When you take on positions of influence and power, you take on an unspoken, but assumed, responsibility of representing “your people.” At times, I have underestimated the impact of being the highest-ranking Latina in the Baker-Polito administration. I hear repeatedly from colleagues and people across the Commonwealth about how important such representation is. Although it wasn’t my intent to have that effect when I was appointed secretary of labor and workforce development, it was clear I would need to be a good steward of the Latino culture and to make sure I made our community proud.
I was born in Havana, four years after the Cuban Revolution ended in 1959. My parents, Antonio and Rosa Acosta, were hoping the Revolution would bring freedom to the island, but instead it brought more censorship and oppression. As a professor, poet, and activist, my dad knew it was time to uproot his family and leave his entire life behind to give his two children the life he felt they deserved. He and my mother, also a professor, decided we’d move to the United States.
We were fortunate to leave during the small window of time in 1967 when “gusanos” (worms), as we were called — traitors of the Revolution — were allowed to go. We eventually settled in Union City, New Jersey, an established Cuban immigrant enclave where I grew up fully immersed in Cuban culture. Spanish was my first language and Cuban food, music, and traditions were my way of life. Frijoles negros, maduros, ropa vieja, and flan were my favorite foods. Stories of Cuba were part of our daily diet.
Our parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and their friends gathered to mourn and talk about what they had left behind, yearning to one day return. These stories of battle, loss, and hope formed the very essence of who I became. Until his dying day at age 89, my dad never gave up on his dream that Cuba would someday be free. He was also extraordinarily proud to be an American citizen and taught me from a very young age the importance of appreciating this country and contributing as much as I could — to make sure I left everything I touched better than I had found it.
When they first arrived in the United States, my parents worked in a variety of jobs while they learned English and went back to school to earn master’s degrees in education. Their Cuban credentials were useless here. I remember sitting at the dining room table doing my homework while my mom, sitting next to me, did hers.
After about 12 years, my parents landed jobs in their teaching vocations — my mom as a bilingual first-grade teacher in Jersey City and my dad as a high school teacher in Union City. So great was his influence at Emerson High School that after his passing, a street was named in his honor.
Being an immigrant and watching my parents struggle to gain their footing in the United States influences every decision I make. Reflecting on my family’s journey, important questions come to mind: What if they had been better connected? What if resources to learn English were easily accessible? What if their doctorates from Cuba actually mattered in this country? The challenging transition from an immigrant’s native country to this one remains difficult.
One of my missions has been to make the path smoother by supporting the funding of organizations that combine English language training with skills training. Known as ESOL-integrated training programs, they provide all workers coming to Massachusetts with opportunity — and the ability to use the talents they bring with them.
Young people need those same opportunities at school. Ensuring that our school systems are equipped to expose students from all our cities and towns to occupations in high demand has been a hallmark of the Baker-Polito administration. During my tenure as secretary, I’ve had the honor of visiting many of our vocational schools throughout the Commonwealth to see firsthand how students are gaining relevant skills for today’s economy. The success of these programs hinges on ensuring that young people from underserved communities have equitable access to high-paying, high-demand jobs, regardless of their ZIP codes.
Perspectives matter. Serving as secretary of labor and workforce development has been the greatest honor and privilege of my career. I hope that bringing my experience as a Latina has helped me leave things a little better than I found them.
Rosalin Acosta is the secretary of labor and workforce development for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.