International Woman, International Law

Karla Pascarella interfaces cultures

Published in 2008 Texas Rising Stars Magazine — April 2008

It was an ordinary dinner attended by, among others, two businessmen, one from Mexico and another from the United States. The purpose of their meeting? To avoid any legal disagreements over the American’s factory in Mexico that would manufacture products similar to those of his counterpart’s.

As the negotiations progressed, the American tried to assuage the Mexican, saying, “If your fear is …”

He hadn’t finished the sentence before the Mexican stood up indignantly, shouting, “We’re not afraid of anything.”

At that point, Karla Pascarella, an attorney who’d been sitting in on the dinner stepped in.

“Stop!”

Turning to the American, she said, “Don’t say ‘fear,’ which is too easy to misunderstand.” And to the Mexican, she said, “And don’t misunderstand what he’s saying. By ‘fear,’ he meant only ‘concern.’”

And with that, things quieted down and the negotiations continued amicably.

“Mexico is such a macho culture,” Pascarella, an attorney with San Antonio’s Barton, East & Caldwell, explained over a cup of coffee later. “You don’t ever want to insinuate that someone is afraid of something.”

The anecdote vividly illustrates Pascarella’s uncanny ability, first developed as a child growing up as an outsider in Guatemala City, to see situations from disparate viewpoints, to cut through differences in ethnicity, gender and nationality and negotiate complex legal agreements beneficial to all involved. This ability to speak the language—literally and figuratively—and bridge cultures is a touchstone of a career focused on domestic and international corporate law, business transactions and commercial litigation.

Pascarella has traveled a very long way—both geographically and metaphorically—to get to where she is today. She’s a wife and mother of two children, and a successful attorney with the fast-growing firm where she was recently named partner after joining only last July.

Her beginnings were humble, her future without great promise. Alma, her mother, was only 18 when she gave birth to Karla Yvonne Waleska Rivera Vasquez in 1971. Her father Carlos was not much older. Neither came from privilege.

“In Guatemala there’s the rich and there’s the poor,” she explains. “We were not rich.”

Yet her parents knew education was the only possible escape from poverty and the civil unrest that had roiled the country their entire lives.

They instilled the importance of academics early on. Her father became a veterinarian (“I remember his graduation when I was 4,” she says), her mother worked first for the Guatemalan equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service and later for the National Institute of Cooperatives, teaching weavers, coffee growers and other small-business owners with limited resources how to market their goods domestically and internationally.

Their success bought Pascarella, and, later, her younger sister Lisbeth, a life of relative privilege. The girls attended private schools and were cared for by a succession of maids. Still, there were always kids from wealthier families with bigger homes, drivers and multiple housekeepers. And more than just economics separated her from her classmates. Pascarella estimates that 85 percent of her classmates—all from upper-class families—were of European origin.

“Here I was, this brown girl with dark hair and brown eyes, while most of my classmates were much fairer,” she explains. “I looked like their maid back home. Plus, my mother worked, so there was no one to bring me to their houses if I was invited. So I wasn’t.” Pascarella concentrated on her studies. Her parents enrolled her in English-language immersion classes, where her fellow students were mostly adults, including businessmen working for international corporations. She “absorbed” the language.

She was so fluent she was often enlisted to translate for visiting businessmen. Although she was able to understand the words she was translating, she was too young to comprehend the complex business discussions of those negotiations. She knew only that, afterward, everyone seemed to get along better, that a gap had been bridged.

When she was 8, her father moved to Chicago and, for all intents and purposes, out of her life. It wasn’t until later that Pascarella understood why the marriage failed.

“I look back at two young people who were probably not ready to get married when they did. They grew apart.”

Still, her mother showed surprising resiliency in a country where, and at a time when, single mothers were a rarity. Right away she moved the family from Zone 1 near downtown to Zone 10, a more upscale area of the city.

“It was like she wanted to show everyone, ‘Fine, I’ll do it myself,’” says Pascarella, who was expected to help pull the load, making sure Lisbeth’s homework was done and her clothes laundered. She was even responsible, at as young as 10, for taking the bus downtown to pay the family’s electric bill.

Pascarella says that at the time it all seemed perfectly normal.

“My mother was the oldest of five,” she says, “and her father wasn’t in the picture. She was in charge of things. And since that’s how she grew up, that’s how I grew up.”

Meanwhile, a succession of military governments, right-wing vigilante groups and leftist rebels battled for control of Guatemala. Pascarella’s mother tried to shield her daughters from the grim turmoil. Despite her best efforts, the real world would occasionally spill over into their well-ordered lives.

It wasn’t unusual, while walking to school, to come across the body of someone who’d been beaten and left lying in the street. She also heard of people being threatened or kidnapped or simply disappearing.

One night, well past midnight, the family was awakened by pounding on the door. It was a young man, a friend of the family. He was breathing heavily and sweating profusely and, although only a child, Pascarella was astute enough to understand what was going on.

“We lived only three blocks from the [military outpost],” she says today. “He was obviously running from someone.” Her mother let the young man stay with the family for a day or so, but Pascarella says after that she never saw him again. Although she cannot be certain, she suspects he was one of the thousands of “disappeared,” people who were kidnapped or killed by one of the country’s warring factions.

One day, when Pascarella was 16, her mother announced the family was immigrating to the United States. The girls could only take what would fit in the car.

“I couldn’t take my teddy bear, my pillow. I had to leave my books,” she says. “That was the toughest part.”

After years of taking care of herself and her sister, Pascarella found she had little in common with her new high school classmates in San Antonio. “I wasn’t interested in the things they were interested in—clothes, purses, things like that,” she says.

It wasn’t long after graduating from high school that she married Stephen Pascarella, a divorced father of a 4-year-old girl named Christina. The couple later had a child of their own, Maria.

It was while working as a legal secretary in a small law firm that Pascarella first developed a love of the law, eventually attending and graduating from St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio.

“Later, when I worked as a paralegal at Akin Gump I realized I wanted to practice international law.”

She says she decided to join Barton East after being recruited by C. Cary Barton, considered a “go to” real estate lawyer, and G. Wade Caldwell, whom she calls a “top-notch litigator.”

“We’re not a huge firm, but we have the resources to do really complex stuff,” she says.

Pascarella’s interest in bridging cultural gaps has made her an advocate of free trade and multinational cooperation. She estimates that 50 percent of her clients are from Latin America.

In 2001 she was a member of a delegation of lawyers who worked with the Central American nations to prepare them for the launch of the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

“I’m still a Guatemalan citizen and I want Guatemala to be known for more than just war and poverty,” she says. “I want it to be able to play a role in the larger international community.”

She’s still like the young girl growing up in Guatemala City, translating for businessmen who didn’t speak each other’s language. But this time she understands what everyone’s talking about. 

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