Back in New York, Ms. Cabán said she learned that her father had succumbed to alcohol again.
It was an all-too-familiar cycle for the family: Ms. Cabán said that her maternal grandfather, Nestor Nazario, a Korean War veteran who had earned a purple heart, was also an alcoholic, and was prone to being physically abusive.
Suffering from PTSD, he often self-medicated, she said. Her grandmother, Iris Nazario, eventually left him, forcing Ms. Cabán’s mother to drop out of high school to help care for the family.
Toward the end of her grandfather’s life, Ms. Cabán said her family took him in, as he continued to struggle with alcoholism. She had a chance to get to know a different side of him. He played guitar, and made her laugh with fantastical war stories, like how part of his ear that was lost in battle was actually taken by wizards.
Her grandfather, she said, easily could have been one of her clients, in and out of the criminal justice system.
“Where were our systems in place to support him, so that he could support his family?” Ms. Cabán said. “Our district attorney’s office and justice system doesn’t take that kind of view or approach.”
After law school, she became a public defender, representing more than 1,000 clients in her career. Ms. Cabán punctuates her stories with tales of her former clients and how their trauma brought them into the criminal justice system.
Her unlikely campaign for Queens district attorney emerged from a discussion among three of her friends, who were trying to come up with someone willing to run as a progressive candidate. They quickly settled on Ms. Cabán, urging her to run in a series of text messages, reported in The New Yorker.