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My Story

My name is Reina Elisa Saco and I was born in Santiago de Cuba in 1990. My parents could have been considered well-off at the time, as much as one can be in a country rationing food. However, just one year after I was born, Cuba entered “The Special Period” as the Soviet Union collapsed, causing devastating shortages of food, medicine, and other resources. Once that happened, everything began to unravel quickly.

In August of 1994, just weeks before my fourth birthday, riots broke out across Cuba and a new refugee crisis exploded across the country.

In August of 1994, just weeks before my fourth birthday, riots broke out across Cuba and a new refugee crisis exploded across the country. My father felt that it was best for our safety to prepare to leave and began to make arrangements. My parents had me baptized in secret, in case we didn’t survive the journey. Not long after, we set off to sea in a tiny boat in the middle of the night, hoping to reach Guantanamo Bay and US soil.

Unfortunately, the boat engine failed and the entire boat broke apart, crashing into the rocks outside of Guantanamo Bay. My father swam to shore while keeping me and my mother afloat. Once we were ashore on US soil, we were immediately detained by US Marines. We were processed and given MREs and then taken to the makeshift tent city holding thousands of Cubans and Haitians. While we had technically reached US soil, we were detained in limbo and eventually moved to camps in Panama. 

From September to December, a green tent was my home. The one constant in all of this was an ankle monitor.

From September to December, a green tent was my home. The one constant in all of this was an ankle monitor. Originally fancy tech that helped the military track each refugee in the camp, I discovered that it made a lovely bangle I could slip off. It was quickly relocated to my ankle. It became part of my “normal.”

I am eternally grateful that I was never separated from my family.

In the grand scheme, my story has a happy ending. I am eternally grateful that I was never separated from my family. My family was eventually paroled into the US and we settled in Miami. I grew up in the Cuban enclave called Hialeah, and didn’t really know a world beyond Spanglish and different shades of brown. Leaving Hialeah and Miami for college was a difficult choice, but it was time to grow and discover new places.

Leaving Hialeah and Miami for college was a difficult choice, but it was time to grow and discover new places.

Over my three years as a law student, I interned with Three Rivers Legal Services, Children’s Legal Services, and UF’s Intimate Partner Violence Assistance Clinic. There were, of course, people who tried to steer me towards more profitable specialties, but public service was always the top choice. My mentors encouraged me to apply for an Equal Justice Works Fellowship, but I didn’t consider myself good enough to hope that such a prestigious national program would choose someone who graduated with a B+ average.

I was a finalist for two programs and the top choice for one. I chose to accept the offer to spend my fellowship at Florida Legal Services, Inc. because they had an office in Newberry and I could stay in Gainesville. I had become attached to my new home.

Advocacy is a long game. My work took me all over the state, but my major projects revolved around Alachua County and Orange County.

Advocacy is a long game. My work took me all over the state, but my major projects revolved around Alachua County and Orange County.  Safe housing and access to fair treatment were the focus, and I strove to protect renters from illegal practices through a combination of education and services. I maintained a strong emphasis on education during my fellowship and partnered with community groups to share the knowledge, including the Alachua County Labor Coalition and Madres Sin Fronteras.

I spent four years at the University of South Florida in Tampa and I discovered my love of service while frequently volunteering at my church and through the Honors College. I also discovered that race was a very real issue. Until leaving my hometown of Hialeah, I’d never felt that my name or skin color mattered; it was a crash course after living in a multilingual hub.

After completing four years and earning two BAs and two certificates, I was accepted into an MA program and moved on to the University of Michigan - Ann Arbor.

After completing four years and earning two BAs and two certificates, I was accepted into an MA program and moved on to the University of Michigan - Ann Arbor. While I enjoyed studying for my masters, I began to turn an eye toward law school. UF was admittedly not my first choice, but I wanted to return to Florida. I bought a small home in the Grove Street neighborhood and I started my life in the city that would win over the most reluctant Gator.

Attending law school in Gainesville offered me the opportunity to learn from mentors who were community-oriented.

Attending law school in Gainesville offered me the opportunity to learn from mentors who were community-oriented. I was a founding volunteer for the Eighth Judicial Circuit Bar Association’s pro bono project Ask-A-Lawyer as we set out to assist the residents of GRACE Marketplace and others facing housing insecurity. I was hired on as a research assistant for a wonderful professor who focused on human rights and who believed that accessibility to basic human rights could contribute real change to the world.

But more than once, I found myself disappointed with the legal options available. Legal help is only as useful as the laws behind it. Policy advocacy was succinctly added to my fellowship outline. I was honored to work with the Alachua County Labor Coalition as they petitioned the City of Gainesville and Alachua County to rethink the rights afforded to the renters in their communities.

I was honored to work with the Alachua County Labor Coalition as they petitioned the City of Gainesville and Alachua County to rethink the rights afforded to the renters in their communities.

I kept finding projects to help the underserved in our community. This March, the Board of County Commissioners approved changes to the County’s Human Rights ordinance and added housing protections for veterans, survivors of domestic violence, immigrants, and people with alternative forms of income. At the city level, the Commission approved most of the points we proposed and they directed staff to revise their code to reflect stronger protections for renters and better regulation of rental housing to ensure safety and energy efficiency.

While I’m proud of what I have accomplished throughout the state, I know there is a lot of work to be done right here in Gainesville.

While I’m proud of what I have accomplished throughout the state, I know there is a lot of work to be done right here in Gainesville. We need to do more to help the underserved. I realized I could work to make those changes on a case by case basis , or I could run for office and help from the other side of the podium. I believe that a lot of good can come from sitting down with the people facing struggles and working with them to effect change. Community lawyering requires that lawyers empower the community so that they are the ones making the decisions. 

I’ve seen that there is a lot of good that can happen when good, skilled, attentive people sit down to work.

I want to bring that model and my skills to the City of Gainesville. I’ve seen that there is a lot of good that can happen when good, skilled, attentive people sit down to work. I believe I am ready to do that work and I am asking for your vote on March 17th, 2020.