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Cuban American Legal Pioneer Osvaldo Soto Dies At 91


Miami is mourning the death of a legal pioneer, Osvaldo Soto. He helped Cuban Americans gain equal representation in government and fought for the repeal of an English-only law in Miami-Dade County. NPR's Greg Allen has this remembrance.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Osvaldo Soto knew Fidel Castro. They were law students together in Havana in the late 1940s, and he supported the revolution. But like so many other Cubans, Soto became disillusioned with the Castro regime and left for the U.S. He took part in the Bay of Pigs invasion, attempting to oust Castro. When that failed, he took a series of jobs at U.S. universities teaching Spanish. His daughter, Bertilla Soto, says he wrote five books on Spanish grammar and literature.

BERTILLA SOTO: He could recite the life of Jose Marti in English, Spanish and French (laughter). He loved it.

ALLEN: After teaching stints in Wyoming, Virginia and Iowa, Soto returned to Miami in the mid-'70s and got his law license. He soon became involved with the Spanish American League Against Discrimination along with longtime friend Eduardo Padron. Padron, the president emeritus of Miami Dade College, says when he first arrived in Miami, Cubans weren't welcomed by all.

EDUARDO PADRON: I remember coming to a bus to go to school and having to sit in the back, and I saw a lot of signs that said, no Cubans, no dogs.

ALLEN: In 1980, the Mariel boatlift stoked anti-Cuban sentiment in south Florida.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The U.S. Coast Guard reports at least 40 more boats are en route to Key West.

ALLEN: One hundred and twenty-five thousand Cubans arrived in Florida over a six-month period. Voters passed an ordinance making English the county's official language and prohibiting any funds from being used to translate government documents into Spanish. As president of a civil rights group, Osvaldo Soto became an activist, forcing Miami Beach, a city with a large Cuban American population, to begin hiring Hispanics. His daughter Bertilla Soto worked with him as a teenager and later as a lawyer.

SOTO: So, yes, I was there when he flew the plane over Miami Beach, where it said, Miami Beach equals discrimination. I was there at the county chambers when English only was in the - we won the fight to get it removed, the legislation repealed.

ALLEN: That came after years of work in 1993. Padron says Soto fought for better representation not just for Cuban Americans but for all people of color and believed that was the key to making Miami a world-class city. Bertilla Soto says her father saw the law as a way to fight for change.

SOTO: And I think that came from his experience in Cuba. He wasn't going to stay quiet. He wasn't going to let injustice happen on his watch.

ALLEN: Soto's most visible legacy may be his former receptionist and law clerk, his daughter Bertilla. Today she's the chief judge of Florida's 11th Circuit, the fourth largest trial court in the nation. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF BALMORHEA'S "SKY COULD UNDRESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.