Where are you from?
I was born in the hills of Puerto Rico in a small town called Yauco.
What was it like growing up?
I grew up on the near West side of Cleveland in what now is known as Ohio City. I lived across the street from St. Patrick’s school and church on Whitman Avenue. I probably served more 6:30 AM masses than any altar boy in the history of St. Patrick’s Church, because I would often get to the church before the priests, sometime ringing their doorbell to get them going. I thought that by doing a good job serving 6:30 AM mass, I would get promoted to 7:30 AM or 8:30 AM masses. I found out that no good deed goes unpunished, and so for my conscientious work was awarded almost permanent duty serving 6:30 mass, because others had difficulty doing it. I learned one of the great lessons of life through this process, however: discipline and reliability.
Saint Patrick Church, a historically Irish parish, was one of the centers of my life, providing a wonderful education, CYO youth activities, athletic facilities, such as the gymnasium in the school and the outdoor basketball court, opportunities for leadership, such as coaching the CYO baseball team and serving on the parish council. Another center was the Franklin YMCA where I learned how to compete in athletics, including competitive swimming, baseball, and basketball preparing me to play and start in basketball and baseball at Cathedral Latin high school and playing on several Cleveland sandlot championship baseball teams.
The near West side was a fairly typical blue-collar neighborhood that was closely knit and watched out for one another, composed of Hispanics (particularly Puerto Ricans), Irish, Italian, Poles, and many other eastern European. It was an absolutely extraordinary supportive and loving neighborhood and community.
What brought you to Cleveland?
My parents chose Cleveland Ohio. My dad, who served the United States military for seven years, moved to Cleveland in 1952 when it was the sixth largest city in America, having nearly 1,000,000 people in the city limits. He then sent for his family from Puerto Rico.
One of his brothers was working in a steel plant and got him a job. He later worked for the White Motor Corporation for 30 years, rearing two boys who became lawyers and one girl who became a teacher.
What were your first thoughts about coming to America? Did those change?
I arrived in Cleveland at age 2 and really look upon Cleveland as my home. I have no memory of the transition.
What challenges did you face as an immigrant transitioning here?
The most significant challenge I faced growing up was language. I did not speak English until I was six years old. I initially started school in the Cleveland public schools, attending what was then known as Kentucky school on West 38th near Franklin. I learned as an adult, from a friend who reviewed my first grade records that I had been identified as Educable Mentally Retarded (EMR). That is when schools were practicing tracking. I transferred to St. Patrick’s school after several months. There, with the help of the Ursuline nuns, I learned English rather quickly, probably in several months
Although I am a product of complete immersion, I am a very firm believer in bilingual education. I had an enormous support system allowing me to learn English so quickly. Many others, unfortunately, do not. At the end of the day, the purpose of bilingual education is to teach English, sometimes something which gets lost in the political translation.
Growing up, I aperiodically was called a “spic” and have felt the pain associated with that, but the opportunities, friendships, and love afforded to me on the near West side far outweighed that unpleasantness.
What is your occupation?
I have been practicing law 41 years and am currently a partner with the national 900 lawyer law firm of Baker Hostetler. I began my career as a legal services lawyer, where I worked for the Cleveland Aid Society for four years. Thereafter, I served as a Cuyahoga County Public Defender for three years. In 1980 at age 29, I became the first Hispanic public official, and one of the youngest cabinet level officers, in the history of the city of Cleveland when then Mayor George Voinovich appointed me the Chief Prosecuting Attorney. Thereafter, I served as a White House Fellow in the administration of President Ronald Reagan in 1984 through 1985. Thereafter, I joined the law firm of Baker Hostetler where I have worked for more than 30 years.
How have other Clevelanders made you feel welcomed?
Cleveland has been extraordinarily welcoming, supportive, and loving to my family and me, affording me a wonderful standard of living and extraordinary service opportunities, including serving as the President of the Cleveland Bar Association and serving on the boards of numerous civic organizations including the Cleveland Clinic, John Carroll University, and the Greater Cleveland Partnership to name but a few. Mostly it has given me the gift of service to my own people beginning in college working with the Spanish-American Committee, serving as their General Counsel while a legal services lawyer and thereafter, providing for the opportunity to found and serve the Hispanic Roundtable, where I am now honored to serve as chairman.
What traditions or customs do you continue to practice?
My children and I treasure the celebration of family life, particularly holidays and Sunday meals. The Puerto Rican music, the smells of tostones smothered in garlic, rice and beans, and pernil are staples in our life. Coquito, Puerto Rican eggnog, during the holidays is a must. Sundays are glorious family days of fellowship and love. Our music, particularly Puerto Rican ballads and salsa music are an especially meaningful part of our lives.
My three children all bear Hispanic names: José Celso, Rebecca Catalina, and Marisa Cristina. They all have a very clear Puerto Rican identity, and they love.
The identification and celebration of the success of outstanding artists, such as Rita Moreno, great baseball legends, such as Roberto Clemente, and outstanding political leaders such as former Sec. of HUD Henry Cisneros and current Sec. of Labor Tom Perez are a part of our lives. So is the tradition of service to Hispanic civic organizations and giving back to our community.
What do you love about Cleveland?
I love almost everything about Cleveland: the friendliness and openness of our community , the quality of life, the economic and civic opportunities, the professional sports, the museums, the theater, the restaurants, the housing, the educational opportunities, and the reasonableness of the cost-of-living just for starters.
Why is it so important to welcome immigrants and refugees?
America is the immigrant story. At its core, America is opportunity and freedom. These fundamental concepts have created and sustained America. When America opens its doors, those seeking opportunity and freedom, come, renew, revitalize, and help further develop the American spirit from Alexander Hamilton at the founding of America to the creator of Google, Serge Brin and the creator of Yahoo, Jerry Yang..
What suggestions do you have to make Cleveland a more welcoming community?
A significant objective should be to improve the atmosphere of acceptance, particularly of those who speak a different languages. Governments, particularly at the local level (the city of Cleveland, and all nearby cities, as well as Cuyahoga County) should pass resolutions encouraging immigrants from all over the world. The federal government, of course, needs to pass comprehensive immigration reform. There needs to be the encouragement of dual language in schools. Public signage should be encouraged in different languages in communities where there is a natural congregation of ethnic groups, such as in Saigon Plaza for the Asian community and Clark Fulton for the Hispanic community.
Land-use strategies, making all these vacant lots available to immigrants for sweat equity and other incentives, can help revitalize urban blight, and our urban planners need to develop aggressive strategies in this area.
Ohio needs immigrants for its economy and for demographics for the Census. Labor markets do not appear to be working effectively in the Cleveland area where there is relatively high unemployment yet many jobs go unfilled. Immigrants do not take jobs away from people, they fill jobs which are unfilled. Ohio needs immigrants at the top of the ladder, the middle, and at the bottom. Dr. Toby Cosgrove needs more doctors at the Clinic, we need more entrepreneurs to start small businesses and grow them, and we need service workers in restaurants, nurseries, and hotels. Ohio has lost Congressman in the last two census, and we need more people in order to preserve our congressional delegation. These basic conclusions were documented and reached by the recent study of the Chicago Council on World Affairs analyzing immigration in the Midwest.
At the risk of being a one trick pony, let me comment on Hispanics. The largest minority group in the United States is Hispanics. A special strategy should be developed to encourage their migration and immigration here. While the population the city of Cleveland has been declining, Hispanics have been increasing, thereby helping the city preservice population at or about 400,000, a very significant number four congressional appropriations.
We need Hispanics, their hard work, their drive for success, and their commitment to their family and to God. They can help renew and revitalize our area.