Hispanic and Latin American Heritage Month Reflection by Dean Varona

Posted by Dean Tony Varona, Dean and Professor of Law, School of Law on Thursday, September 15, 2022 at 10:00 AM PDT

I think often about my late parents, Eudelio and Edelmira Varona, during National Hispanic and Latin American Heritage Month. They, like so many immigrant parents, bore enormous hardships as new Americans – principally for the benefit of their children. My mother gave birth to me in Cuba in 1967, at a very perilous time in that country. She and my father sought exile in United States so that they could raise me and any future siblings (they had my brother Eddie five years later) in the land of opportunity and freedom. We settled in Newark when I was three years old. The Cuban government allowed us to leave with only the clothes on our backs and almost nothing else. Even though I was only three years old, I remember the palpable fear and trepidation in the family as we adjusted to a strange new environment, mixed with a great sadness of leaving behind a beloved motherland. 

We initially did not have our own home and lived in an attic of a cousin’s house. When we eventually got our own apartment, we were so poor that we could only afford to heat half of it, and the heat that we did get all came from vents at the side of our kitchen stove. The windows were so old and drafty that we would staple plastic sheeting or sometimes garbage bags to them to keep out the cold air. They would inflate and deflate in blustery NYC-area winter winds like the sails on a boat. 

My parents worked extremely hard, kept reaching for the American Dream, and persevered.  

With my uncle, they first rented and then owned a small bodega with a butcher shop in the Ironbound Section of Newark. I would work at the store on weekends and holidays. The bodega was in an immigrant working class/working poor community in Newark, and our customers were comprised of mostly Cuban, Puerto Rican, Haitian, Portuguese, and Brazilian immigrants. Our melting pot neighborhood was more of an arroz con pollo. 

I learned at the Hermanos Varona Supermarket that these small immigrant family-owned neighborhood businesses become community centers of sorts for newly arrived Americans looking for information and help.  Everything from emergency food for a hungry family, to translation of confusing government documents, to information about rent subsidies and the latest vexing immigration rules. At the bodega I saw so much of what makes the immigrant experience for so many Hispanic and Latinx families so frustrating but beautiful, so terrifying but hopeful, so heartbreaking but edifying, and so demeaning but motivating. It was there as well that I saw the importance of advocates for these new Americans.  

I see in so many of our Seattle University students and their families many of the same experiences that my own family endured. And I am privileged and honored, now, to be able to say to them, con mucho cariño, bienvenidos – You belong here. We Need you. You are America. 

Dean Anthony E. Varona

Dean Tony Varona, Dean and Professor of Law, School of Law