Wifredo Ferrer Shares How Embracing His Roots Has Helped Him Grow Professionally and Personally
Holland & Knight's Diversity Council and Hispanic Affinity Group are proud to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month and pay tribute to the generations of Hispanics who have enriched America's history and continue to play a role in its future success. Since last year, we have taken time to speak to some of our Hispanic attorneys, who have shared their stories with us. We now present the 2023 video series showcasing some of these conversations. We hope that the stories conveyed in these videos inspire those struggling with recognizing their roots and shine light on the contributions that Hispanics have provided to the United States.
In this video, Miami Executive Partner Wifredo Ferrer talks about his family's experience as immigrants and the lessons his parents instilled in him. Mr. Ferrer shares some examples of how embracing his roots has helped him succeed professionally. He also explains the importance in having a strong support group that will encourage you to be yourself and reach your goals.
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Episode 4: Wifredo Ferrer Shares How Embracing His Roots Has Helped Him Grow Professionally and Personally (You are currently viewing Episode 4)
Wifredo Ferrer: I am a first generation Cuban-American. My parents came from Cuba in the 1960s. I was born in Miami and was raised in a city here called Hialeah, which I affectionately call "the City of Progress." My parents came to this country, each with only one suitcase. They were not sure they were going to go back to their native country of Cuba. And my dad, who was a certified public accountant (CPA) in Cuba, did not speak English. I remember seeing him as a kid walking around our neighborhood in Hialeah with a sign on his chest saying that "I will cut your grass for $5." My mom, who did speak English, did a lot of odd jobs in order to make sure that we had food on the table. It was a home where nothing was given. Nothing was taken for granted, but my parents did come with a lot of optimism. Their hearts were always filled with wanting to know that their kids were going to have the liberties and freedoms that the dictatorship in Cuba did not allow.
Since we didn't have much growing up, my parents always said to me that the only inheritance they were ever going to leave me was an education. It's funny how, you know, you see that those who have the least are the ones that are willing to give the most to others. I remember when I was in middle school, back then it was junior high, my dad got into a really bad accident when he was in the highway in Miami, and he was partially paralyzed for six months. So he couldn't work. My mom, as a legal secretary, got fired because she was taking too much time taking care of my dad. So you can imagine what we had to go through at such an early stage, but then someone came out of nowhere. Another Cuban attorney from a legal aid society who was a lawyer. I had no idea what a lawyer was. And this — I call him a guardian angel — and then this lawyer came out and helped us and I never forgot that. And I think that that's probably one of the reasons that I kept wanting to get involved in the community and in the law, because even though I had no idea what a lawyer was, I knew that that person saved us and that person allowed us to get back up on our feet. My father in particular remembered telling me that it wasn't about in this country where you came from, what your last name was, whether you had an accent or what the color of your skin was, it was about what kind of person did you want to be, what kind of professional did you want to aspire to, and what were you going to leave behind as your legacy. So those are some of the reasons that sort of fueled my desire to get involved, and I never will forget the last words that he said to me right before he passed away. He said, "Willy, haz el bien." Those are very small words in Spanish that in English means "do good." And I will never forget that. And I will never forget and I will try every day to strive to live up to those words and that fueled my sense for public service.
When I was in law school, I worked with my fellow Latino students in the Latin American Law Students Association (LALSA). And we worked hard with the administration to come up with the first-ever public service requirement for law students back at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1980s. Since a lot of us also grew up in the same sort of modest resource environments, we wanted to make sure that law students graduated knowing what it was like to help others who did not or could not afford legal representation. And then ultimately, this is what also fueled my desire to work at the U.S. Department of Justice. And I was so unbelievably honored to one day be nominated and serve as the United States Attorney for South Florida.
You know, when I grew up, my parents did not allow me to speak English at home. They knew I was going to speak English and learn the culture at school and work. And I remember as a kid, I would say, "Ay, mami, pero we're in America." And, and she said, "One day you'll thank me." I will never forget that when I had the opportunity to work for Janet Reno, the first woman Attorney General of the United States, I get called into her office one day and I said, "Oh my God, what did I do?" She goes, "No, no, no. You need to now simultaneously translate with the Mexican attorney general because it was a big emergency on some extradition." And I said, "Are you kidding me? My Spanish is from, you know, the street from Hialeah. I don't want to create an international incident." And they said, "Well, guess what? You're the only one in the building that can speak Spanish." I was able to get through it. I picked up the phone. The first thing I did was call my mom. And I said, "Gracias." I said "I was such a pain when I was a kid in making me speak Spanish, but I cannot thank you enough." I became Janet Reno's envoy to the Americas, and I got to travel with her almost all over Latin America and all over the world, because I kept true to my culture and my language because of my parents. So I tell everybody, embrace it, enjoy it, learn more languages if you can. But my Hispanic background has really helped me help others. I was nominated by President Obama to be the United States attorney and then confirmed by the U.S. Senate and to see my mom in the audience crying in tears because she never imagined that as an immigrant, that her son would ever be nominated by the United States president. So that's a moment that as a Cuban-American and a first generation American, I will never forget.
One of the ways that the culture has helped me, even today, is that it allows me on pitches to clients in Latin America, in our investigative work, white collar defense, compliance work. We're able to tell our clients that not only can we speak the language, but we understand the cultural significance of what they do each and every day, and that has opened more doors here with our wonderful team of Latino and Hispanic attorneys and professional staff that we have at Holland & Knight. But that is due to the fact that the way that we embrace our roots in our culture at home, it's not just the language, but it's also the traditions that we keep. For us, and for me, music was very big in my family growing up in Hialeah with Cuban parents. And I remember I always said that I learned how to dance before I learned how to walk. And that actually came in very handy because that's how I met my wife, my beautiful wife from Puerto Rico. My father-in-law actually made some maracas for my boys, and I brought them here. I'm not going to play for the audience because I do not want to break the camera. But these are, you know, my sons, Lucas and Antonio. These are maracas that my father-in-law made in order to continue the tradition of music, which is extremely important for us. You just got to believe in yourself and move forward, embrace your ethnicity, your heritage, and use it as an advantage because it's an incredible way of enhancing your person, your character and who you are. It doesn't matter if success means many different things. It's really about reaching that point where you're happy with yourself, with your life and that you surround yourself with people who love you and care about you. That's it.