From Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month. To me, this month is about celebrating not only Hispanic heritage, but our Hispanic journeys to becoming grateful Americans and work as stakeholders.
This month is about the refugee who fled the Cuban communist regime in 1965, 1980 or 10 years ago; the Venezuelan refugee who fled Maduro or Chavez; or the Nicaraguan refugee who fled Ortega. It is about the Afro-Cuban Tampeño from 1900 whose grandchildren have pride in Sociedad La Union Marti Maceo. It is about the Puerto Rican whose grandfather served in the 65th Regiment — the “Borinqueneers” — and who today defends the homeland in our military. Immigrants from Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and other lands recount American journeys filled with hope, struggle and reward.
And these Hispanic journeys are largely defined by family, hard work and an enduring faith in God.
I think about my own family and our journey. In 1933, when Fulgencio Batista came to power in Cuba, my maternal great-grandfather, Juan Silverio, took a Pan American Clipper to Key West and arrived in Tampa in 1934. He served as a physician at Centro Asturiano Hospital, lived on East Ross Avenue in Tampa Heights, founded the Institute del Niño (a children’s hospital) and attended Sacred Heart Catholic Church.
He returned to Cuba and is buried at Havana’s Colon Cemetery. In 1960, his wife and family (including my grandparents and mother, Maria Viera) fled Cuba for a final time when Castro took power. My late father, Juan Viera, came to Tampa in 1960, fleeing Castro, and resided on East Amelia Avenue near Ybor City. All came here with, as my father said, nothing but the shirts on their backs.
I have pride in our family’s refugee journey — but my pride does not end there. There is another side to Hispanic Heritage Month: the obligations that this pride and journey place on us in 2023.
We live in a time when the Juan and Maria Vieras of today are not as welcome as they were at one time.
Nativism has always been a major political force in American history. But those who were welcomed by a compassionate United States have a duty to stand up for people who walk in the same shoes that their families walked in generations ago. The kind of compassion my family received six decades ago as Cuban refugees creates a contract to pay it forward — generation by generation. And economic success or the passing of time does not free someone from their moral contractual obligations as an American.
Think of the spectacle of Florida — long a land that welcomes refugees — sending Venezuelan asylum-seekers fleeing communism from Texas to Massachusetts as political props. I have a deep love for Florida and that one hurt. Former President Donald Trump reduced annual refugee admissions — once a system with bipartisan support — by 80%. This is not about “open borders” or illegal immigration: the system of legal refugee admissions is distinct from these areas and imposes strict limitations on admissions, eligibility criteria, vetting and rule of law. It is what a decent land does — and the American people are a decent people.
We are told today that legal refugees entering under an organized system — including those fleeing communism and others from Afghanistan and Syria — are here to radicalize and destroy our country.
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That was not true in 1960 when my family came here, and it is not true today. Refugees hold a unique patriotism. I think of my maternal grandfather, Modesto “Api” Suarez, and the first time he visited Washington, D.C., in the summer of 1997. When we visited our nation’s monuments in the summer heat, Api wore dress slacks, a white shirt and a tie outside out of respect for American institutions. Nobody taught me more about American values than Api — and I remember today what he taught me by his example as a refugee, grateful American and Catholic.
During Hispanic Heritage Month, celebrate your family journey to becoming an American. Hispanics — long misunderstood by both political parties — have journeys that define our strong patriotism and help explain what makes our United States an exceptional country.
But do not forget your obligations today to those who walk in the same shoes that your parents or grandparents — or maybe you — once walked. No matter your political affiliation, do not be silent in the face of resurgent nativism.
Our nation is a ladder that, through hard work, we climb to success — but we make a way for those who, generations later, make that same climb. Hispanic Heritage Month is a time to remember our American journey — but to also defend the modern meaning and legacy of that journey in 2023.
Luis Viera, a Democrat, represents District 7 on the Tampa City Council.