Wifredo Ferrer, U.S. Attorney for Southern Florida, offered a piece of advice to MLEC students, “Immigrants add value.”
While today Ferrer wears a crisp, grey suit, the Hialeah boy with Cuban parents lingers; the “Cubanito” comes to the surface as he retells stories from his childhood and his climb to the top. The Spanish he learned as a child and that his “mom forced [him] to keep,” swirls into his English, as he slips comfortably, into occasional Spanglish.
He grew up in a working-class area next to the Palmetto Expressway with a father who did not speak English and a mother that spoke five languages.
“When the going gets tough, I remember mami y papi.” His mother struggled through an office job where she was often belittled and disrespected. His father held up a sign – “I’ll cut your grass for $5” – until he got into an accident that left him partially paralyzed.
But hardships never crippled them.
If his parents instilled anything in him, he said, it was hope. The type of hope that is concise, and personal and shared in three simple lessons plus the typical rule of thumb – “Moms are always right.”
Number one: Nothing is more important than hard work. “95% of your success will be determined by how much you work.” He said to a room of college hopefuls.
Number two: You cannot win, if you don’t play.
Ferrer learned the lesson the hard way. After receiving a Cuban-style tongue lashing from his mom, who discovered an application in the trash because Ferrer didn’t believe that a “Cubanito from Hialeah” would be selected for a White House fellowship, he applied.
It changed his life, granting him the ability to work as an assistant to a cabinet member.
Ferrer graduated from Hialeah-Miami Lakes High School and then the University of Miami, so he was not ready to face the anti-Hispanic stigma, he didn’t even know there was such a thing.
“I never realized I was a minority because I was in Miami,” he said. “We are a diverse group – so many backgrounds and abilities. That’s why I love South Florida, we are an incredible mix.”
During his first job as a bank teller, a regular customer told him that he had to to move “to get away from all of these Hispanics” in South Florida.
Ferrer was taken aback.
“He didn’t know I was Hispanic. My name is Wifredo, but it was always Willy.” Instead of getting angry, Ferrer responded with “’Bueno, que tengas un buen dia,” The man “turned all different shades.”
The message, he said, is that it is important to treat people with respect and it is important to stand up what is right and to “be proud of who you are and where you’re from.”
It is not necessary to be aggressive or confrontational, sometimes something as simple as wishing someone a nice day, in Spanish, is enough.
Ferrer’s career has taken many twists and turns. He’s had great opportunities. He worked with Janet Reno, the first female U.S. Attorney General. Because he spoke Spanish, he was pegged to speak to Mexico’s Attorney General about an international case.
But the most important lesson came as his father was dying of bone cancer – do good. “He said to me ‘has bien,’ and it is what I work hard to do every day with my job.”
Ferrer has convicted people for different type of crimes – from human trafficking to fraud. While the job can be grueling, the Attorney, appointed by President Obama in 2010, loves it.
“I pinch myself every morning,” he said, “I get to represent you all, the third largest district in the country. I get up and I do good. I get to use the law as an agent of good.”
His final piece of advice to Jaguars is to pursue personal fulfillment, to value people more than money.
“If you love what you do, there is no money in the world that can beat that.”
Check out our Storify on the event.