It was 1:30 on a Sunday afternoon in November 2008, and the pews at St. Hyacinth Church were occupied by nearly 100 Chicago Poles.
Also present were judges and representatives from the offices of the Cook County state’s attorney and the Illinois secretary of state.
Services were over. A woman stepped to a microphone to address the crowd. She was there to offer guidance and advice, though not of the theological vein.
She’s Marta Almodovar, administrative supervisor for the Cook County Circuit Court’s Mandatory Arbitration Center.
Her task on this afternoon at the Northwest Side church? Inform the crowd of changes in drunken-driving law.
It was the first time Almodovar, now 47, used her position and legal knowledge to educate her fellow Poles on legal matters in the county and state.
“People are lost in the court system,” Almodovar said. “It’s very intimidating.”
As a native speaker of Polish who first came to the United States in 1990, Almodovar empathizes with Chicagoans for whom English is a second language.
“I remember when I was the one who was going somewhere like the post office and trying to accomplish something, and you know a couple words,” she said.
“I saw the need to educate my community — and not just my community — about the simple stuff.”
She took her first stab at community education on that Sunday afternoon six years ago.
“Yes,” Almodovar recalls thinking after addressing the crowd, “this makes sense.”
Coming to America
Almodovar’s interest in the law began with a passion for history.
Growing up in Bialystok — a city in northeast Poland — Almodovar was drawn to American culture via her own country’s embattled history and nearly 125-year struggle for independence.
“Poles love the United States,” she said. “We all love America. We have a connection — the freedom connection.”
She cites with pride the longevity of Poland’s original constitution, adopted in 1791 — four years after the U.S. Constitution took effect.
“I was mostly interested in constitutional law,” Almodovar said. “I really love the American Constitution. It’s just such a wonderful basis for freedom.”
She felt another connection with the U.S. — the melting pot.
Her family contained a mix of religions — part Russian Orthodox (one of her ancestors was sainted), part Catholic, part Jewish; and a mix of nationalities — part Polish, part Ukrainian.
“In my family, it’s very mixed,” she said. “I have one sister, (and) we were told that you don’t look at what religion, what language, what color is your skin — you have to be a good person.”
Almodovar enrolled in law school at Warsaw University in 1986. In 1990, after four of her five years were complete and with her country in its transition out of Soviet rule, she visited the U.S.
She chose Chicago and came here knowing only two sentences: “Would you like to go to cinema?” and “Would you like to have a cup of tea?”
“That was it,” she said. “That was my knowledge.”
She soon had more and added to her melting pot family when she married a Hispanic. She returned to Poland in 1992 to finish her schooling and came back to Chicago in 1993 to start a family, giving birth that year to her son, Alexander. When the couple divorced, she remained in Chicago so her son could be near his father.
She worked part-time jobs, including a stint with a sole practitioner. In 1998, she took an entry-level position in the Cook County Probate Division.
“I learned the court system from the bottom,” Almodovar said. “I started doing the simple clerking stuff. It was a good lesson, because no one cares if you have a degree or not. They want you to learn. It helped me.”
There she met Aurelia Pucinski, the circuit court clerk at the time who quickly appreciated Almodovar not just for her enthusiasm but her bilingualism.
“We did a survey of languages that our employees spoke so that if somebody showed up at a desk in Probate, we could say, ‘Call Susie at Chancery because she speaks this language,’” Pucinski said. “Marta was one of the people we could call on.”
For Cook County, which has the second-largest Polish population in the world after Warsaw, Almodovar’s Polish fluency was hugely beneficial, as was her growing network of Chicago Poles, who she identified to Pucinski as interpreters.
“It was really clear that she just wanted to help people,” said Pucinski, now an Illinois Appellate Court justice. “That was her goal. And since that was my goal, that was perfect.”
Building a bridge
By 2006, Almodovar was in her current position in the circuit court’s Mandatory Arbitration Center, where she works on a staff of seven that handles arbitration and mediation in the Chancery, Law and Probate divisions. In 2013, the group handled more than 6,000 arbitrations.
And though she would soon be helping the city’s Polish community navigate the county legal system, she didn’t begin her work with a Polish person.
“I was in the elevator of the Daley Center, and I saw this older gentleman,” she said. “He had to be in his 80s. He was African-American. And he was so frustrated.”
The man, she said, was nearly in tears. He needed to go to court to pay a fine but didn’t know where he needed to go and had lost his paperwork.
“At first I was like, ‘I’m busy. I have to run,’” she said. “But then you just feel something.”
She asked him what he was looking for.
“It’s about a payment,” he said.
“So it has to be the Civil Division,” she told him. “Let’s go to a computer.”
She found his case and sent him to a courtroom on the sixth floor. He thanked her profusely, calling her “an angel.”
“That’s just my job,” she said.
From there, she began taking an initiative to help others, starting with the Polish community.
In 2008, she organized the DUI seminar and connected Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans with Polskie Radio, WNVR-AM 1030, to teach Poles about foreclosure mediation.
She became heavily involved in the Advocates Society, an organization for Polish-American attorneys. Last year, she was part of the effort to rename the area at Division Street, Ashland Avenue and Milwaukee Avenue as the “Polish Triangle.”
Also last year, she pulled off what she calls her biggest achievement: A judicial exchange between Cook County and Poland that sent herself and 11 others — including Evans, Pucinski and four more judges — to Poland for a week in October.
Six months ago, a delegation from Poland, including Wojciech Wegrzyn — Poland’s undersecretary of state — visited Chicago.
“She planned the entire trip,” said Associate Judge William Edward Gomolinski. “And for a person like me who goes on vacation quite frequently, this was an overseas trip that was planned to perfection.”
Since, according to Almodovar, 50 percent of foreign judgments sent to Poland worldwide are from Cook County, the trip’s key benefit was educating both sides about the other’s system.
“I think part of our disconnect was the Polish system (is) based on a fault system, where Illinois is a no-fault system,” said Associate Judge Mark J. Lopez. “We learned that when they get one of our judgments, they are looking for language in our judgments that deals with fault, and they’re never going to find it.”
At the center of that communication is Almodovar.
“We have this concept of bureaucracy as something that is not friendly, but it doesn’t have to be this way,” she said. “We cannot exist without bureaucracy. Society has to have some level of organization. But we also have to have common sense.”
It’s a sense she’s built from her own experience.
“They say the first-generation immigrants are difficult because they are torn between two countries,” Almodovar said. “But I find a way to put them together in court. This is so rewarding.
“The dialogue is going on that Undersecretary Wegrzyn was in Chicago. He was in Springfield. I can see the effect of the dialogue.
“I’m not in between the countries,” she said, smiling. “I can bridge them.”