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Friday, April 12, 2024

Reina Saco: From refugee to the Gainesville City Commission

Saco’s Hispanic background inspired her to reach out to her community

Commissioner Reina Saco stands outside Gainesville City Hall on Sept. 28, 2023.
Commissioner Reina Saco stands outside Gainesville City Hall on Sept. 28, 2023.

Bringing a fiery passion and fierce drive for justice within the Gainesville City Commission, Reina Saco, a 33-year-old city commissioner, carries many identities — notably, her first-generation Cuban background.

Born in Santiago De Cuba in 1990, during a time of societal shifts and scarce resources as the Soviet Union disbanded its diplomatic ties with Cuba, Saco and her family fled the city four years later in a makeshift raft. 

“We ended up along with 30-40,000 refugees, ended up in Guantánamo Bay and then in a refugee camp by the Panama Canal,” she said.

Her family settled in Hialeah, and Saco later pursued a bachelor’s degree in English and Russian Language and Literature at the University of South Florida. She was surrounded by an enclave of Hispanic identities and communities growing up.

“In the greater Miami area, it’s all kinds of Hispanics and every kind of Spanish — so much so that I didn’t really realize I was ‘Hispanic’ until I left for college that I realized, ‘I’m different,’” she said.

But Saco never saw her identity as a disadvantage when surrounded by inclusive people. 

However, she did experience “casual racism” when pursuing her master’s in Russian and European Studies at the University of Michigan.

“I had a co-worker ask me if I spoke Mexican. Small things like that would come around every now and then,” she said. “But it showed me that I had a skill set that the average American doesn't. I’m bilingual, and I’m really glad I was able to reclaim my language.” 

Apart from her work in local government, Saco prides herself in family and cultural values. 

Adam Aaron, Saco’s husband, is a 31-year-old history Ph.D. student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Aaron’s background and family dynamic is different compared to Saco’s Cuban identity, as he comes from a large Irish Catholic family in Michigan. 

He views Saco’s strong sense of family as one of her obvious qualities, and it extends to beginning their own family as they welcome their new child into their home, he said.

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“It isn't just on the commission or as a lawyer that she has that sense of justice, and that extends to her friends and family as well. She makes sure that they are taken care of,” Aaron said.

Sophia Saco, a 23-year-old creative writing master’s student at the University of Central Florida, said her eldest sister took on a nurturing and caring role in her life from a young age.

With an age gap of nine years and three-quarters of a year, Saco always encouraged her youngest sister to read, lending her Harry Potter books and movies left in her room after she moved out for college.

“Being the eldest child who takes on all these tasks and always wants to care for people, she was not only my sister, but another mom, aunt and grandma in one,” Sophia said.

Their parents were always supportive of both women getting an education, being outspoken and becoming familiar with current world problems, which is a core memory for Reina Saco, she said.

Interpreting and translating English for her parents at the doctor’s, at other appointments, legal documents and on the phone with customer service was regularly occurring throughout her childhood.

“That's not because my parents were dumb,” Saco said. “It's because they just didn't have the language. It really pushed me toward legal services with communities that do not have language or often access to legal aid.”

Saco originally wanted to study history and become a professor, but eventually, she chose to study law instead at UF’s law school. She volunteered with GRACE Marketplace’s Ask-A-Lawyer program, which provided help with small legal issues for homeless and low-income residents. She then worked at the Three Rivers nonprofit law firm. 

Under the advisory of three different law school mentors, she applied for the Equal Justice Works fellowship in January 2017. She worked on housing issues and then became active at City Hall meetings. 

“I thought, ‘How can I just do this myself?’” Saco said. “And I won [a seat on the City Commission].”

Previously, Saco had been working on issues within the Gainesville area to break down language barriers, starting with the Gainesville Police Department, which did not have a very thorough language interpretation policy, she said. GPD now has 10 certified interpreters. 

Saco is now working on solutions to the “terror on immigration,” in which individuals here in Gainesville have no legal status and want to work but have no legal rights to do so. 

“From a local government standpoint, we can ask GPD to not ask about immigration status,” Saco said. “There’s no purpose to it; that should never be part of the conversation when you meet a victim.”

In 2018, Saco continued her fellowship with Equal Justice Works, working with communities in Tallahassee during Election Day, doing trial, advocacy and other kinds of training.

Saco has been openly against Tallahassee’s and the governor’s policies, which greatly impact Florida’s Hispanic communities, she said.

“It is not based on safety. It is not based on economics. It is based on cruelty. And that hurts me personally,” Saco said. “Because that could have just really been me and my family. And I remember that every time there's a giant story of a new wave of refugees or immigrants, I could have just as easily been separated from my parents.”

Saco believes people can advocate for not just Hispanic, but all marginalized communities by getting in contact with advocacy groups, she said. She notes Gainesville is rich in nonprofit organizations and individuals who are willing to ask questions, fundraise and come to City Hall to represent their beliefs.

“I think it’s American-born children or children who have some [citizenship] status that can fight hardships for themselves and their families,” she said. “Maybe those kids will want to replace the folks in Tallahassee one day, and we’ll have a better society for it.” 

Anybody regardless of their educational background and interests can still get involved in the community, she said. 

“Anything that is not a social field, you can still volunteer to help set up a workshop, a language interpreter — if you have that skill set, regardless of your degree,” she said. 

Contact Kat Tran at ktran@alligator.org. Follow them on Twitter @kat3tran

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Kat Tran

Kat Tran is a second-year journalism major and is the City & County Commission reporter for Fall 2023. They are also interested in a pre-law track (entertainment law). You can find them daydreaming about rainbows, unicorns, and sunshine in their free time. Currently, they are recovering after seeing Lana Del Rey live. 


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