Eighty-three-year-old Maria Elena Beltran taught herself to speak and write English and then worked her way through law school as a single parent of six children.
For Beltran, who is being honored Friday as one of six outstanding Montana State University Billings alumni, the lawyer who gave her a leg up into the legal profession was Charles F. “Timer” Moses, who died in 2014 at age 90. Years ago Moses took on her divorce case, “I think because he felt pity on me,” she said. “He took my case for very low payments, and I never forgot that. I saw him years later and I thanked him for making such a difference in my life, and he remembered me.
“I don’t think he ever knew what a difference he made,” she said of Moses. “I needed to go on from my marriage, and he enabled me to go out and find my little place in the world. He inspired me, and that’s why I want to help people who are in the situation I was in.”
Beltran grew up a farm worker, following behind her mother in the fields from age 7 to harvest the stray sugar beets that her mother had missed.
She dropped out of school at 13. “I honestly have blanked out my early years in school,” she said. “My memories begin in English.”
As a young mother, Beltran cleaned houses, baked and decorated cakes — “I made pretty good cakes,” she says with a smile — and did bead work with her children.
Former MSU Billings faculty member Ted Jensen, Beltran’s adviser at then Eastern Montana College, said he nominated her for the alumni honor because “she could have become anything. She never had a childhood or a youth, but she’s one of those people who can teach herself without remembering how she learned it.”
He remembers her “walking to school and then walking home to take care of her family. I knew right away she was smart, but I didn’t know she would become a lawyer.”
Her 1986 bachelor’s degree is in secondary education with a Spanish specialty.
“I wanted to teach the kids that only a mother would love, and maybe reach some of them,” she said. But the law — and others in need — beckoned louder.
“I had been a paralegal, and I thought, do I dare dream of law school?” she said. “You have to apply for loans, take the (Law School Admission Test) and apply to law school. I thought I wouldn’t get any of those things, but it all happened.”
She earned a law degree in 1990 at the University of Montana. Throughout college and law school she worked for Montana Legal Services as an outreach worker, rising to staff attorney after she passed the bar.
“The amount of studying at law school was horrific,” she said. “We had to read a tremendous amount, and we had to prepare for mock trials. It was difficult.”
Her hard-won juris doctorate degree allows her to do meaningful work for clients who can greatly benefit from her abilities. She's also on the board of a health clinic that serves farm and seasonal workers.
“I get great satisfaction for getting farm workers their wages,” she said, “and when I can get a woman on a parenting plan (a child custody plan), she can get on with her life.”
Now an attorney in private practice working out of her home in Worden, Beltran represents a handful of clients for the Office of the State Public Defender, a paying proposition.
But many of her clients can’t pay her anything. They’re the ones she meets in coffee shops or even in their homes.
“I feel I can relate to them, because I was there,” she said. “Money was never important to me, and I can’t really say why. Each stage of my life has always been better than the previous one.”
Jensen recalled one day when Beltran took him to meet with a woman who needed family law work.
“Those cases tend to be very difficult,” he said. “It turned out, this woman brought in two other families, and they talked so long I almost fell asleep.”
“You didn’t almost fall asleep — you did fall asleep!” Beltran replied with a laugh.
Then she turned serious.
“I may represent mothers and fathers, but my heart is so with the children,” she said. “I would like to take on more cases, but they are very stressful.”
But she’s not thinking about retiring anytime soon.
“I haven’t got time to get old,” she said.