Subscribe

Tiffany Cabán – Queens

Your Hometown
Your Hometown
Tiffany Cabán – Queens
/

Tiffany Cabán captured national headlines when she came within a hair’s breadth of winning the primary for district attorney in her hometown of Queens, New York, in 2019. It was an audacious move: a young, out-of-nowhere candidate running in her home borough against the establishment on a platform calling for major changes to the system. Snatching a moral victory from the jaws of electoral defeat, Tiffany kept speaking out. Two years later, she’s just won a seat on the New York City Council, where she will have a voice in the debate about what kind of hometown New York wants to be.

In this interview, host Kevin Burke talks with Tiffany about her coming-of-age story and what she experienced back there that made her someone who gets up and chooses to march on the front lines, has the skills to organize – and then has the fire in her soul to throw her whole being  into fighting for what she believes in. This is a show about diving down to the first act in the life of a person – in this case, a person who sees something and is moved to do something about it. It’s a search for the people in her life who saw her and did something, and how she learned to stand up for herself and for others.

In a larger sense, it’s also about grace—the kind of mercy and compassionate understanding we find ourselves asking for and being asked to give in our lives—and whether that kind of grace, born of experience, can become the foundation for how we relate to each other.

“I spent a lot of time in my room, actually, and it's like where I picked up my love of reading. I just, I tear, tear through books. Like book after book after book. ”

SHARE THIS EPISODE

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Share on whatsapp

Show Notes

 

Archival:

 
Artwork
Charlotte Yiu
Poem
Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” Part 52, Leaves of Grass (1855)
“I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
“You will hardly know who I am or what I mean, But I shall be good health to you nevertheless, And filter and fibre your blood.
“Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, Missing me one place search another, I stop somewhere waiting for you.”
A special thanks to our partners this season the Museum of the City of New York; our lead funder, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund; and all our financial supporters for their commitment to this series. It’s because of them that we’re able to bring this series to you.
For more, including information on live events, check out our NYC series page at mcny.org/yourhometown-podcast

Tiffany Cabán
Queens, NY

 
Kevin Burke (VO): This episode is part of a special feature series on New York City and is a co-presentation with the Museum of the City of New York, with generous support from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Find us at YourHometown.org or on your favorite podcast app.
 
Tiffany Cabán: I’m so nervous about this, actually.
 
Kevin Burke: Oh, no, no, it’ll be great. You’ll see. It’ll be fun.
 
Tiffany Cabán: I’ve only ever done interviews like this in the context of a campaign, or like some issue, and so clearly there’s like a pivot in connection to this thing that’s the goal. And like, this feels wildly different. So I don’t know what to expect.
 
Kevin Burke (VO): “Where did you grow up?” is a question we’re all asked—a lot. But the answer is never as simple as a place on a map, is it? It’s about the kid inside of us and what happened to them there— before we met the world and the world met us. I’m Kevin Burke, and this is Your Hometown.
 
[Tape] Clip from C-SPAN: Tiffany Cabán at Rally for Bernie Sanders
 
Kevin Burke (VO): Tiffany Cabán caught my attention when she came within a hair’s breath of winning the primary for district attorney of Queens, New York, in 2019. It was an audacious move – a relatively unknown public defender running against the establishment on a platform calling for major changes to the system.
 
Snatching a moral victory from the jaws of an election defeat, Tiffany kept speaking out. And here we are, two years later, and she’s just won a seat on the New York City Council, where she’s going to have a voice in the debate about what kind of hometown New York wants to be at a critical moment in its history.
 
When we sat down for this interview, I wanted to know more about Tiffany’s coming-of-age story, and what she experienced back there that made her someone who gets up and chooses to march on the front lines, has the skills to organize, and then has the fire in her soul to throw her whole being into fighting for what she believes in.
 
This is a show about diving down to the first act in the life of a person— in this case, a person who sees something and is moved to do something about it.
 
It’s a search for the people in her life who saw her and did something. Listen for her big brother especially, as she paints a picture of how she learned to stand up for herself and for others.
 
For me, in a larger sense, it’s also about grace— the kind of mercy and compassionate understanding we find ourselves asking for and being asked to give in our lives— and whether that kind of grace, born of experience, can become the foundation for how we relate to each other. Pay close attention to the characters Tiffany talks about here. They can all teach us something.
 
As nervous as Tiffany said she was when we met, she had a story to tell. It begins in a house on a block in Queens.
 
Tiffany Cabán: I grew up in South Richmond Hill and grew up in a small house on a street across the street from the elementary school that I went to. But actually, before my family moved into that house, we lived— up until I was almost two years old— in an apartment above the store called Happy Days on Liberty Avenue and, like, around 118th Street. And then we moved to this house. It was just a small, one-family house: three bedrooms, two levels. There was, like, an unfinished basement, a little backyard, and the rooms were very small. Like, I mean, I could probably, you know, my wingspan now as an adult was probably like the width of the, of my bedroom. I have good memories from that house, some not so good memories. We always had dogs growing up and that was something that really, really brought a lot of happiness into my world. But it also was a difficult place to be for a very long time
 
Kevin Burke: And just to set the scene a little bit: you’re living with your mom and your dad?
 
Tiffany Cabán: Yeah.
 
Kevin Burke: And how many siblings and where were you in the order of them?
 
Tiffany Cabán: I am the youngest and I have an older brother. His name is Eddie Junior, we grew up calling him Little Eddie, although he is not so little anymore. Like he is a fit, sort of jacked dude with, you know, two grown kids. And he’s six years older than me.
And he, I mean, he was like everything to me growing up. My parents were struggling. We were struggling, my father, I’ve been really open about the fact that my father struggled with substance use disorder and was in and out of rehab and stuff. And so, like my brother, he was a father figure in a lot of ways. He took care of me growing up like he is the person who— I grew up playing sports, so he was the person who bought me my first pair of basketball sneakers and my first mitt and taught me how to play, you know, baseball and really pushed me in a lot of ways. Like, I think when I think about our dynamic in the time that we shared together, he has done maybe more than anyone to shape me into the human being that I am. He was a parent in a lot of ways.
 
Kevin Burke: And he was named for your father, so you had the kind of Eddie Senior and Little Eddie, as you said. And your father, he worked for the Otis Elevator Company?
 
Tiffany Cabán: Yeah.
 
Kevin Burke: And your mom was sort of the neighborhood mom?
 
Tiffany Cabán: Yeah.
 
Kevin Burke: Beatriz?
 
Tiffany Cabán: Yeah, but it was really interesting because there were some… some dynamics there that I think about and reflect on now, as an adult, because I felt like as a child, I struggled sometimes with the idea that my mom was a neighborhood mom. Like my mom was somebody that all the kids could go to. But I remember really struggling with the fact that I felt like she was able to be a parent and open and have these conversations with these other kids. But like I, that wasn’t the nature of our relationship. And like, I didn’t get that.
 
I think there was a lot of me taking care of her and, like, wanting to have the experience that some of my friends were having with her. And I think context around how my mom grew up is important in that, like my mom is… She is a caretaker, like, in every sense of the word. But again, like it has historically been, I think, with other people and she had to be a caretaker when she was growing up. My grandmother and my grandfather had a very volatile relationship. My grandfather also struggled with alcoholism. And when she eventually left him, my mom was one of several kids and she dropped out of high school to like, go to work and help take care of the family because it was the only way that they were going to be able to pay the bills. And I think that growing up with the things that we were struggling with at home, I found myself being like a source of comfort for her. When my dad wasn’t around, we shared the same bed or, you know, when she was sad, I would stay home from school and hang out, like I’d miss school. And that didn’t seem, like, abnormal to me until, I don’t know, I was in junior high school and a teacher pointed out that I missed school a lot and like, ‘What was that about?’
 
Kevin Burke: When you were seven years old, your father had to go to Minnesota to a rehab facility, which is dramatic, and I was wondering if you can go back there and when you tell that story, what are you seeing in your head from your own direct experience of that?
 
Tiffany Cabán: That was really, really hard. And also, I recently learned— because I mean, your memories start at a certain point, right— that that wasn’t the first time that he had gone to inpatient rehab. The first time that he had gone was when I was five months old and I had obviously completely no memory of that. And I have no idea what that must have been like for my mother again, because my mom babysat kids, you know, out of our home. Like there wasn’t a lot of financial stability at that point. And so he went again when I was in elementary school, and I remember being really worried about money for the first time in my life. Like, I remember thinking about how that was going to work or how we were going to make sure we had groceries.
 
But the other thing that really sticks with me and then I think about now as I reflect as an adult, is that while he was gone, his therapist or counselor or whatever the the support was there had asked all of us to write him a letter about what our experience was and how we felt about him and whatever we wanted to say to him and my brother’s, being six years older— I think he was like in middle school at the time— and I remember that his letter
was really angry. He was just really, really angry. And the letter that I wrote was really different than his response. I wrote this letter saying I understood that he was somebody that was struggling with a disease, like a health issue. And I remember being even that young, like, naming that it made me sad and I felt hurt, but that I recognized that he was struggling and that—
 
Kevin Burke: And how do you think you recognized that? I mean, you’re so young at that point, seven years old, what in that little girl and you was able to recognize something that your brother, who was at a different stage of life, six years older, was, you know, mediated in a different way for him?
 
Tiffany Cabán: Oh, I actually have a very, very vivid memory that sticks with me. Before he left for Minnesota, the time in my room, my bed, just to create more space because it was so tiny, was like lofted and there was a space underneath. And right before he left, it was at night and I was in the bed and he thought that I was asleep and he came into my room and my father is somebody who, like— I just turned 33 years old and the number of times my father has ever apologized for anything I, like, I can count on one hand and he is like a man that like doubles down and will, you know, weaponize logic and just talk— he’s one of the most brilliant, smartest people I’ve ever met in my life. And you know, that can also be harmful and do harm. But he came into my room that night and he thought I was asleep and I could tell he was crying, which I had never seen. Like, had never seen. And he said he was really sorry. And that, certainly, that stuck with me as a child.
 
Tiffany Cabán: I didn’t doubt that he loved me, but I also knew that he caused a lot of harm. And he was hurting himself and us. And I’m still kind of actually in awe of being able to hold those realities as a child, but also it permeates everything. When we talk about who I am as an adult, because my work is, like, rooted in that moment, right? Like my entire work is about this idea that there is no such thing as good people and bad people. There are just people. And like, you can have these really great experiences and you can have these really bad ones and they can co-exist and be equally true. And it doesn’t mean that we need to condemn people for it. I still hold a lot of resentment towards my father. I still have a lot of anger there.
 
Kevin Burke: Because you’re complex, too.
 
Tiffany Cabán: Exactly. And it’s like, it’s really, it’s really complicated. But I think from a very young age, I understood that it wasn’t, it wasn’t everything.
 
Kevin Burke: And do you think when your father came in, he knew that you were sleeping and that allowed him to make himself more vulnerable? Or do you think that he hoped you were listening? As you look back on it, what do you think was his intention?
 
Tiffany Cabán: I have no idea. That is a really good question. My father is someone who has been very emotionally closed off. And again, something that was modeled for him. And I knew that there was a lot of hurt in my dad’s life that, like he just was not putting words to or communicating around.
 
Kevin Burke: But you sensed it?
 
Tiffany Cabán: Oh yeah. And there were just so many things we didn’t know. Like, it wasn’t until well into my parents relationship with one another that my mom found out that my dad had a brother that had died.
 
Kevin Burke: Wow. Wow.
 
Tiffany Cabán: I didn’t know that growing up for like a very long time, they just didn’t talk about it. He had a brother who was, you know, hit by a car as a teenager and passed away.
 
Kevin Burke: Wow.
 
Tiffany Cabán: And so like, to not know, to not know these things about a person. It’s reflective of how closely he has held things, but I also think that because of the way that he grew up, the way that he shows love is by providing. One, because he had so little growing up, he worked his ass off to make sure that I went to, ended up going to a private Catholic high school because he felt like I wasn’t going to get the same kind of opportunities at the high school that I was zoned for in Richmond Hill. And I just remember, like, I don’t
remember how he did it. Like, he was obviously struggling and there were nights that he didn’t come home and it was really difficult. And then on top of that, he was working double and triple shifts and—
 
Kevin Burke: And he worked with his hands, right?
 
Tiffany Cabán: Oh yeah. Oh, his body is a mess. Like, a lot of people actually don’t know how physical the job is as an elevator mechanic, but like he’s had ankle replacements, all kinds of surgeries, he’s got pinched nerves like his body is a wreck. Honestly, it felt like the
air and the energy revolved around him and he was like, predictably unpredictable. So there were things that I learned growing up to look out for, to know when I would feel good or safe to move through the house. I spent a lot of time in my room, actually, and it’s like where I picked up my love of reading. I just, I tear, tear through books. Like book after book after book. And then when he wasn’t, you know, when he was at work or when he was out, it was much quieter at home, but also at the same time, depending on what the situation or the environment was. It was also a little bit sad because I could feel the worry.
 
Kevin Burke: When you think about your personal map of the city, where would you say is the safest place on your map?
 
Tiffany Cabán: I mean, it’s not really a place, but I feel really safe like, on my couch, or in my bed with my dog. They are my safe place.
 
Kevin Burke: What of the dogs stand out as the largest figures in your memory and what are their names.
 
Tiffany Cabán: Yeah. Growing up, we had a Siberian Husky. Her name was Bonnie and God, I loved her so much, and we talk about experiencing death for the first time. Quite honestly, the first death that I experienced that really shook me was hers. We were just inseparable, like my first day of kindergarten when my mom walked me across the street or going into the schoolyard. And then all of a sudden people are like hollering and yelling and then my mom, you know, there’s a dog running in the thing and my mom’s like, “Whose dog is that?” and the dog gets closer and it’s our dog. Like, she had jumped our six-foot fence to, like, run after me into the schoolyard. She’s the reason why I have the scar on my head that I’ve had since I was very young. And I remember, I mean, she lived to be 12 or 13 years old. So I was 13, 14 when she died, but again, another source of comfort and stability. Like, I love that dog so, so much.
 
Kevin Burke: Where would you say looking back was the loneliest place on your map?
 
Tiffany Cabán: Honestly, the house I grew up in. I did a lot of intentionally avoiding interaction. So it was pretty lonely.
 
Kevin Burke: And then where would you say was the most haunted place for you?
 
Tiffany Cabán: The kitchen.
 
Kevin Burke: And why the kitchen?
 
Tiffany Cabán: A lot of different things. When I think of kitchen now, I love it because it it just it feels so warm and nourishing, and I love to share my kitchen with someone. I love cooking with someone. But my kitchen growing up felt very cold and it was like a get in and get out. And usually we didn’t even eat together. So like somebody would be in the living room eating by, you know, I’d be by myself. And then the other thing is the fridge. To this day I… to this day, I have a physical reaction to seeing a bottle of Heineken because it was my dad’s beer of choice, that green bottle. And it’s just like, if there is one thing that I immediately feel just all kinds of anxiety and heaviness in my body is seeing a Heineken pulled out of that fridge. It just for me, it was like the marker or the, you know, the thing that I looked for. That’s, you know, the kitchen is where the beer lives. And so the kitchen is— my childhood, the kitchen I grew up in is probably the most haunting place for me.
 
 
I spent a lot of time, actually not just in Richmond Hill, but in Woodside, because my grandmother lived in the Woodside Houses and she was a foster mother and ended up adopting two kids. So I have an aunt and uncle that are around my age. One of my uncles is a year older than me, and my aunt is three years younger than me, so they were like my best friends growing up. I mean, that was like a second home. It was just the norm. And probably some of my best memories are from there.
 
Kevin Burke: How was a weekend there different? How are those different experiences and how— and those are two different corners of queens, which is interesting.
 
Tiffany Cabán: Oh yeah. So different. I mean, one by me. There was like the public school right across the street, but there wasn’t anything in the schoolyard and I wasn’t really allowed to, like, stray much further until I was older. Like when I got, you know, into junior high school, then maybe I was allowed to go to the park on 106th Street. It was like, you know, a 10 minute walk away or whatever. But in the projects, you know, they were like some playgrounds in the middle. And so we got to do those things. And also, a lot of it felt like a treat. Like the thing that I looked forward to is right next to the houses there is, it’s still there, is a very big McDonald’s and like, that was the treat that we would go to the McDonald’s. It’s like right off the Northern Boulevard right there and we’d hang out there for like hours. Or we’d play. And there were the games of the houses that I didn’t play when I was at home. So like, we would go out in front of the building and we would all play like Skelley Top.
 
Kevin Burke: What’s that?
 
Tiffany Cabán: It’s like, you take the top of a milk container, that little plastic round top and you fill it with clay and there’s like a board that you put on the sidewalk and you kind of like, flick these tops across to score points. So we would play that and we’d play stoop ball and we’d all compare the tops we made with the different, with the different clay. And um, and also it’s where I learned to love baseball. I kill at fantasy baseball. I’m so good. I like, I just, I am, like, into the weeds. I love baseball. But my grandmother was a huge baseball fan. She was a huge Bernie Williams fan because Puerto Rico.
 
Kevin Burke: And coming from the Bronx, they lived in the Bronx.
 
Tiffany Cabán: Yup.
 
 
Kevin Burke: I was thinking, “Was it Mets because of Queens?” But no, they brought the Yankees with them and they had a connection to them.
 
Tiffany Cabán: Yeah, we were all Yankees fans, something I had to avoid on the campaign trail. They’d be like, “Are you a Mets fan?” And I was like, “Well, I used to bartend at Citi Field,” Like, not answer the question.
 
Kevin Burke: Right, right.
 
Tiffany Cabán: But yeah, we would sit for hours watching baseball, something I loved
 
Kevin Burke: Regular season games?
 
Tiffany Cabán: Regular season games. First pitch to last pitch. Like, just and til this day, I, when I watch baseball, I think of her. But also, I also think about the fact that, like she is one of the few people that I know that will watch a game like I will.
 
[Tape] Clip from MLB: “Bernie Williams singles in 11th for 4-3 walk-off win”
 
Kevin Burke: You’ve described yourself growing up as being a sort of a tomboy, which we’ve started hearing a little bit today. How did that manifest itself in the places where you grew up?
 
Tiffany Cabán: I also think the language is so interesting, right? Like, we don’t even say that or use that term anymore. And I think about what it meant then. Yeah. And I think about the more obvious things of being like. And again, this is sort of reductive because it’s not the truth for everyone. But I’m like, “Man, you didn’t realize you were gay sooner?” But I also think a lot of it had to do with I was really closed off emotionally and again. That came from a place of, I think, survival mode as a child. I always, always hung out with the boys. One, was because I was with my brother a lot and he loved sports. My brother’s very athletic and he would take me out. And I also got very good because my brother was, he was like, “You want to come out and play with us, you’re going to play with us. We’re not taking it easy on you. You’re not like you either hang or you don’t hang,” you know? And so I played with him and his friends a lot. But even at school, like I just wasn’t into any of the the like, quote unquote “girly” things I remember, it must have broken my mother’s heart because I have all of these pictures of me when I’m really, really small, leading up through kindergarten and that’s when it stopped where my mom just like, got so much joy out of dressing me. I would have these dresses and these hats that would match. And it just all stopped like, all at once.
 
Kevin Burke: Once you got to define yourself.
 
Tiffany Cabán: Oh yeah. And it was like it by the first grade, I was like, I’m not. I refused to wear any of it and like my mom still had, like, somewhat of an influence on, like, the clothes I was wearing and stuff like that. But I remember, interestingly enough, that there was a point where I wanted to wear the things that my brother wore. And so when my brother, when, when they were in, you know, when my brother was wearing, like, wide legged pants, like I wanted to wear them, too.
 
Kevin Burke: And it would have been so easy for him just to kind of dismiss you as his, you know, little sister. And, “I’m too busy. I’ve got my friends, I’ve got my life.” He didn’t do that.
 
Tiffany Cabán: He’s incredible. He is a father now. He has a daughter that’s in her early 20s and another teenage daughter, Savannah and Isabella. And like, I just continue to stay in awe of how good of a father he is, like he is just so invested in his children.
 
Kevin Burke: It sounds like he learned that from being your brother.
 
Tiffany Cabán: I think so. You know. I think so. I think he worked really, really hard to take care of me and felt invested in who I grew into being.
 
Kevin Burke: Do you remember a time when you first stood up for someone that you thought was being treated unfairly and you felt something inside of you saying, “That’s not right and I am going to do something about it?”
 
Tiffany Cabán: I feel like it was definitely a pattern in my life from a young age, and also I think it is connected to the fact that I didn’t feel like I could advocate for myself as a child, like in my home, right? Like I didn’t feel like I could speak up when I felt wronged or if my father was drunk or, like if there was an argument or disagreement, like he was very imposing, like it was his way or nothing. It was sort of like, you got shut down, right? I like, continued to have or it had internalized this feeling of like, desperately needing to feel heard and understood in a way that I wasn’t being. And I think that I identified with that and, like, was acutely aware of situations where that was happening. You know, I felt like things didn’t really work so much for me in high school. There weren’t systems that were meant for me in some ways and being vocal about how, like, there were accommodations that, like some of us needed that we didn’t get or have access to.
 
Kevin Burke: What was an example of that in high school?
 
Tiffany Cabán: It took a really long time to get to school because I lived so far away and I wasn’t being driven. A lot of the kids were either being driven or didn’t live as far or had their cars.
 
Kevin Burke: So we’re talking about high school, St. Francis Prep.
 
Tiffany Cabán: Yeah,
 
Kevin Burke: Which is in Flushing Meadows?
 
Tiffany Cabán: Fresh Meadows.
 
Kevin Burke: Fresh meadows.
 
Tiffany Cabán: Yeah.
 
Kevin Burke: And you’re in South Richmond Hill?
 
Tiffany Cabán: Yeah. So it took me about an hour and some folks—
 
Kevin Burke: Wow.
 
Tiffany Cabán: yeah,
 
Kevin Burke: That’s a big commute.
 
Tiffany Cabán: It just felt harder to navigate some of these systems knowing that I felt like I need to play a little bit of catch up in terms of classwork and coursework, and so I was taking extra classes and trying to do as many AP stuff as possible and like starting my days earlier and then going to practices afterwards and they were just really, it was a really grueling schedule. I was struggling because I have another cousin who’s younger than me. Besides my uncle and my closest family members or my cousins on my dad’s side, my dad’s brother and his kids, Ernie and Shelby and Shelby’s younger than me. She’s six years younger than me, Ernie’s three years younger than me. At one point when she was getting a little older. She entered the hospital. She had grown up with what they thought was asthma and when she was 12, they actually found out that they misdiagnosed her and she never had asthma, what she had was a heart defect. She had restrictive cardiomyopathy. So she needed a heart transplant.
 
Kevin Burke: Wow.
 
Tiffany Cabán: She was in the hospital for three months. She was at Columbia Pres, across town from where we are now.
 
Kevin Burke: Where my daughter was born. And son.
 
Tiffany Cabán: Yeah, yeah. And she was there for three months waiting for a heart. I was going all the time. I was going there like, I would go to school and come home, drop my stuff off and get on the A train and literally it was end to end. It was like one, literally one end of the A train all the way up to the other. You know, when she found out that she needed a heart, I was the person they asked to be in the room with her when the doctor told her this. Like, I remember her sitting on my lap and holding her hand and it was— I didn’t think about it that way. But when I think about it now, it was like, it’s a really big responsibility to hold. But I was struggling in school. I was tired.
 
Kevin Burke: Of course.
 
Tiffany Cabán: My blood pressure was up. Like, I had developed high blood pressure and I couldn’t connect a lot of these things. But I just remember really, really struggling and kind of getting called out on it and having to sit down and have a conversation and saying like, I need, I need some grace. Like, I need some, some patience and some support.
 
I have these moments of looking back and like being a little bit in awe of my child self. I just remember being like, I need you to understand that this is where I have to be. This is where I want to be. This is what I’m going to prioritize.
 
Kevin Burke: I was thinking about, also, the Tiffany in your bedroom and or on that long commute. And what were you dreaming about when you thought about your future at that time? Do you remember?
 
Tiffany Cabán: Honestly, I wanted to leave home. I wanted to experience things outside of my home, and especially when I got to high school is I also think when I probably became politicized, really, when I think about it, because what I associated with home was a lot of instability and I felt like we were constantly in crisis, no matter what it might have been. I mean, it felt a lot of pressure to do well in school just because I knew that my father was working very hard to make sure I could go to the school. The high school I was zoned for, Richmond Hill High, at the time, they were running split sessions, you weren’t in school all day. The graduation rates were pretty low and like that was the extent to which they understood and what they measured the quality of the education to be like. And, but then it was really on me to figure out what does that mean and where do I go now? And like, what I understood was, well, you could take the test for the specialized high schools or you could take the test for the Catholic high schools. And so I did both. And because I didn’t, I didn’t know any better and I was again navigating this by myself. I had actually ended up getting into Brooklyn Tech—
 
Kevin Burke: Great school, elite school in Brooklyn.
 
Tiffany Cabán: Yeah. And like, but I didn’t, my parents didn’t really understand those things. I didn’t understand those things. But I knew some folks that were going to the Catholic high schools, and I knew that they had good strong sports programs and like that was just so much of what I wanted to be doing.
 
Kevin Burke: Right.
 
Tiffany Cabán: And I knew that 99 percent of the kids that go to one of these schools goes to college and that was enough for me.
 
Kevin Burke: That was your goal.
 
Tiffany Cabán: Yeah.
 
Kevin Burke: So in other words, I had to do this to get that.
 
Tiffany Cabán: Yes.
 
Kevin Burke: I understand, it must’ve been your first week of school when 9/11 happened, I’m thinking.
 
Tiffany Cabán: Yeah, oh god—I wasn’t in school that day. We were, my dad’s mother had passed away. And it was the date of her funeral.
 
Kevin Burke: Oh my goodness.
 
Tiffany Cabán: And we were trying to get to her, you know, to bury her. And we had to turn back around because we couldn’t get over the bridge.
 
[Tape] Clip from 1010 WINS AM coverage of September 11, 2021 via Youtube
 
Tiffany Cabán: I just, I have this memory of we were, you know, we rented a limo or whatever like our family was in the car. And I remember going back to the funeral home and being in the funeral home and there was like a TV there and like watching what was happening.
 
Kevin Burke: That’s unbelievable. And it’s also your beginning of high school.
 
Tiffany Cabán: Yeah, freshman year.
 
Kevin Burke: So how did the city to you or the environments around you feel different after that?
 
Tiffany Cabán: You know, there’s a combination of feeling like you’re in a little bit of a bubble, but then also at the same time, not. I went to an overwhelmingly white high school. My neighborhood was not white, like even just my block was, like, insanely diverse, which was a culture shock when I got to high school, obviously.
 
Kevin Burke: Yeah.
 
Tiffany Cabán: But I experienced it differently and thought differently about what, the world, what was happening in the world than my classmates because I went home to brown people, you know, who in very real ways were being actively discriminated against. And it being really, super broad, right? Like, we’re not talking about just Muslim families, but anybody that looked like remotely like they could be Muslim. So the views around what our country’s response were, I experienced very differently than other folks because I knew what over-policing and over-surveillance looked like in my community and in my grandmother’s community, for example. And so all of those things were scary to me, whereas like in their experience, you know, if I had friends that grew up in Whitestone and Bayside and some of these other places were like, you don’t see police officers very often. It’s so different thinking that like, these are things that were going to keep them safe and me just having a lot of discomfort and fear around it.
 
Kevin Burke: What were some of the other ways that entering St. Francis Prep changed the game for you and kind of how you adjusted to this new reality?
 
Tiffany Cabán: I think it affirmed a lot of things that I already knew and put them in, and I was able to experience them through a different context or a different lens. But like all, all part of the same understanding. How we label people good or bad, or deal with behaviors is very different based on where you were. And it wasn’t that these kids were all that different, but the responses to their behaviors were very different. You know, I had this really good friend, two of these friends, Carmelo and Washington, and they were like, very cool kids, but they were also always getting in trouble. And I remember for a while they were both on supervision. And it was for like, stupid kid shit, you know? And then what that meant for like how their life progressed and the things that they struggled with. And, you know, at my school, at St. Francis Prep, you would see people doing really dumb things like fighting or smoking. You know, they would get caught with marijuana and like, yeah, there would be some discipline, but like, it wasn’t the same thing. A police officer wasn’t going to get called. There wasn’t an arrest that was going to happen. They weren’t going to get suspended for an extended period of time. And then I just also thought about the other things that were available to us like even— I actually have never have never even told my parents this, but thinking about like resources and the level of stress and how that affects just everything about your day and the way that you function was like, I used to hoard my my lunch. I didn’t have I didn’t have it in me to tell my parents that, like the two or three bucks that I was getting for lunch wasn’t enough for lunch. And so, like most days, I wouldn’t buy lunch. And then like after a couple of days, I would buy lunch.
 
Kevin Burke: That’s a long school day not to eat lunch.
 
Tiffany Cabán: Or like, I would just buy a side which would maybe like, get me—
 
Kevin Burke: And you’re playing sports. That’s tough.
 
Tiffany Cabán: Yeah. Well, so and actually playing sports was a little bit of a saving grace because I was on the softball team and my coach was a biology teacher at the school, and she would basically leave like this basket of snacks in the office behind the biolab. And I would just eat all day. But like, I wasn’t food insecure in that way by any means, but I felt enough pressure around the resources that were being put into me being able to go to school, that I did not feel like I could ask for more, and I didn’t want to ask.
 
Kevin Burke: Where on your map is the happiest place for you? Again, when you think about growing up, where’s the happiest place on that map for you?
 
Tiffany Cabán: Ooh. The softball field.
 
Kevin Burke: And which softball field do you feel like is that one that you most want to go to in your mind when you’re looking for that feeling?
 
Tiffany Cabán: Cunningham Park. It’s where I played high school softball and I just felt so free and easy and powerful and every— Nothing like, I overthink everything, I just over analyze everything, but everything about a sport, there’s no thinking. To a degree, right? Obviously, there’s a lot of things that you’re mapping out when you’re playing softball or baseball, but like just the freeness and the fluidity and just trusting my body and not having to think about it and performing and being really good and confident and part of a community and a team. And I never felt as good and as comfortable and as free and as, like, joy-filled as I did growing up playing softball.
 
Kevin Burke: And in high school, thinking about the scene at St. Francis Prep, were people out or generally—
 
Tiffany Cabán: No, I mean, they were like maybe two people that were out. And they were boys. I don’t even remember there being girls that were out. And it was something like people didn’t really talk about, you know, I didn’t really have any romantic relationships really in high school until, until probably my junior year. I like I was, I had my first kiss in kindergarten.
 
Kevin Burke: Really? [laughs]
 
Tiffany Cabán: His name was John. He was assigned to hold my hand in line in kindergarten and that was my first kiss. And then I didn’t have another kiss until I was in the eighth grade, and it was like a dare with one of my friends. I don’t know, I don’t know if you call it being a late bloomer or what, but like I didn’t really have much of that kind of experience, I don’t know. It sounds kind of stupid, but like I was focused on a lot of different goals, a lot of it having to do with like finishing school like, you know, having goals around what I was doing with sports and being able to leave. It didn’t feel good to be sharing space with my family for long periods of time. Like I needed that, I needed that space. I needed to be able to interact the way I wanted to interact.
 
Kevin Burke (VO): And she did get that space, because after high school, she would end up going to college at Penn State, where she said it was the first time in her life that she felt truly at home. But as much as Tiffany loved living in a big college town, a combination of things soon led her back to New York. Law School in Manhattan was calling to her, but she still had to get through a few things first, including where she was going to live.
 
Tiffany Cabán: I finished college a semester early. I had the credits and I was like, There’s no way, I can’t justify staying here, the semester is fucking expensive, and my plan was to stay out there for an extra semester. But I, right before I finished, I blew out my knee. I tore my ACL and my PCL and so I went back home to have surgery and physical therapy and I was in my parents house again for the first time in a very long time and that did not feel good. And then during that time, I had like, the nine months before I was starting law school and my dad had relapsed and was drinking again, and it was a really difficult time for me. You know, I got to a place where I couldn’t stay. He was struggling again and I left. I moved in with a classmate and we ended up actually living there for a little bit, but then we dated for a few years.
 
Kevin Burke: And set the scene. Your parents are still in South Richmond Hill law schools downtown in Manhattan. It’s your law school. Right? So for people who think of New York, just it’s all New York. These are different. Yeah, these are different towns. Yeah, in the same town.
 
Tiffany Cabán: Yeah, I hated law school. But there were so many important things about what my experience was. It is when I met my first girlfriend. She had recently separated from her wife and was living with a friend, and they had an extra bedroom. And she had heard that I was struggling a little bit and we had had a conversation. And like, just without even thinking about it, she was like, “Well, just come and move in with me. I know this like I had to leave her relationship basically overnight, and I will forever be grateful for the fact that, like, I have this friend here who opened up her home to me. So like, you have that.” Yeah. And we got really, really close. And I remember realizing that I had feelings for her and I didn’t feel self-conscious around it at all. But I think I had a lot to do with the community I’d already built around me. And also being in the city is different. I never feel more powerful and whole than when I get to like, walk as a brown woman in a room holding your hand as another brown woman and like, I derive so much strength from that. It feels like diving into a pool of like, cool fresh water. It is you’re so light and you’re so free and like your skin is buzzing and cool and light and you, you’re, you move with just such ease. In a way that like when you, you know, like when you get out of a pool, your senses are like that much more heightened, or when you first dive in. Well, when you get, like when you get out of it, you sort of realize a little bit how constricted you are. And this is from somebody that, like, I love, my love language is touch like when I am with someone, I you know it because I’m holding their hand. I’m physically close with them. And even so, there is something that changes about the way that you move and your awareness around your surroundings.
 
Kevin Burke: When I looked at the years that you were in law school, I was thinking about the fact that you were there really as the Great Recession was coming down and you’re in school, which is scary. When you’re a law school student, you’re thinking about loans, you’re thinking about how I’m going to pay them off. You’re seeing people struggle with those choices. What career options they’re going to have. But you, when you graduate, you go towards public defense. Right? So tell me about that and how you came to that decision to use your law degree and your education that way.
 
Tiffany Cabán: Yeah, it’s wild that when you go into law school, and I think it says a lot about who gets hired to teach and who rises to certain positions, they try to convince you that actually what you want to be as a prosecutor, which I had like, thought through and considered a great deal and actually ended up not by choice but doing an internship, the recourse in the Queens DA’s office.
 
Kevin Burke: Oh, you did.
 
Tiffany Cabán: Oh yeah. By the end of the internship, though, they were like, “Your work was great, but like, I guess I’ll see you on the other side of the aisle.” [laughs] It was very clear where I was going to land. Because I think it was a few things. A lot of the things that we’ve talked about in terms of just this really, really deep desire to help people in really hard and traumatic times. I think, like I said, I’m an athlete, and if there’s anything that recreates some of that, it is a trial.
 
Kevin Burke: Yeah.
 
Tiffany Cabán: Like, there’s nothing like it. It is, one, it’s beautiful, creative. It is a performance. It is storytelling. And then there’s then there’s the part that doesn’t happen in front of the jury so much. But like even the legal argument aspect of like, we are sparring, you’re going to give your arguments, I’m going to give mine, I am going to outwork you. I am going to out argue you. And there’s something like, really, really exhilarating in that and that’s always been something that has driven me. I like to win.
 
Kevin Burke: [laughs]
 
Tiffany Cabán: And, but I like to be on the right side of things and win that way. And we lost more often than we won, and obviously because the system is set up that way. But it was an appealing thing. And like, yes, the law was interesting. And I enjoyed, like, the very sort of academic aspect of it, but more important, like more important than I enjoyed the connection, like the relationship with my client and their families and telling their stories and just trying to get a good outcome.
 
Kevin Burke: What were you able to draw on from your childhood that, when you saw those folders on your desk or your drawer that said, this is not just a folder to me.
 
Tiffany Cabán: You know, it felt personal to me. The cases are high, but they were low in comparison when I was coming up. So like, you know, when I first started the case, loads were around 100 cases at any given time and that was low for the folks that had been there five years before me. And then when I left, my caseload was sitting more comfortably at, you know, around 60, 70, 80, somewhere, you know, somewhere within that range at any given, at any given time.
 
Kevin Burke: Think about that. An average school classroom’s thirty students. So you’re talking around 90, 100 cases, that’s three classrooms you’re worrying about. That’s incredible.
 
Tiffany Cabán: Well, and also think about how much time you get to give each client’s case in a work week, right? Like, I mean, we worked well over 40 hours a week, but even if you say we work, you know, 60 hours, 70 hours a week divide up between 80 clients and like, what kind of representation can you give them? It is a really hard thing that I struggled with. It pulls a lot out of you. I think that’s why there’s such high burnout because it feels so personal. I mean, these are people’s lives. I had a case, and this is a case I will never, ever forget. He was a mandatory persistent meaning that he had two prior violent felony convictions. And so this was his third. But he, so he was facing life, basically, New York has something similar to, like, a three strikes rule. So he was facing 16 to life. And his prior two convictions had come when he was a lot younger. He was in his 40s at this point, he’d gotten the first two when he was young. He had spent a significant amount of time in prison and had been out for a while. But certainly when he went in, he was a child, you know, and he was arrested for possessing a gun. He wasn’t accused of using it or pulling out or anything like that. But he had a gun on him when he was arrested and possession of a gun is a violent felony. And like, I mean, some video like it’s just they’re sitting like, there’s no way we were going to lose this case, but we were begging for a deal, something that got him out of prison. You know, in a certain amount, we were like a double digit flat, like just give him something that he knows he’s going to get out. And still be able to have some sort of life. And they were like, “No, no, no, no. You’re going to go to trial,” and like, this is I mean, we were going to lose. Like we had a Hail Mary defense. If you are in the public defense world, when we say the fence we’re going with is temporary, lawful possession, you know that it’s just like, we’re just we’re just to see if it sticks. Like, we’re fucked. But there’s a lot that goes into prepping a case for trial. And one of the things that I did in preparation for this case was I listened to all of his jail calls because if they’re not with me or his other attorney, they’re recorded. Almost every single one started with him talking to his like two year old son. And this man had clearly made mistakes in his life, but the amount of love in those exchanges, like he loved that little boy and that and that kid like, adored him, adored him. And all I could think about after that trial was that that little boy was not going to have a father for the rest of his life. And what that meant for him and also what that meant for his chances of touching the system because statistically speaking, it made him that much more likely to be justice involved.
 
Kevin Burke: Yeah.
 
Tiffany Cabán: And just thinking that like, how is that justice? How is that repaired? Like it. Just it served no one. The most infuriating thing about this entire thing, too, is that like we begged, we begged. We begged for a deal in this case. And there’s another thing that happens after a trial, and it’s like this exchange that you have with the judge. Judge calls both of you up, you know, tells you both did a good job and you talk about it a little bit. And the judge had said something to me like, “You know, I’m really sorry. I don’t think that this was a case where he deserved a life sentence, but you know, here, like, here we are,” which it, I mean, that’s the truth. A lot of people don’t know that there are lots of things that judges can do, but there are lots of things that judges can’t. And the person that was really in control in that process was the prosecutor. Only the prosecutor could make him an offer less than what he was charged.
 
Kevin Burke: So much discretion.
 
Tiffany Cabán: And the prosecutor, he turns and he goes, “Yeah, I mean, you’re right. He’s I don’t think that he’s a bad guy, and I don’t think that he should be spending the rest of his life in prison.” And it took all of my self-control to not say anything in this moment because I was like, Honestly, fuck you, you were the one person in the room that could have ensured that this man got to go home at some point in his life. It— There are very few moments in my life where I feel like I have felt sort of true hatred and I felt it.
 
Kevin Burke: It’s also what I’m, what I’m hearing you and the feeling in the story you’re telling. It’s hard not to go back to that part of our conversation early on when you were describing being in your bed, the night your dad came in and before he was going to rehab, says crying that he loved you. And despite all of this is not true. It’s not romanticizing that moment at all. It’s a very clear moment, an honest moment. But it sounds like that when you tell that story and you told this story, they seem connected in some way and they’re connected in you.
 
Tiffany Cabán: I wanted to be, people to be seen as human beings that loved and were loved and the system certainly didn’t treat them that way. And I just had this very, very deep desire to do what I could to keep families together.
 
Kevin Burke (VO): As I mentioned, Tiffany took that desire into the arena, where she came within a few votes of clinching the nomination for DA, the top prosecutor job in Queens. Although she fell short, the movement she was part of continued. And this year, she ran for a seat on the New York City Council— and won. Now she’ll be making her case for change at City Hall – not too far from the courtrooms where she worked as a public defender. Before we ended our conversation, I wanted to see if putting herself out there as a candidate whose mission is to keep families together, changed her relationship with her family. She started with her brother, who stepped out to get the crowd going on her first election night, in 2019.
 
[Tape] Clip from audience footage of 2019 Tiffany Cabán campaign election party via @Samynemir on Twitter
 
Tiffany Cabán: After the place started clearing out and I had been holed away in this other room because I just couldn’t be in that big room with all these people while the returns were coming in and I remember standing by this door that was like by like sort of close enough to the stage where I could hear him just impromptu, like impromptu give a speech, which he was really good for, like like he my brother is— I guess that was also the point I wanted to make earlier to is like my brother’s vastly different in that way and my father, my brother’s like in his feels. Like, he is an emotional dude. You know, like he’s the one that at my sweet 16, he gave the speech and was crying like at whatever the milestone was, he would give this like, really heartfelt speech that was something I didn’t experience from my father. And I’m so curious where he gets that from because it wasn’t modeled for him, not at least for my father. And I think that that’s really, really interesting. But that night he gave another one of those speeches and afterwards when I spoke to him he… he cried, and he said that he had, like, recorded my speech that I gave at the end of the night because. He wanted to be able to show it to his daughters.
 
Kevin Burke: Wow.
 
Tiffany Cabán: And that felt so important and powerful to me, because one, they are just incredibly important to me, I love them to death and I want to see them— like I want my nieces to be these like fucking really strong, bad ass, you know, intersectional feminists. Like, I just, I want them to be, I need them to be. But for me, it was like a full circle moment in the sense that here he was saying that he was so proud that they got to see and experience me in that way and he wanted them to. And all I kept thinking about was the fact that, like one, they get it anyway, because so much of that, I think, came from him. And I’m just super, super grateful for that.
 
Kevin Burke: I know your relationship with your mom and dad is somewhat more formal, you said. But did you get a sense from them what it was like to be in their shoes to watch their daughter, given your history as a family and what your own intimate story is, to see you out there telling your story, speaking your truth and representing what you were representing from the vantage point of knowing you as this little girl.
 
Tiffany Cabán: Yeah. They were so proud. [laughs] My dad went out and it was like the most embarrassing dad thing to do, but I had my campaign poster and he blew it up into this like, you know, 20-foot high thing that was just sitting on our lawn. And it was also the it was very cool to see them go out and canvas and talk to people now like they had never been engaged in electoral politics and certainly not primaries and things like that. But they were very, very proud. And I think it’s also changed the nature of my relationship with my father. There were a couple of things leading up to that that had kind of shifted our relationship some in ways that I’m really, really grateful for. I think that for a long time, I’m a child. I was a child in his eyes and there was, not that long before I ran, my father got into a pretty bad accident that was, I think, very scary for him. He was on a motorized scooter and he got hit by a car and he had a really scary head injury. And he, you know, had some broken bones and stuff, he was in the hospital for a bit. But he was, I think, very scared and felt vulnerable in a way that he had never felt and he felt like he didn’t have control. And in that situation, I ended up being the person who kind of took control. And I think that my father saw that and experienced that and experienced me in a different way that kind of shifted his lens a little bit, and there was just a deeper, I think, respect there.
 
Kevin Burke: And I’m wondering also in your adult, new phase of your relationship or, and kind of what you talk about, have you ever gone back and told him that you heard him that night in your room when you were seven? Have you ever told him I heard you? know,
 
Tiffany Cabán: No. And I shared that with a couple of people, but I have never told him or my mother that.
 
Kevin Burke: Because I feel like that’s such a key.
 
Tiffany Cabán: Yeah.
 
Kevin Burke: You know, it’s clearly formative for you. And I wonder what it would mean to him to know that.
 
Tiffany Cabán: I mean, we’re going to find out.
 
Kevin Burke: We’re going to find out. To me, all the stories you told about him and his complexity that stands out because it was a moment where you saw him vulnerable.
 
Tiffany Cabán: Yeah. I also think that my father is aware of the ways in which he harmed. And so I think that being able to see me do the work that I’m doing and having the impact that I’m having is maybe a little reparative for him to be like I did, I did all right in some respects. And that here is this human that, you know, I raised and came out of my home doing these really good things, and I’m glad, I’m glad that they get to have that experience. I think it’s important for me to have it too, but I am really glad that they do. Because again, I will be the first person going back to like my seven-year-old self to acknowledge that so many things exist at once, and I am who I am and think about things the way that I do because of my experiences with my family. And I also understand that like, there can be hurt and harm, but there is so much good there, too.
 
Kevin Burke: I end every interview by going back to my favorite poet was Walt Whitman. OK, Ultimate New Yorker, right? And in his lithographs, which he wrote in New York in 1855, there’s the long poem Song of Myself. And in it, he writes these lines, and then I’ll ask you a question based on them.
 
So Walt Whitman in Song of Myself says:
 
“I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
 
“You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
 
“Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.”
 
And I was asking, going to ask you, thinking about your coming of age years in New York and what you brought to New York since then as an attorney, as a person in our public conversation, if someone 50, 100, 200 years from now comes across the name Tiffany Cabán and wants to know you and to see you and to look for you in New York, your New York, where should they go to find you?
 
Tiffany Cabán: It’s so interesting because I almost think of like, different parts of self, and I don’t know, I know what parts of myself are most important to me and most of value to me. I also know that there are different parts of myself that other people find value in and we weigh them quite differently. If they want to find me, “the advocate,” interestingly it’s not in the courthouse, but on the streets. But if they want to find, like me, the person, the most intimate part of myself, it is probably in the corner of a bookstore. I also really, really appreciate my solitude and the ability to be introspective and what books bring and allow and the safety in them. I’ve always equated them with safety because they are where I was drawn to when I felt the least safe. But they’re also without like, leaving a lot of the places I was in, they’re also how I experienced different emotions in different worlds and ideas. They want to find me in the corner of a bookstore, I can spend hours.
 
Kevin Burke: Beautiful. Tiffany Cabán, thank you so much for bringing me to your hometown. It’s been really great.
 
Tiffany Cabán:Thank you.
 
Kevin Burke: I really appreciate it.
 
Kevin Burke (VO): Thank you for listening to Your Hometown, where the local is the epic.
 
This is a Kevin Burke Production. Visit YourHometown.org to subscribe to the podcast and our various social media channels. And wherever you’re listening, please drop us a review. Every star helps.
 
For information on live events that we do around the show, visit our New York City series page on The Museum of the City of New York’s website at mcny.org/your hometown- podcast.
 
Now, let me thank the team that works with me on Your Hometown, beginning with our executive producer, Robert Krulwich, our editor and sound designer Otis Streeter, our composer-performer Sterling Steffen, and our researchers Shakila Khan and Janmaris Perez. I also want to thank Tunshore Longe, Nick Gregg, and Charlotte Yiu for the vivid illustrations have given our show another dimension. Our social media manager is Mackela Watkins, and our website and branding design is by Tama Creative.
 
A special thanks to our partners this season: the Museum of the City of New York; our lead funder, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund; and all our financial supporters for their commitment to this series. It’s because of them that we’re able to bring this series to you.
Thanks so much for taking this ride with me. And, remember – everyone’s from someplace, and everywhere is somewhere.
 
###

Series one

New York City

Local engagement is vital to the mission of Your Hometown, with the series aspiring to visit a variety of iconic cities and towns for a deeper dive on each place as a hometown. This model is being launched through a first-season focus on New York City, and is a co-presentation with the Museum of the City of New York. Many think of New York as a place where people move to in order to realize their dreams, but it is critical to remember that it is also a place where young people grow up – a series of hometowns within the larger metropolis that shape rising generations through the day-to-day texture and details of family, neighborhoods, schools, and boroughs that will become the origin stories of their lives, creativity, work, and contributions to society as a whole. That is the New York this series seeks to illuminate and reveal.

© Museum of the City of New York, 2021