‘Discipline, courage and authenticity’: New book celebrates Cuban-American women

MIAMI — Arnhilda Badía was a teenager when she was almost arrested for handing out prayer cards in the 1960s in Cuba. Those were the days when the Castro regime attacked the Catholic Church, expelled priests and nuns, and closed schools like the French Dominicans, which she attended.

The friend who was accompanying her was caught, but Badía managed to escape full speed on a bicycle. At the age of 18, in 1964, she was leaving Cuba with a baby in her arms – heading to Mexico – after the government confiscated her father’s pharmacy and a small farm that the family had on Havana’s outskirts.

This is just one of the many stories collected in a new book, “Cuban American Women: Making History,” about 54 women who, like Badía, found success in the United States and made important contributions to the community, while still remaining faithful to their roots and sharing their values and traditions with their children.

Persistence, discipline and gratitude

Shortly after her arrival in the United States, Badía entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to pursue a doctorate in linguistics while raising her family.

She then pursued a distinguished career as a teacher, holding positions in Tallahassee and Florida International University, and promoted bilingualism, working closely with the Florida Commissioner of Education. She also entered politics, inspired by Jeb Bush, becoming a state representative (1984-1988).

“I was very idealistic,” said Badía. One of the most gratifying projects she worked on is the Dr. Armando Badia Senior Center in Flagami Park. “I promised the seniors a center, and I got the land, and it is an honor to have been able to do it and to have it named after my father,” she told el Nuevo Herald.

What most impressed her as she learned about the lives of the women she profiled was their persistence, Badía said. One story in particular stuck with her.

Businesswoman, publicist, and promoter of the arts Aida Levitan, who came to the United States as part of Operation Pedro Pan, worked serving lunch in the school cafeteria while in high school in Miami Beach. If she didn’t do it, she wouldn’t eat, because her family didn’t have a dollar left for lunch, Levitan told el Nuevo Herald in an interview in 2022 when she was included by Forbes magazine on its “Fifty over 50” list,” as one of the most prominent women in the finance field in the United States.

Levitan then chaired the Board of Directors of the U.S. Century Bank, of which she is still a member.

“The Cuban-American woman has been an example of what immigrants can achieve in this country,” Levitan said. “She has made an enormous sacrifice for her family and at the same time she has participated in the workforce, she has built her own businesses, and she has participated in politics.”

Levitan was part of a panel at the University of Miami in late January that featured some of the women included in the book, who talked about their struggles, thanked their families and mentors, and analyzed the challenges that Cuban-American women have traditionally faced, and what work still needs to be done.

“Discipline, courage and authenticity,” was what Dr. Eneida Roldán, executive director of the Florida International University health network, and former president and CEO of the Jackson hospital system, highlighted about the Cuban-American women.

“The gift of gratitude, I carry that with me and pass it on to my children,” said Roldán in the lounge of the Otto G. Richter Library at the University of Miami, which houses the Cuban Heritage Collection, founded by Esperanza Bravo de Varona, who, along with Celia Cruz, is one of the two Cuban Americans to receive posthumous recognition in the book.

Roldán thanked her grandmother for nurturing her desire to become a doctor since she was little.

Writer Uva de Aragón, also featured in the book, recognized her aunt Sara Hernández-Catá, “a liberal and liberated woman,” who in Havana in the 1940s and 1950s was a kind of ambassador of culture, host to Cuban and foreign intellectuals.

“She smoked out of a long cigarette holder, she went everywhere on a bus and slept naked,” De Aragón said at the panel.

“The celebration of women who have stood out in various professions and branches of culture is always an important contribution. I am honored to be included in this book. I know that there are many Cuban Americans in the field of literature who deserve it as much or more than me. It is on behalf of all of them that I accept this distinction,” said De Aragón.

Not only are these stories inspiring, but biographies like that of philanthropist Ana Veiga Milton, president of the José Milton Foundation, also carry a message of hope for young people. Veiga Milton became an engineer and lawyer thanks to generous scholarships that paid for her studies at the University of Miami.

One of her goals was to recognize the generosity of Cuban Americans, Veiga Milton said during the panel. It begins with the family, extends to the church, and leaves its mark on public life. She currently serves as president of the foundation that pays tribute to the legacy of her father-in-law, José Milton, a Cuban architect and developer of Lebanese origin.