Celebrating Diversity in the Workplace: RumbergerKirk Honors Hispanic American Attorneys during National Hispanic Heritage Month
Beginning on September 15 each year, the United States celebrates the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America during National Hispanic Heritage Month. What began as a week-long celebration 50 years ago, grew to a month-long observance in 1988 that continues today.
RumbergerKirk honors our Hispanic American attorneys who have contributed to making the firm a rich, innovative and diverse environment. In talking with each of the 13 attorneys at Rumberger who share this culture—David Acosta, Leslie Lagomasino Baum, Cristina Cambo, Claudia Cuador, Joleen East, Kevin Gowen, Albert Li, Stacy Mateu, Erik Perez, Jens Ruiz, Victor Sanabria, Maggie Sanders and Monica Segura—it is clear that while each has his or her own unique experience that helped shape them into the successful attorney they are today, they share a culture steeped in traditions and values surrounding family, hard work, holidays and food.
Importance of Family
Family is at the core of many cultures, but this is especially true for Hispanic families. It isn’t unusual for extended families to live with each other, or at least very close to one another. In addition to living within close proximity of each other, they spend a lot of time together and not just for holidays or special occasions.
Claudia Cuador, an associate in the Miami office, agrees. “I talk to my parents 10 times a day. We’re very close and we spend time every weekend together,” she said. Claudia was born in Cuba and moved to Miami just before her eighth birthday with her family.
Stacy Mateu, an associate in Miami, lived with her grandparents. “We all lived together and my grandparents took care of me while my parents were working,” she explained. “Both of my parents are from Cuba and came with their families when they were young. My mom was 15 and my dad was just 7,” she explained.
Kevin Gowen, special counsel in the Orlando office, grew up surrounded by his extended family. Of Spanish Basque descent, Kevin explains that his mom’s family came to the United States as refugees from the Spanish Civil War after they survived being bombed by the German Condor Legion (a unit composed of military personnel from the air force and army of Nazi Germany).
“My great-grandfather, a Spanish immigrant, lived with us for some time before moving in with my maternal grandmother (his step-daughter). My grandmother lived close enough for me to see on a daily basis,” said Kevin. “We had very similar personalities. Despite being an immigrant herself, she went to college and earned a master’s degree, which was so rare in the 1950’s. She was an elementary school teacher. She encouraged me academically and told me the family history. When I was little, she got me a set of encyclopedias to read and when I was older and studying French, she would rent French movies for us to watch together. We spent a lot of time together. Even when I was in high school, I enjoyed just hanging out with her,” remembered Kevin.
“I was lucky to have been born and raised in Miami, steeped in vibrant Cuban culture growing up and surrounded by family and both sets of my grandparents,” said Leslie Lagomasino Baum, an associate in the Tallahassee office whose parents and grandparents are from Cuba. “Both of my parents fled Cuba when Castro assumed power. My father and his family were able to leave the island fairly quickly, but it took my mother and her family some time to leave,” she explained.
David Acosta and his family get together each week for Sunday brunch. An associate in Miami who was born in Peru and moved to South Florida with his family when he was five, David attended law school at Rutgers in New Jersey and then worked in Manhattan for a couple of years. “I missed the culture and being close to family,” admitted David. “I married my high school sweetheart who was also born in Miami and is Honduran and Nicaraguan. She is also close with her family,” he added.
“My Hispanic culture reinforced the importance of family growing up,” said Joleen East, an associate in Rumberger’s Tampa office. “My grandmother was from Cuba and she arrived in Connecticut where she met my grandfather. They married and moved to South Florida about 10 years later. My grandmother helped each of her brothers and sisters come to the United States from Cuba,” explained Joleen. “I grew up in South Florida and the rest of my family on my grandmother’s side lived in Miami.”
Pride and Inspiration to Work Hard and Value Education
Coming to America with almost nothing and working hard to make a life is a common thread in almost every immigrant’s story—from Cuba, Peru, Spain, and anywhere. It is the story of the American dream and it is a powerful influence on the descendants of immigrants for generations.
Cristina Cambo, an associate in the Orlando office, grew up in Central Florida and was inspired by the law early on as she watched her parents, both immigrants, have the opportunity to build a much better life than they otherwise could have due in large part to the legal system. Her father is a Cuban exile and her mother is from Spain.
“My dad, his mother, and his sister fled Cuba in 1960 when my dad was 6 years old. My grandfather had died during the revolution, and my grandmother knew they needed to leave. My grandmother’s only choice was to put my 6-year-old dad and his 9-year-old sister by themselves on a flight to Miami through Operation Pedro Pan, which was coordinated with the Catholic Church. “It was difficult leaving everything and everyone they knew behind. Here, they had nothing, but my grandmother made sure to get them the best education possible by working multiple jobs,” she explained.
“Coming from an immigrant perspective, my parents instilled the values of hard work and self-reliance and an education in us from an early age. No matter what, no one can take away your education. It’s true, and my husband and I plan to raise our kids with that same mentality,” said Cristina.
Leslie believes the “Cuban story” is one of perseverance and thinks of the Cuban people as possessing dauntless spirit and optimism. Her grandparents and parents left Cuba with little more than the possessions they were able to carry and managed to make a successful life for themselves in the United States through hard work.
“Our parents never allowed my sister or me to forget our Cuban roots. They taught us, ‘to those who much is given, much is expected,’ and have always been very strong proponents of education,” she said. “Much was always expected of me, and I think that is one of the reasons that I’ve worked so hard to succeed in school and in my profession. As a lawyer, I like to think that I have been able to give back to others by doing my best in representing our clients, whether they are individuals, schools or companies; and helping them figure out an acceptable solution to their legal questions or litigation,” explained Leslie.
Monica said that her Cuban heritage plays a big role in who she is today. “I never take for granted all the sacrifices that were made for me to be where I am today,” she revealed. “My mother is the most influential person because she instilled in me the value of hard work. She taught me that if you pursue hard work and education, there is nothing you can’t accomplish.”
Victor Sanabria, an associate in the Miami office, shared that his father came from Cuba with his family around the age of 10. “The Cuban work ethic is very impressive and there is a focus on education and being humble. These are lessons I’ve absorbed into my life as well,” he shared.
Joleen also said that her family believed in a strong work ethic and valued education. “These are all values I have carried with me throughout my life and will continue to pass on,” she said.
Claudia knows the struggle of immigrating first hand. “I remember being so excited and thinking it was going to be really amazing, but when we arrived, it was really hard. My parents didn’t speak English and it was hard for them to work even though my dad was a lawyer and my mom a librarian. We ended up moving a lot and I went to 5 elementary schools,” she said. “I worked hard to learn English and by 6th grade, I was in honors classes and doing well,” she said.
Albert Li, an associate in Miami whose parents are from Cuba and Nicaragua, noted that education is always important in immigrant households and that his was no different. Another strong influence in Albert’s life was the importance of serving the country that had given so much to his family. “I definitely feel my heritage contributed to my entering the military. I was also deeply affected by the events of 9/11 and I joined the Navy nine months later, just two weeks after I graduated high school.”
Lessons of Acceptance of Others and their Diversity
Maggie Sanders, an associate in the Miami office, was born in Ecuador and came to Miami when she was three weeks old with her Ecuadorian mother and Cuban father. She said her family’s culture and heritage helped her to be open to diversity and different points of view.
“I learned that what’s normal to me might be completely weird to someone else, and vice-versa. I embrace who everyone is and where they come from. I try to teach that to my kids, even if they’re too young to understand,” she said.
Jens Ruiz, an associate in Miami, embraces his cultural differences and says they give him a different perspective on viewing the world. Jens was born in Mexico City, but his family moved to Miami when he was one years old. While he is Mexican by birth, neither of his parents are—his mother is German and his father, who grew up in New York, is Puerto Rican and German.
“My family gravitated toward German traditions. I spent my summers in Germany and speak German even though my dad and grandfather both speak Spanish,” he noted. “I went to a magnet school with international programs focused on French, German and Spanish cultures. It helped me to understand how different backgrounds give you different perspectives on how others see and view the world. This is extremely helpful in litigation where you are solving problems and look at issues from different perspectives,” he said.
Albert believes that coming from a unique background helps him to view things differently. While his father is from Cuba and his mother is from Nicaragua, his maternal grandfather is from Switzerland and his dad’s side has Asian influence. “Diversity enables us to introduce novel ways to approach problems. That’s how it’s benefitted me in my life and career,” he said.
Food plays a big role in any family gathering or holiday tradition and that is especially true for Hispanic families. The most popular holiday is by far Noche Buena (Christmas Eve), which in many households eclipses Thanksgiving, New Year’s and Christmas itself.
“Many of our traditions revolve around food and family. Any occasion, large or small is usually marked with a family get together and an abundance of food,” said Leslie. “However, one of my favorite family traditions has always been our celebration on Christmas Eve, or “Noche Buena.” Christmas has always been a special time for me because I loved celebrating with my family, but especially as Cubans, both Christmas Eve and Christmas are marked with a 2-day long celebration of both the religious holiday but also of spending time with family."
Maggie agrees. “Food is very important to us! We celebrate Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) a lot more than Christmas Day. We have a big party with music and lots of dancing. The traditional Cuban pig is cooked in the caja china and we make the traditional rice and black beans and yucca. Since I married an Argentinean, we cook half of the pork with Cuban mojo and the other half with Argentinean chimichurri. I’m not going to lie—the chimichurri side is better. The adults also open presents at midnight.”
“We celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve,” said Jens, “but we also celebrate St. Nicholas Day on December 6, which is a Germanic holiday where kids put out their shoes or boots at night and St. Nicholas fills them with small gifts or treats.”
On New Year’s Eve, Cristina says her family continues the Spanish tradition of eating 12 white grapes as the clock strikes midnight. She said, “If you don’t finish the 12 grapes before the last bell tolls, then it’s bad luck for the year! Also, eat the grapes while standing on your right foot to make sure you’re starting the year off on the ‘right foot,’” she added.
Kevin’s family throws out a bucket of water on New Year’s, which is a tradition throughout Latin America and Cuba that signifies renewal and throwing out all of the tears and suffering from the previous year.
Speaking the Language
Another way Hispanic Americans embrace their culture and traditions is by passing their native language on from generation to generation.
“I actually learned Spanish before I learned English,” said Cristina. “My parents dropped me off on my first day of school without knowing any English! They say I learned English in about 3 months, but, I remember that first day of school. Even today, I only speak in Spanish with my parents, and I’m doing my best to teach my son Spanish as well.”
Although both of her parents worked hard to learn English, Stacy said she didn’t learn English until she went to school. “My grandparents do not speak English and they took care of me while my parents worked. It was really hard for me at first and I struggled until around 2nd or 3rd grade,” she admitted. “Now, however, speaking two languages is a big benefit,” she added.
Being able to speak Spanish is a benefit to any business, especially when considering that Hispanics make up almost a fifth of the total U.S. population, according to the Pew Research Center.
“Speaking Spanish helps me with both clients and witnesses who do not speak English, but it’s also easier to connect with people who speak both languages in their native tongue,” said David. “People can be more open and relate to you.”
Maggie agreed noting that being able to speak Spanish helps her connect and understand people better, whether at a deposition or during a client interview.
“It really helps when taking depositions,” said Stacy. “Sometimes I can catch on to what a translator is saying, or trying to say. If you don’t speak the language, you may not fully understand what the witness is trying to communicate. I’ve also found that witnesses who speak Spanish open up more when they know you understand them,” she said.
“Speaking Spanish is a great asset in the business world, of course. I’ve found that in addition to connecting with clients and assisting during depositions or interviews, I am also able to ensure documents are translated properly,” noted Monica. While speaking a second language in the business world is a great asset, Monica feels that it’s also important to share that part of the culture with her son.
Erik Perez, an associate in the Miami office, shared that his father was from Cuba and his mother from Puerto Rico. His mother’s family comes from Spain and Cuba with ties to both the Catalonian region and Moors. “My diverse heritage definitely allows me to connect with the Miami community in a unique way and helps me relate to my Cuban and Hispanic clients or opposing parties,” he said. “It’s also allowed me to have a multicultural experience in many aspects of life.”
Celebrating Our Differences
Rumberger is made up of many diverse individuals, but we all work hard toward the same goal of providing innovative legal services to our clients. Our culture of inclusion and respect enables a team of different individuals to bring unique perspectives to solve the most complex problems.
“Everyone is very collegial, helpful and friendly,” said Jens. “It’s a unique atmosphere that you rarely see at firms this size,” he added.
David notes that the supportive environment and the feeling of camaraderie extends beyond the walls of work. “There’s a feeling of inclusiveness and genuine friendship,” he said.