'The American Dream is alive and it is well' - A tribute to Hispanic Heritage Month

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  • | 12:00 p.m. November 1, 2010
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by Joe Wilhelm Jr.

Staff Writer

Hispanic Heritage Month began in 1968 as Hispanic Heritage Week under President Lyndon Johnson and was expanded to 30 days by President Ronald Reagan in 1988.

To recognize the month, which was designated Sept. 15-Oct. 15, the Daily Record selected four professionals from the legal community to recognize for their accomplishments and contributions.

Two professionals are profiled today and two will be profiled in Tuesday’s Daily Record

Sept. 15 is significant because it is the anniversary of independence for Latin American countries Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. In addition, Mexico and Chile celebrate their independence days on Sept. 16 and Sept. 18, respectively.

U.S. District Judge

Marcia Morales Howard

U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard is a first-generation Hispanic-American born in Jacksonville after her parents fled their native Cuba to pursue a better life for their family. Her parents were learning English as she grew up and she didn’t speak English until she was 4 years old when she entered pre-kindergarten.

“Being bilingual has been a huge gift that has benefited me personally and professionally,” said Howard. “I felt fortunate to have been exposed to both Hispanic and American cultures.”

Though she did begin to speak more English than Spanish growing up, the influences were in place to ensure the Hispanic culture remained a part of her life.

“My grandparents made sure family traditions continued in the United States,” said Howard, “including the Cuban cooking that I haven’t quite mastered.”

She was able to add to the family history by becoming her family’s first lawyer after graduating from the University of Florida Levin College of Law.

“My parents had backgrounds in engineering and government,” said Howard. “Becoming a lawyer was something I wanted to do because no one in my family had ever become a lawyer. I had a passion for it at a young age.”

That passion led to her appointment as a U.S. Magistrate Judge in the Middle District of Florida in 2003 and she was later sworn in as a U.S. District Judge in 2007.

“I was extraordinarily humbled to be sworn in as a judge,” said Howard. “It speaks volumes about our country. A first generation American can really do anything.

“The American Dream is alive and it is well. If you come here and embrace your heritage and embrace this country and work hard for what you want, you can do it.

“You do not have to sacrifice your thoughts and ideals. The opportunities are there if you work hard,” said Howard.

She gives back to the community and country that have provided opportunities. Howard has served on the boards of the Jacksonville Transportation Authority, the City Human Rights Commission, the National Conference for Community and Justice, OneJax, the Girl Scouts of Gateway Council, TheatreWorks and the American Cancer Society’s Duval County Unit Advisory Board.

Attorney Paul Perez

Paul Perez, is executive vice president and chief compliance officer with Fidelity National Financial and is the former U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida.

Perez immigrated to the United States with his parents in 1960 when he was 5 years old and his family settled in Jacksonville. He received a degree in history and international affairs from Jacksonville University, a master’s degree in Latin American Studies from the University of Florida and his law degree, with honors, from The George Washington University.

Perez was appointed by President George W. Bush in January 2002 as U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida.

“At one time or another we had grandparents and family living with us when I was growing up,” said Perez. “We had a tight family in many ways.”

That bond extended to the small Cuban-American community in Jacksonville when Perez was growing up.

“We looked out for one another,” said Perez. “Now we are the generation looking out for the younger generation.”

He wasn’t sure what his career path might be as he progressed through his education.

“I tried to connect at different times with my Cuban heritage growing up. I majored in history and international affairs. It was my way of trying to connect with who I was and my background,” said Perez. “I went to law school and went a different direction.”

As U.S. Attorney, “One of the first events I was asked to speak at was an annual dinner of the Hispanic Association in Tampa,” said Perez.

“It was neat that they asked me, a Jacksonville kid, to be the speaker. It felt good, because I was the first Hispanic U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida.”

Perez is thankful for the opportunities and successes he has experienced. “For what this country has done for me, reciprocity is required and it was ingrained in me to give back through my family and the practice of law,” said Perez.

Perez is a member of the boards of JU, Florida Coastal School of Law and The Community Foundation in Jacksonville.

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