Bronx defenders 2  1 Bronx defenders 3  1

The Bronx Defenders

Bronx defenders 2  1 Bronx defenders 4  1
Bronx defenders 3  1 Bronx defenders 1  1

The Bronx Defenders is a public defender nonprofit that is radically transforming how low-income people in the Bronx are represented in the justice system and, in doing so, is transforming the system itself. If you'd like to support the Defenders, you can donate here.

Beauty allows us to shape our individual stories and find ways to connect to others all at once. With The Top Shelf we discover personal narratives through beauty routines. In The Beauty Politic, Into The Gloss explores how beauty connects communities, and how it informs a sense of self for the people within them. Beauty can be used as a tool not just for self-expression, but for empowerment and preservation as well.

First up are the women of The Bronx Defenders. Through their stations as legal counselors, policy advocates, and social workers, these five women represent a staff of 400 who work to support New York’s most vulnerable residents as they navigate the criminal justice system. The nonprofit helps people netted in court cases that range from child welfare to immigration. It’s harrowing work, but work that requires a dutiful beauty routine nonetheless. They’ll explain.

Bronx defenders 1  1
Bronx defenders sophia 31
Bronx defenders sophia 12
Bronx defenders sophia 43
Bronx defenders sophia 54
Bronx defenders sophia 65
Bronx defenders sophia 26

Sophia Gurulé

Attorney, Immigration Practice, from South Bend, Indiana

“I’m Chicana. Chicana can mean a lot of things, but I have roots in the United States as a Mexican-American. That identity really led me to my work here. I work as a public defender for detained people during their deportation proceedings. My day-to day-is pretty much split between visiting the incarcerated people I represent and going to immigration court. The people I represent are amazing and resilient—even though they shouldn’t have to be as resilient as they are. I hate going to court and seeing the way people are completely dehumanized. It’s really painful and exhausting. Not only professionally, but personally.

Because we have to be so respectful in court, a way of pushing back on that, for me, is with my style. When I wear these snake earrings to court, other attorneys are like, ‘Oh my God, that’s so intense.’ And I deliberately want to be intense! I want these judges to see me. A client of mine told me that when he was appearing by video from jail and saw me in those earrings, he felt powerful. When he had anxiety, he would look at them to calm himself down. That was really meaningful to me. Another client of mine, an 18-year-old indigenous kid, made this bracelet while he was incarcerated. And the rings are from my grandmother and great-grandmother, so they’re very old. All of that together feels like me.

I grew up in a family where looking your best was important, and I feel my best when I’m wearing a suit. I get them from a company called Bindle and Keep that makes suits for queer and gender nonconforming people. When you’re not a cisgender man, finding suits that fit is hard and expensive—I used student loans to pay for my first of two suits. But the way people treat me in the courtroom when I’m wearing a suit is completely different than when I’m in regular clothes. You exert power when you wear a suit. And nails are another part of that—I’ve been getting my nails done with my family since I was a child, and now a nail artist named Dasha comes to my apartment to do them. It’s definitely in Latinx culture, but obviously goes beyond that as well. I know that my clients’ families love [my nails] and feel safer with me when I demonstrate that expression of solidarity.

I do a full face pretty much every day—primer, foundation, concealer, bronzer, highlighter, eyeshadow, mascara. I love the Fenty foundations—I have both the matte and hydrating one, and I’m shade 170. I also think her highlighters truly pop. My Fenty Beauty situation is a little out of control. If I’m having a little bit of a chiller office day I might not go hard on lipstick and eyeliner, but when I go to court, red lipstick reminds me of my family. I remember when AOC wore it when she got sworn into Congress, and everyone was like, ‘It’s Latina power!’ I knew what she was doing, because that’s what we do. That’s how we are, and that’s how we present ourselves—it’s empowering. When I’m wearing my full face, my suit, my nails, my jewelry...and I’m fighting, and bringing my A-game, I’m being my full self. That’s when I feel most beautiful.”

Bronx defenders runa 21
Bronx defenders runa 32
Bronx defenders runa 13

Runa Rajagopal

Managing Director, Civil Action Practice, from Queens, New York

“What brought me to this job is that I’m a first-generation American—it made me think about what it means to build a life as new Americans very early on. My parents recently cleared out their attic and found boxes of my notebooks from high school and college, and they’re filled with notes about racial justice work without calling it that. It was kind of affirming to see the values I held true as a very young person are the same today.

I work across all practices, but criminal court is the easiest example for explaining my job. When someone is accused in criminal court, in addition to having to fight against that case, they may lose their job, their home, other property. We work to mitigate that. There is a pervasive lack of access and long-term divestment in the community we serve, but the story that’s told in the courts is about personal responsibility. The privilege of fighting on behalf of our clients is really being able to raise consciousness of that larger context. And as advocates, what we look like and how people perceive us—how strong they think we are, how smart they think we are—is important every single day. Just because we’re providing free help to our clients doesn’t mean that we’re not sharp, that we’re not fierce and ferocious, that we’re not going to go above and beyond.

I’ve been practicing law for 14 years. When I started, I didn’t see a lot of women of color, or Indian women specifically, in the work—I thought that I had to fit in. I wore black and gray pant suits; I have a soft voice, and I thought that was something I had to work on. But now, what I know to be true is that to perform my best I have to find my own voice and perspective. I wear full makeup, the whole nine yards—Fenty Beauty primer, and foundation and concealer in shade 330. I’ve used the same Lakme liquid liner from India since I was in grade school—I stand by that forever. And right now I have some nude-ish lip colors that I’m experimenting with, but if I have court, I may go with a power red. Even though I’m not afraid to stand out, I’ve definitely had adversaries, judges, and court personnel comment on my appearance or my body shape. Unfortunately, people feel very comfortable commenting on the way women look.

There’s so much intensity in the day-to-day, and when I’m not in the office I love dancing. I was trained in classical Indian dance for about 15 years, and now I’m taking Cuban salsa classes at a place called Fuakata. On days I go to classes, I usually don’t get home until 9 or 10. I also try to carve out time for self-care. I would rebuke all of these natural Indian remedies when I was a kid, like turmeric and coconut oil and charcoal. Now, all of these Indian things are super popular.”

Bronx defenders carol 31
Bronx defenders carol 12
Bronx defenders carol 53
Bronx defenders carol 24
Bronx defenders carol 45

Carol Larancuent

Legal Advocate, Immigration, from The Bronx, New York

“Growing up, my cousin who works for the DA’s office would always say that the Bronx Defenders attorneys were so well-respected. That’s how I knew I wanted to work here. After finishing my undergrad, I came back to The Bronx to work with my community—to serve people who not only look like me, but with whom I shared similar struggles. I am a legal advocate, so I support our attorneys, our clients and their families to create the best case possible. That involves obtaining criminal records, medical records, filing applications for release, and basically just being their support system and reminding them that we have their backs. I try to focus on the small wins, because when I don’t, I get super discouraged. The hope in my clients’ eyes pushes me to keep fighting, and reminds me that there are people who are depending on our advocacy.

I also consider myself a part-time makeup artist. I take clients on the weekend when I have time for it, and I also work through Glamsquad’s network. I started getting into it when I was 13 and my best friend started going to Barbizon, that modeling school. I remember her coming home with tons of makeup—contouring powders, blush powders, eyeshadow. The fact that you could have a toolkit made me fall in love. From that point on, I would try a whole bunch of different looks, and my skills just evolved over time. I recently took some classes two times a week after work from 5:30 to 8, which was really crazy but I enjoyed it.

I am a true believer that we can’t pour from an empty cup—my beauty routine, and how I adorn myself, is how I fill my cup. It’s my way to communicate that I am fully present for my client in this work. My hoop earrings are a constant—they’re the Bronx girl staple. And I always have to have my eyebrows on. I like the YSL Brow Gel because it’s like powder and gel in one. It’s amazing. My favorite powder foundation is Bare Minerals, and my favorite eyeshadow has to be the Tartelette palette. I love the Nars Orgasm blush and lip gloss, because it’s multicolored—it’s like magic. Contouring is for photos, but blush is what makes everything look natural.

On the weekends, I enjoy being at home, maybe having a glass of wine, going down the YouTube rabbit hole. I love that Jeffree Star takes low-end products and compares them to high-end products—on my budget, I can’t afford to always buy luxury products. For a while I stopped watching him because of [the racist charges]. At the end of the day, I still tune in for information, but I won’t buy his products. I try to support black- and brown-owned businesses instead.

For my nails, I go to this shop called The Lacquer Room that’s black-owned. I let the nail artist do whatever she wants—as an artist as well, I know how fun it is to have creative freedom. Lauren Hernandez at Kolour Room, which is also black- and brown-owned, colors my hair, and I change it all the time. Changing your look doesn’t have to be intimidating. Sometimes it’s so easy to not try new things because we’re afraid, but that’s part of learning. It takes some stumbling to be like, ‘Oh, hey, I can do this.’”

Bronx defenders noemi 21
Bronx defenders noemi 12

Noemi Cotto

Social Work Supervisor, Family Defense Practice, from The Bronx, New York

“I’ve been in the field of child welfare since 2002, but I became a holistic defense social worker in 2015. I don’t really have the most conventional story. In undergrad, my area of concentration was media and communications and American studies. The narrative was always if you go to college, you’ll get a job—I found myself with a bachelor’s degree and no job. My roommate’s sister was working for a foster care agency, and she basically asked me, ‘Hey, do you need a job?’ I really thought that I was doing something good. Not just good for children, but something good for my community. But after years of being on the prosecuting end and reflecting, I realized I was doing the opposite. I was separating families, and not necessarily doing the work to understand why this was happening. This is a systemic issue. For example, the US has a long history of separating children from their parents. It doesn’t only happen at the border. Our foster care system, which predominantly impacts black and brown children, is an instance of it. Having my son also informed my advocacy. If he was removed from me, I’m fighting and I’m going to make sure that I have a team to help me.

My style is a way of me saying I can be multifaceted. I can be professional, I can be educated, I can come from a poor community and still make a statement in and out of the office. I think about financial realities that many of us live with, but I also care about how my clients feel when I’m standing next to them. I want them to know that I put effort into showing up for them. I have curly hair, and to me, it’s my crown—I love wearing my hair out and wild. In legal settings, I’ve found myself either straightening my hair or pushing it back into a bun to be taken seriously. I think that mentality is changing now. For a normal workday, I definitely wear my hair curly. I use Devacurl shampoo and conditioner and a leave-in conditioner by Curls.

Being that I’m a single mother of a seven-year-old boy who I have to prepare for school, I consider myself Flash Gordon in the morning. I wake up at 6:30 and run straight to heat up milk and prepare a sandwich, because that’s the only thing my son will eat in the morning. I set it out on the table, wake him up, and then go take a shower. I do my hair, help him get dressed, get dressed myself, and then go back in the bathroom and start to do makeup. I wear neutral eyeshadows by Profusion Eyes with lengthening mascara by Smashbox, some Make Up For Ever concealer and Pink Diamonds lip gloss by Mary Kay. I do all of that in 45 minutes, because he has to be in school by 7:45—sometimes I might not have time for makeup, so I’ll do it as I’m walking to work.

For the past year, I’ve dedicated my weekends to be reflective. I’m writing a collaborative book called She Heals, and sharing how I’ve overcome traumas in my life. As a Latinx Nuyorican from The Bronx, I hope that collaborating on this project will empower other women from the community and to feel like there is something they can look forward to, no matter what they’re dealing with. It doesn’t really sound too unwinding, but for me the work is therapeutic.”

Bronx defenders courtney 31
Bronx defenders courtney 12
Bronx defenders courtney 43
Bronx defenders courtney 24

Courtney Dixon

Attorney, Criminal Defense Practice, from Maybrook, New York

"My first grade teacher told me I should be a lawyer, and I think it just stuck with me. I was that straight-A student who never got in trouble, but police would still harass me if I was outside with my friends. I felt very targeted, and I wanted to do something to fight against that. A lot of us go in with the mentality that we don’t care whether the client is innocent. In reality, everybody else in that room—the judge, the prosecutor, the court staff—has already assumed that your client is guilty. So if we’re not there, there doesn’t need to be any trial or exchange of discovery. Everyone deserves a lawyer, and has rights—my goal is to protect those rights.

The judges know us because they’re in front of us every day, but you don’t necessarily want a jury to know that your client is represented by a public defender, because that comes with assumptions. And most of my clients are black and brown people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, so they may not be able to afford the suit to wear to court. At least if I’m dressed in a certain way, or have my face and hair done in a certain way, maybe that helps how those 12 people who don’t know my client will perceive him or her. When I’m going on trial I usually use an Avon Glimmerstick eyeliner and Better Than Sex mascara, but on a daily basis I like to have a clean face with no foundation. I always have this Sephora Ultra Shine Lip Gel in Red Velvet in my bag, and as a black woman, my lip color is much closer to my skin color—a Covergirl plum lip liner gives me a little definition.

I always thought my hair needed to be straight, but it got to a point where the relaxer was damaging my hair so badly that I couldn’t do it anymore. I was very nervous about going natural—I thought that people would judge me, or I wouldn’t be able to be taken seriously as a lawyer. Black people are conditioned to think, ‘Can I wear my hair like this?’ When I’ve already gone through that thought, having my hair commented on is really, really hard. As I was letting the relaxer grow out, I found a crochet braider—her name is Twana. I saw her doing hair, and I thought, ‘Oh, I can do this and it’ll help my hair grow.’ That was really where I started. Once I was ready to trim out all the relaxer, I saw Tanji at Salon D&C, and she was wonderful. Now, I might have goddess twists going around my head, or a twist-out, like it is now. I’ve done braids, whether it’s cornrows into a ponytail or cornrows into a Mohawk with added crochet hair. I use Argan Oil of Morocco Deep Penetrating Oil with and a mixture of coconut oil, olive oil, avocado oil, Jamaican black castor oil, and tea tree oil to keep my hair moisturized.

I spend at least a weekend a month upstate at my mom’s, and I see all my cousins, and have a big dinner. It’s nice to catch up with family. Right before my 30th birthday party, I was at my brother’s house, sitting in the bathroom with my sister and my best friend, and said, ‘I don’t know how to do my face!’ They sat, and made up my face in a very me-way—they know I don’t like a whole lot of stuff. It made me feel beautiful on a very big milestone birthday. It was really nice and intimate—not a big thing, but something I really enjoyed.”

—as told to ITG

The Bronx Defenders photographed by Tom Newton in The Bronx, New York on September 9, 2019