A dream deferred, now fulfilled

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Julissa Perez poses with several of her staunchest supporters after earning her law degree from Cooley in Grand Rapids. Pictured: (front row, l-r) Dean Nelson Miller; Orlando Perez, paternal grandfather; Tania Brito, mother; Julissa Perez; Leon Machin, maternal grandfather; Doris Machin, aunt; and Humberto Brito, stepfather; (back row) Leonard Machin, uncle; Adrian Brito, brother; and Joel Brito, brother.

Granddaughter of Cuban immigrant graduates law school

By Debra Talcott
Legal News

 What are the chances of a family’s story beginning in Cuba in the 1950s and ending in Grand Rapids in 2013? All that it takes to bridge the generations of the Machin family is the common dream that was fulfilled last month when Julissa Perez earned her J.D. from Cooley Law School.

“My maternal grandfather left his homeland of Cuba in 1959 while in law school when he was forced out by Castro’s revolution, which had invaded the island as an outright civil war,” explains Perez. “As a member of the Cuban army under the previous president Fulgencio Batista, a non-communist, his only reaction was to fight in opposition of this revolution.”

So after completing his first year of law school coursework, Perez’s grandfather, Leon Machin, was forced to give up his dream of becoming an attorney. Machin fled his homeland in hopes of making a better life for his family in the United States.

“Abuelo (grandfather in Spanish) has described that he and his classmates began noticing the absence of one professor then another. There were times when no professor showed up at all. Apparently, some were arrested, others shot, and some even killed by Castro’s guerrilla of men. This is when he decided he had to flee Cuba.”

Perez’s grandfather was able to obtain a passport that listed him as a “merchant” so that he could gain entry into New York. Once there, he earned money by working in a factory, in construction, as a painter, and by doing whatever odd jobs he could find — all with the goal of bringing his wife and baby daughter (Perez’s mother) from Cuba.

“He did this for seven months and was finally able to set up a fully furnished apartment and bring my grandmother and mother over with their proper passports and even their U.S. residencies,” says Perez.

Machin may have been born into a poor farming family in a small town in Cuba, but his dreams were never small. He did not finish his law degree in the U.S., but he did go on to own one of the largest furniture stores in Union City, N.J. for more than 30 years.

“He retired and moved to Miami in 1996, where he started his own real estate investment company. He and my grandmother currently own one commercial shopping strip, a large 48-unit apartment building, and a couple of other townhouse buildings as well. My mother helps them manage this company and their properties,” says Perez.

Perez is proud of her grandfather’s hard work and his “rags to riches” story that inspired her to attend law school and fulfill his earlier dream, which has become her own. Her mother and her uncle have bachelor’s degrees, but she is the first in her family to earn a law degree.

“When I asked Abuelo how he felt about me graduating law school, he replied, ‘I am so very happy and proud of your accomplishment; I finally feel like my dream has come to reality, through you. It is a real blessing.’”

After a lovely graduation ceremony and reception attended by her extended family, Perez now finds herself taking her bar preparation course and studying for the Florida Bar Exam, which she will take at the end of July. When she passes the bar, Perez plans to continue her work in the music and entertainment industry in Miami.

“I plan to expand my current company, Soul Lounge Entertainment Group, and incorporate my law practice therein. I guess you could say I want to be a solo practitioner,” says Perez.

Perez has been working in the music and entertainment industry for more than 10 years and says Miami offers much opportunity for a career in entertainment, music, and media law.

“I love music. Besides law, it is my original passion. Entertainment law provides me with the ability to blend both my passions and also make a decent living. I love working with independent artists and record labels and helping them expand their own careers. I really love helping them set up their music business in a proper and lucrative way. Miami is the center for a lot of international business, both because of its location and also because of its large population of Hispanics. There are many opportunities here, and I am very excited about the future.”

While Perez admits she will not miss the snowy Grand Rapids winters she experienced as a Cooley student, she says she will miss the student life and the camaraderie that came with it.

“I am happy and thankful to have found lifelong friends in Dean Nelson Miller, Professor Paul Sorensen, and Professor Victoria Vuletich. Dean Miller was always available for me, whether it was just to lend an ear, clarify class material, or simply offer some candid, friendly advice. I am forever grateful to him for his dedication and input in my legal career. Professor Sorensen was my Torts I professor, and I loved his teaching style. I also had the pleasure of having him as my faculty supervisor for my externship at ChaseLawyers, an entertainment law firm here in Miami. Professor Vuletich was my Professional Responsibility professor and also my faculty adviser for the directed study paper. She has become a good friend and mentor to me as well. I am very fortunate to have met these special people during my time at Cooley.”

Perez is the embodiment of the “it takes a village” philosophy. Her grandfather’s dream and example of hard work, her support from extended family, and her nurturing by the Cooley administration and faculty are what have helped her reach this point.

“I feel very blessed and fortunate to have been able to finish law school and finally earn that J.D. I could not have done it without my family’s support. They were with me every step of the way-whether financially, emotionally, or just listening to me rant and complain for a while on the phone. They really kept me grounded and with my eyes on the prize,” she says.

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