About the College

A Musical Life

The dark-haired figure coaxing the sweet notes out of her violin has become as much a part of law school commencement as the pageant of colorful robes, the clicking of pocket cameras and the dean’s speech.

But Maria Zlateva JD/C’10, who has provided the music for the last three graduations, isn’t just any professional musician. She’s also an immigration lawyer who represents clients facing deportation — usually for misdemeanors such as driving drunk or driving without a license. An immigrant herself, she said it’s heartbreaking when her clients’ families are left to fend for themselves after an arrest.

“Many times (my clients) are the main providers for the home and there are children waiting to be fed,” she said. “They grow up in a country where if you don’t talk to the police, it gets worse for you. It’s very difficult for them to understand they have rights in this country.”

Zlateva was born in Bulgaria. Her uncle, who built violins, gave Zlateva one when she was 5 and told her she could play it only if she took lessons. She got hooked and pursued a bachelor’s degree in violin performance from a music academy in Bulgaria. She played in an orchestra headquartered in Bulgaria’s second-largest city.

But the world outside Communist Bulgaria beckoned. Zlateva, a Seventh-day Adventist, said her family felt pressure to ignore the teachings of their faith. They couldn’t observe the Sabbath on Saturdays because school was open. Police officers routinely came to their house and searched it for religious literature. Zlateva said the principal at one of her schools urged her to renounce her belief in God, but she refused.

“It’s cheesy, but I always wanted to live in the United States,” Zlateva said. She sent an audition tape to La Sierra University in California, which is affiliated with the Seventh-day Adventist Church. She was offered a scholarship and a job cleaning the university library, where she read magazines and books to teach herself English. Zlateva got a master’s in violin performance at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and a doctorate in the same subject from the University of Texas at Austin. She began teaching.

Then, in 2006, Zlateva became a U.S. citizen and decided she wanted to try law. “Part of the American dream, I guess,” she said. “I wanted to do the things I couldn’t do before.”

She got some courtroom experience at the Marion County District Attorney’s office and worked in criminal and family law for a time, but discovered she was drawn to immigration. She recently opened a solo practice in downtown Salem — while still teaching violin and playing in the Salem Chamber Orchestra. Zlateva said she cannot imagine giving up either life, but admits that she’s getting tired of juggling both. Maybe she’ll cut back on teaching, but she’ll never give up her instrument.

“It’s definitely a part of her life; it’s just assumed, like brushing her teeth,” said Karen Vincent, a friend and chamber orchestra colleague. “It’s part of her blood. That’s the way music is.”