Faces of the International Marketplace: Meet Fatima Tiana Johnson

Fatima T. Johnson was born in 1979 in Brooklyn, New York, and grew up in Williamsburg, Va., with her Panamanian mother and grandmother. She was exposed to diverse cultures from birth, but not just because she lived in New York City.

While the entire family eventually wound up in Panama, Fatima’s great-grandparents hail from Jamaica, Trinidad and St. Lucia. Due to the construction of a major railroad in Panama and then construction of the Panama Canal itself, Panama is a diverse mix of backgrounds.

“In Panama, there’s less focus on race. It’s more like, ‘Oh, what country are you from?’” said Fatima.

When Fatima’s mother was about 10 years old, she and her parents moved to the United States and put down roots in Williamsburg in the 1960s. Fatima’s mother was quick to try to assimilate.

“My grandmother told me that my mother quickly did not want to speak Spanish anymore,” said Fatima. Still, she raised Fatima in something of a cultural bubble.

“She made it clear that the United States was outside of the house and it was wherever she wanted it to be inside the house,” Fatima said of her mother.

From an early age, Fatima was aware of her cultural differences, even in diverse New York. She found herself sometimes having to navigate the tricky waters of being both black and Latina.

“There’s a lot of code-switching that goes on,” she explained. “Mainstream is one thing and you have to speak a certain way. Then with my father’s side of the family, it’s one type of dynamic, they’re African-American. My mother’s side of the family is totally different. Sometimes you forget what language you’re speaking. You really have to check yourself and at all times be aware of where you are and who you’re speaking to and be ready to make that switch.”

That awareness became even more apparent when her family moved to Indianapolis in 1993. Fatima entered her freshman year of high school at Lawrence Central.

“I was like, ‘I can’t believe I’m here. I can’t believe you brought me to the country. You told me we were going to a city. This is not a city! Look at all the trees. What city has trees like this?’” recalled Fatima with a laugh.

There were also cultural challenges. For example, Fatima remembered having to learn “Mexican Spanish” and not feeling like she fit in with the Spanish speakers or the African-American populations in Indianapolis.

Fatima chose to wait until she could apply for financial aid as an independent student before attending college. In the meantime, she went to beauty school and started her own hair business. In hindsight, Fatima said that everything she needed to learn about running a successful law firm she learned from being a beautician: relating to people, working within a time frame and building, “a book of business.”

When the time was right, Fatima enrolled at IUPUI, where she started out in communications studies. Halfway through, she realized she wanted to be a lawyer. She ultimately went on to major in Spanish with a minor in music and a heavy emphasis in communications.

While at IUPUI, Fatima began volunteering at the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic. On her first day, Fatima was placed in the immigration department because she spoke Spanish. She was only there for a few months before they invited her to apply for a paralegal position and she ended up working there for a year between college and law school. To this day, Fatima credits this experience as the reason why she is an immigration lawyer.

“I didn’t pick this, it picked me,” she said.

Even though her mother and grandmother were immigrants, Fatima said it is still a difficult area of law to understand, albeit an incredibly important one. Fatima’s own mother did not have U.S. citizenship until this year, despite being eligible for it.

“I made her do it,” said Fatima.

During her last year of law school, Fatima worked for a small firm in the International Marketplace area. In 2014, she started her own, Vital Visa: The Law Firm of Fatima Johnson.

“At the time, the composition of my clients was probably 99% Spanish speakers,” she said. “But then I realized there’s a whole world and group of people outside of Spanish speakers who aren’t getting services and the attention they need.”

In an effort to better address a wider range of people, Fatima began working with the African and Indian populations, and today her clients are about 50 percent Spanish speakers, which indicates a diversification of her base.

Despite her busy schedule, Fatima serves on the board for the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic, “so I still get my pro bono fix.” She loves her job, saying it gives her a sense of purpose.

Fatima oversees a diverse staff, and at any one time, she can hear up to six different languages being spoken in her office.

“Every now and then I’ll be in the lobby and I’ll sit back and just marvel at how lucky I am to have the world here,” she said.

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