The First Plaintiff.
In August 1984, a young woman walked into the Albuquerque law office of Josephine DeLeon Rohr. Rohr, though only two years out of law school, did not need walk-in clients. Contracted to the local office of a national firm, she was making very good money for the first time in her life. She specialized in collections, personal injury, and workers’ compensation, and her income of some $8,000 to $10,000 a month represented great stability and insulation for her.
In 1955, at the age of sixteen, Rohr had fled her native Dominican Republic after her two best friends had been murdered by dictator Rafael Trujillo for their participation in a student antidictatorship group. She moved to California, had three children before she was twenty-one, then was divorced from their father and supported her family as a bilingual paralegal in a rural legal assistance program. Her second husband died in Vietnam, and her oldest son died suddenly of leukemia at eighteen as she was beginning law school in 1978. By 1984, after what seemed a lifetime of scrambling and loss, Josephine Rohr was looking forward to some peace and stability.
The woman who walked in her office that day in August—Amy Cordova Romero—was in desperate crisis. Rohr at first took her for a teenager, but she was actually thirty-seven and struggling through chemotherapy and complications associated with metasticized ovarian cancer. Divorced, jobless, and with no health insurance, she owed St. Joseph Hospital about $70,000, and the hospital was suing her for title to the fourplex in which she and her teenaged son lived. Deeded to her in a divorce settlement, it was her only property and source of income. Amy’s life was dwindling on all fronts.’ Her parents were in their eighties and near death, and her ex-husband paid child support only erratically. It seemed a pathetic situation, and clearly there was no possibility of paying for legal counsel. Looking across at Amy, Josephine was struck by her pretty features and unlined skin. “You know,” she said, “you sure don’t look like the stereotype we have of the terminal cancer patient. You seem so young.”
“I know. But plenty of the girls I worked with have been sick and lost their uteruses and stuff, and they were as young as me. Some were younger.”
“Plenty of them?” asked Rohr. “How many did you work with?”
“About twenty-five or thirty,” Amy answered. “All of them had hysterectomies.”
“All of them? That’s impossible!” said Rohr. “Are you serious? Who are they?”
Amy began naming names, and Rohr scribbled them down.
When she had named about ten women, Amy said, “There are more. I can’t think of them all right now. We worked at GTE Lenkurt making electronics things. I worked there for most of the 1970s. There were all these chemicals we were always smelling or getting on ourselves. We used to get sick a lot and have real heavy periods, but we thought it was just us. But since I’ve been in the hospital, I’ve heard that nearly everybody we worked with has had operations, mostly hysterectomies, and lots have had cancer.”
Rohr assured Amy she would help her delay the hospital’s seizure of her house and told her not to worry about paying her. After Amy left, Rohr stared at the list of names and wondered if it could possibly be true. She called some of the phone numbers, and yes, the women had had hysterectomies while working with Amy. They had had other conditions, too, and they gave her more telephone numbers, and yes, those other women had lost uteruses, or thyroids, or the ability to think clearly or breathe easily, or some other key element of their formerly healthy bodies. And there were a number of reported cancers. All while working at GTE Lenkurt, making electronics components and “things.”
Word got around, and women started calling Rohr’s office.
Before she had even written the hospital’s attorney on Amy’s behalf, she had notepads filled with lists—human organs, women with Hispanic names, and chemicals that sounded oddly familiar, even feminine: ethylene . . . urethane . . . methyl something … “trichlor,” or something that sounded like bleach. She forced herself to focus on Amy’s immediate crisis with the hospital, but curiosity about electronics work crowded in. She tried to imagine the factory production line: where would Amy and her friends be, what would they be doing, what would the chemicals smell like? She could not stop herself from calling more names, and each new name added to her amazement.
Thus began Josephine Rohr’s chance investigation into the life and health of Amy Cordova Romero and 250 other former GTE workers, nearly all women and mostly Hispanic. A nov ice who had never tried a case, Josephine Rohr was taking on one of the top twenty multinational corporations in the United States with defiance, naiveté, and moral outrage. Mortgaging her house, borrowing money, improvising “like a bull in a china shop,” as she described herself, clinging to faith in the system, and finding activist allies when she needed them most, Rohr battled GTE for nearly three years. Her campaign uncovered ruthless management, a toxic arsenal of electron ics production chemicals, and a stratified work force where minority women did meaningless, repetitive work under dan gerously contaminated conditions.
Amy Cordova Romero had asked three lawyers to help her delay the hospital’s seizure of her house, but all had refused. Desperate, she asked her pastor if he could recommend someone. He had heard that Rohr was active in evangelical Christian work; she also did a legal information show on a local Spanish-language radio station. The day after Rohr accepted Amy’s case, a fellow lawyer asked her, “Why would you waste time on a lost cause like that?” Rohr replied, “It’s called compassion.”
Rohr’s Caribbean Teenage Political Education
Josephine DeLeon Rohr was born in the Dominican Republic, one of two daughters in a wealthy and powerful Italian-Dominican family. Her mother, Teolinda Bencosme, was the eldest daughter of Cipriano Bencosme, who was elected president of the country on November 25, 1930, and assassinated five days later by the dictator Rafael Trujillo, who ruled the country for the next thirty-one years with U.S. backing. U.S. Marines had occupied the Dominican Republic from 1924 to 1930, and Cipriano Bencosme’s campaign emphasized getting the Marines out. Several Bencosme men subsequently served as senators and provincial governors as the family went in and out of favor at Trujillo’s whim. Sergio Bencosme, Rohr’s granduncle, who served as minister of foreign relations in the administration preceding Cipriano Bencosme’s election, was assassinated in New York City in 1935, possibly by gunmen mistaking him for another figure. Trujillo himself was killed by two of Josephine’s distant cousins in 1961.
Josephine’s parents were wealthy enough for her father to lose $100,000 in weekend poker games with his wife’s brothers. The Bencosme wealth came from coffee plantations and other landholdings. They owned entire villages of tenant workers. Rohr says her sharpest memories include the empathy she felt watching workers queue up for free commodities her mother handed out weekly from a table in front of the gate to their house.
“It made me feel horrible for them. Why were things set up so they could not make a dignified living for themselves?”
Josephine’s mother had strong ideas about the value and inaccessibility of education. She looked for talented children in servant and peasant families, paying for their college and pay ing the parents the lost value of the children’s labor. Josephine claims that this patronage resulted in twenty to thirty physicians and lawyers now practicing on the island. Josephine herself skipped from the third to the seventh grade, finished high school at twelve, and went straight into law school. She was a striking, precocious law student of fifteen when she became tangled in Trujillo’s intrigue.
Chaperoned by her godparent Francis Townsend, an attache at the American Embassy, Josephine attended a party at the embassy in 1955 for Porfirio Rubirosa, whose companion was Zsa-Zsa Gabor. Townsend introduced her to Rubirosa, who was a close friend of Rafael Trujillo, Jr., the dictator’s son. Within a few days, the elder Trujillo, then sixty-three, began sending cars for Josephine and directed one of her uncles to install her in one of Trujillo’s houses. The uncle complied, but Josephine’s mother heard of the arrangement and told Trujillo, “Go to hell.” Furious, Trujillo investigated Josephine and her friends and discovered that she and two high school classmates had become involved with a revolutionary anti dictatorship group. Trujillo had the two friends, Minerva and Theresa Mirabal, delivered to jail, where they were raped by the male prisoners and killed in front of their boyfriend and husband. The Bencosmes had by this time escaped the country. They sent Josephine to Central America with an Italian-Argentinian couple, giving them $20,000 in silver and instructions to see that she joined another godparent who was a professor of medicine at UCLA.
Refused sanctuary with the UCLA relative, Josephine made her way to San Francisco, where she used her affidavit of support from the archbishop of Honduras to obtain a work contract with a private school. She began learning English and resumed her studies. She stayed with relatives of the American diplomat Averill Harriman, then moved to a boarding house where she met and married a law graduate from Ohio State University. He was thirty-two, she seventeen. Four years later, after having two boys and a girl, she divorced him. Twenty-one, with three toddlers and poor command of English, Josephine parlayed her Dominican Republic law school experience and fluency in Spanish into a job as legal assistant to Cruz Reynoso, an attorney who later became a justice of the California supreme court.
Within a year, she became one of the first paralegals hired by the new California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) program. Given her choice of locations, she chose to run the CRLA office in Salinas, where, with Chicano farm workers as her clients, she was allowed to “practice” law without a degree before the workers’ compensation board, insurance board, and immigration and Social Security offices. During the time Josephine ran the Salinas staff, the federal War on Poverty program named the CLRA program the best legal assistance service in the United States for four years running.
Rohr’s second marriage, to army lieutenant John Rohr, ended after three years with his death in Vietnam. After two years in New York with her mother and sister, she decided to relocate to a warm climate with Hispanic population, and chose Albuquerque because a residential community that advertised heavily in New York media, Rio Rancho, offered her a week’s stay and tour of the area for $350. In 1974, at thirtyfour, she enrolled in undergraduate classes at the University of New Mexico. In 1978 she was accepted by the University of New Mexico Law School. Ten days before she was to begin classes, her oldest child, Alan, died suddenly of leukemia at eighteen. Rohr went ahead with law school but suffered a delayed breakdown, taking a year and a half off before her final year to seek counseling for her grief and the grief and confusion of her middle child, Rob, then sixteen.
And so, when Amy Cordova Romero called at her office in 1984, Josephine Rohr was not the typical recent law graduate. Raised in a violent and misogynist Caribbean society, she had a well-developed hatred for abuse of power and oppression of women. She was a feminist and populist without any particular ideology beyond that embodied in a hand-lettered desk card quoting Abraham Lincoln: “Have faith that right makes might.” She had been a victim and a survivor, an insider and an outsider, a patrician and a refugee. For an unemployed Hispanic woman in health crisis and financial trouble, like Amy Cordova Romero, Rohr had more empathy to offer than most lawyers.
At the time of her initial interview with Rohr, Cordova Romero had been off the GTE payroll for five years. According to her deposition and GTE personnel file, she started work at the plant just after it opened in 1971, at the age of twenty-four. She was married, with a three-year-old son. She had previously worked as a school aide in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, her birthplace. Amy made $1.61 per hour when she was hired in 1971, and $3.90 per hour when she was fired eight years and nine months later. Struggling through a di vorce and a severe case of pneumonia, she had asked GTE for a leave of absence. Two months after she returned, her supervisor discovered that Amy had taken credit for some in centive piecework she had not actually finished. She was fired by telegram from Lenkurt offices in San Carlos, California, that same day. With skills not transferable to any other busi ness in the state and a son ten years old, her standard ofliving deteriorated over the next four years.
In November 1983, Amy got what she thought was a cold, but it did not go away. Her face, arms, and legs became bloated. She had no personal physician, no health insurance, no funds. After a week of having difficulty with breathing, she had her boyfriend take her to the emergency room of the county hospital, operated by the University of New Mexico. She explained her breathlessness, her bloating and weight gain, a “jumping” pain in her chest, chills, and a floating sen sation. The emergency room physician on duty diagnosed her primary condition as constipation. When she returned for a followup one week later, the physician told her he had given her the wrong pills for constipation the week before, and this time prescribed laxatives. That Christmas she was sluggish and barely able to observe the holidays. Her condition waxed and waned over the next three months. In March, it became quite grave:
It got to the point, finally, that I was like choking. I couldn’t take it any more, so I finally told my son and my boyfriend that … I was dying. I couldn’t eat nothing for weeks, and I choked ifllaid flat. I was completely out of breath. That’s when I told them, “Do whatever you want.” So they called my sister-in-law and she took me in to the emergency room at St. Joseph’s. I couldn’t lie flat for the X -rays, so they brought some kind of portable scanner thing into the intensive care room where I was. None of the doctors could figure out what was wrong with me. This Oriental doctor got the portable scanner going and suddenly he gasped and ran to the phone. He called the other doctors and said, “I found what’s wrong! Or part of what’s wrong!”
The scanner had located the source of the pressure on _\my’s breathing: malignant pericardium, a heart sac attacked by cancer cells and filled with blood. In swift succession they fiMmd cancer in the left lung and abdomen, spread from its source in the ovaries. The doctors found her pelvic area to be “one rock-hard mass, sidewall to sidewall.” Ori top of that, she had severe pneumonia.
After treating her hemopericardium and pneumonia, doctors diagnosed chronic, restrictive pulmonary disease. She bad never smoked and had no family history oflung problems. She underwent a hysterectomy with removal of her ovaries and the omentum, a portion of the abdominal cavity.
Chemotherapy began; nurse notes in her medical record report visits to Amy’s room by her boyfriend, with alcohol on his breath, who urged her to refuse chemotherapy and “go for the gusto.” At home, he fought with her and with her teenaged son. Amy’s bills mounted. She was admitted to the hospital on twenty-one occasions between March 19, 1984, and January 29, 1985, including a thirty-one day stay in the intensive care unit. She had been a late-in-life baby, and her parents were in need of care themselves. Within the year they died in Santa Rosa at eighty-three and eighty-four.
While Amy was in the hospital, Patsy Aragon, one of her former co-workers and best friends from GTE, came to visit and told her that many other women they worked with had been having problems; many had had operations, mostly hys terectomies. In fact, Patsy said, she herself and one other girl seemed to be the only ones from their department at GTE that hadn’t had operations.
Released from the hospital after the major surgery, Amy resumed trying to manage her fourplex. “Is that how you supported yourself?” asked GTE’s attorney when taking her deposition a year later. “Well, I sort of supported myself,” she replied. The hospital billing department urged her to go to the American Cancer Society to ask for help with her bills, but they were of no help. When the papers came announcing St. Joseph’s intentions to ask the courts to seize her fourplex, Amy realized she had no chance without a lawyer. In the ini tial interview with Amy in 1984, Josephine Rohr did some calculations: $600 total rental income from three units, plus $200 irregular child support, minus the $523 mortgage pay ment and minimum housing maintenance, utilities, gas, and oil for her 1980 Honda, prescription drugs, $20 for her son’s monthly allowance, and car insurance, left $93 per month to provide food, clothes, entertainment, and emergency funds for two people. Amy had accumulated fifty-seven shares of GTE stock, which paid her a total dividend in 1984 of $47.65. Her boyfriend occasionally contributed toward necessities.
Josephine Rohr responded viscerally to Amy Cordova Romero’s stoicism. An intricate pattern of coincidence contributed to their rapport: shared ethnicity, gender, divorce, parenthood, cancer, and family loss. Had Amy never found Rohr, perhaps none of the other plaintiffs would have found either. Had Rohr not given Amy the opportunity to mention theothers, she might never have heard of them. Had she not called them and confirmed their illnesses, she might never have believed Amy’s condition to be work related. Without the workrelatedness, the only question before Rohr would have been what Amy owed the hospital, instead of what GTE owed scores of workers.