I was born and raised in New York City. Both my parents are from Cuba and fled as political refugees after the Castro government took power. At that time, professionals were simply not allowed to leave the country, but my parents couldn’t live in an unfree society, so they applied for and were awarded one-year medical fellowships to study in Spain (one of the few countries that had maintained diplomatic relations with the Castro government) but their intention when they departed for Spain was to never return to Cuba. My mom wrote about all this in her book I’m Still Here.
Although my parents were economically in a good place originally (my dad’s uncle, Martín Fox, was the owner of the famous Tropicana nightclub, and you can read about the skeletons in the Fox family closet in the book Tropicana Nights), all of their property was “nationalized” by the incoming Castro government and when they left the country they could not take anything with them, so they had to start over from scratch. I grew up in Jackson Heights, Queens, across from the hospital where my mom worked days and my dad worked nights until they could get my grandparents into the US to help take care of me.
I didn’t speak any English when I arrived in kindergarten, since my grandparents mostly took care of me and they didn’t speak English. To this day I remain fully bilingual and bicultural, which has allowed me to deeply engage with colleagues both throughout Latin America and in Spain, where our family’s roots are. I’ve given numerous technical talks and invited keynotes in Spanish, recruited Hispanic colleagues to translate textbooks written by me and my colleagues here, and in general developed a broad and rewarding professional network in the Spanish-speaking world of CS. I’ve become very involved in promoting Latinxs in computing, working with both campus organizations such as LAGSES and HES as well as national professional organizations like Hispanics In Computing.
I know that Hispanics here and everywhere else often frame their cultural history in terms of a struggle, and there’s no denying that that is an important narrative. At the same time, though, I have a deep connection to my family’s personal struggle as political refugees, and the attitude I inherited from them was always one of “looking forward” — regardless of what happened to us in the past. What can we do now as we look to the future, for both ourselves and to “pave the road” for those coming after us?
My parents were able to rebuild economically when they came to the US because they had a solid professional education, so the value of education for economic mobility was always a very strong theme growing up in our household. That’s why I’m particularly proud at Berkeley’s commencement exercises when first-generation college graduates are handed their degrees — I often approach them personally and after congratulating them, I remind them that with that degree comes a responsibility to help “pave the road” for their future colleagues. We Hispanics come from a culture that has a strong work ethic and a strong family bond, and I’d like us to use our Berkeley experience and clout to put the best of those two legacies together and leave the world a little better than we found it.