Lunch with Luis & Guest: Marcela Saitua

HERNANDEZ, Luis

Lunch with Luis

Guest: Marcela Saitua

Back when we could still frequent restaurants, I had the great pleasure of sitting down for lunch with Marcela Saitua. We went to Richmond Station in downtown Toronto and spent two very cool hours talking about our backgrounds, our interests, and our experience in the legal profession in Canada. The lunch, above all, really highlighted how all our journeys (professionally and personally) are unique and challenging and, ultimately, how important it is to connect with one’s roots.

By way of introduction, Marcela is a civil litigation mediator who was born in Chile right before the 1973 Chilean coup d’état. For those that don’t know Chilean history too well (like me), the coup d’état involved the overthrowing of the president, Salvador Allende, by the army and the national police, which resulted in an extended period of social unrest and political tension in Chile.

Marcela told me about how the unrest caused her family turmoil and eventually led them to leave Chile to go to Peru, then the Netherlands, and eventually arriving in Toronto when she was 3 years old. This was accompanied by a hilarious anecdote of a 3-year-old Marcela getting frustrated in school because she could communicate in Spanish and Dutch but not in English – a frustration I’m sure many of us immigrants have felt at one point or another in a new country.

What became abundantly clear from our lunch was that from an early age Marcela was interested in different cultures and that this interest would become integral life in her personal life and her development as an advocate, and finally a mediator.

To better understand her journey, Marcela described how she came from a science-oriented family and that law had never crossed her mind as a career path. She had originally gone to university for science and about halfway through decided to change course to History and French. However, with a degree in those subjects, she did not know what path to take afterwards so she “fell into law” when she decided to complete a combined Master of Arts in International Relations and a J.D. from the University of Toronto.

Once Marcela became a lawyer, she worked as a civil litigator for almost ten years before “falling into” something else – mediation. How that happened though is amazing!

Being married to a criminal defence lawyer, Marcela described how she felt that her passion for her career as a litigator did not compare to that of her husband. This led her onto a path of trying out a “work-share” and then trying out litigating part-time – each with its own pitfalls that did not satisfy her career-wise. Eventually, this led to a friend recommending that she try her hand at mediation because, among other things, the roster of mediators in the GTA needed a fresh of breath air from the overwhelming number of older, white men at the end of their legal careers.

What her friend did next is the stuff of legends. He started introducing her to other lawyers as a mediator during the annual Advocates’ Society End of Term Dinner – before she had even considered mediating. Next thing she knew, she was seriously contemplating the idea, her husband convinced her to give it a try, and the rest (as they say) is history.

Marcela noted that she loves mediating for a number of reasons. First, it allowed her to be resolution-oriented instead of adversarial. She noted that she never had a passion, as some do, to be confrontational or combative. Her interest lay in the challenge of finding common ground for parties involved in complicated disputes. Second, she is able to bring a different perspective to mediations due to her background and travel experience. Third, it has given her the opportunity to set her own schedule and focus on her family.

In this regard, I’ve never met such an incredible role-model. Marcela’s first priority is her family and in particular, her children. A huge sports fan herself (and particularly a Blue Jays fan), her kids play sports year-round and she acts as a self-titled “Momager”. She also goes on travel adventures with her family and explores her other interests of hiking and photography.

One of the most illuminating parts of our lunch was that, similar to me, she has struggled with parts of her identity. Marcela noted that she grew up in an obviously Chilean household where she spoke Spanish and often ate empanadas, pastel de choclo, and manjar (dulce de leche for many of us). However, outside of home she saw herself as a Canadian and didn’t pay much attention to her Hispanic heritage. That sentiment extended to the early parts of her legal career as well.

That being said, Marcela noted that as she grew into her career, she started to notice that there weren’t many Hispanics around. So she started to speak her mind on the lack of representation and the cultural awareness that the legal profession so desperately needs. It became apparent that being a Hispanic woman could be a disadvantage – because there was a lack of fit or simply because of being an ‘other’ in an environment – but it shouldn’t be. In fact, embracing her roots has been integral in her success and, at times, has helped her connect with her clients in ways that others would not be able to.

So in addition to her career as a mediator and her life as a Momager, Marcela made it a priority to contribute to the legal profession by taking on leadership roles with the Roundtable of Diversity Associations (RODA) and the Canadian Hispanic Bar Association – where she was a past President and Executive Director. Her involvement in these equity-seeking organizations has obviously resulted in their growth and increased presence, which helps all of us young, diverse lawyers navigate a very different legal field than the one she started off 20 years ago.

To end off our lunch, I asked Marcela what she would recommend to young Hispanic lawyers trying to figure out their careers and find a place in the legal world. Her answer was simple but impactful: “Reach Out! There are so many of us that have gone through our own unique journeys in law and all you can do is reach out and ask as many questions as you can. We love helping and teaching the future of the profession!”

Final Note:

To say that it’s been a while since my last LWL would be an understatement. To those that have asked me about it, I apologize for the delay. In particular, an apology is owed to my wonderful guest, Marcela Saitua, since we had this lunch originally in February 2019. Since then, the Raptors won the NBA Championship, the Blue Jays called up all of their young stars, and a global pandemic has struck. There is no excuse for my delay other than my own fear that my column would not do justice to the incredible lunch we had.