mast. A guitar lesson from very young children, their protective parents hovering, was underway in the conference room.
That morning, a school morning, I had met a mother and her eight-year-old son in the supermarket queue. There was no way she would allow her son to go to school that day, she said.
I asked the sheriff, who is not a relative, what he thought of the flood of creepy Facebook posts on local community pages. He responded by using the trope about “mental health support.” Yes, of course he was in favor of background checks and reasonable gun control legislation, but he is skeptical that more armed guards in schools, endless lockdown drills and even more gun control will make a difference.
We don’t know enough, I say. More research needs to be done. But we 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 traumatized. Even the exercises themselves can cause trauma. Some children have been writing goodbye text messages to their parents from shelter-in-place closets, assuming they will die. Some have written their wills.
Figueroa’s cautious and low-key response could be attributed to his political campaigning, or it could have something to do with his background and career thus far — the Marines, the state police. Like all soldiers and law enforcement officers, he experienced much hardship, violence and pain, even within his own family. which he describes as “dysfunctional”.
His father was alcoholic and violent. Figueroa and her three siblings often tried to protect their mother. “I was a mama’s boy,” he said. The protective and caring personality he developed took root, as did his determination to serve the community.
“I love my job,” he said repeatedly during our conversation, as if to convince himself and me that he wasn’t cynical or numbed by pain and violence.
There was also drug use within his family, which explains his intense proactive interest in the opioid epidemic. “Criminal justice and the law enforcement profession need hearts,” he told me. “It’s time.”
It may be time to move from criminalizing the disease of addiction to providing appropriate and well-funded care and support. Figueroa has launched several social service programs. “Mental health and addiction are always stigmatized,” he said. “I want everyone in Ulster County to know that my door is always open.”
The sun was setting over the ridge as we continued our dialogue. We weren’t often at odds. As we got up to leave, I asked him what he did to relax. He had arrived after his day’s work in a suit, driving an unmarked car except for the aerial on the roof.
“A glass of bourbon and a pipe,” he replied.
Carol Bergman, a widely published writer, editor and writing coach, is co-owner of Mediacs, an independent publishing house based in New Paltz.