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How Being Cuban And Gay Shaped the University of Miami’s New Law Dean

Jessica Bakeman
Tony Varona sits in his new office at the University of Miami School of Law. He started as dean Aug. 1.

Tony Varona immigrated to the United States from Cuba as a small child. Growing up in Newark, New Jersey, he was the only person in his family who spoke English.

“I was called upon to be the family translator and to be the family representative. Whenever anybody needed to go to the immigration office or the Social Security office, I went with them,” he said. “That experience taught me about advocacy.”

Varona also navigated what he called the 'challenging task' of coming out as gay as a working-class Cuban immigrant in Newark.

“I, fortunately, had a supportive and loving family to embrace me, who loves me and loves my husband of many, many years.

“Not everyone has that great fortune,” he said. “Early on, I thought that part of what I needed to do as a lawyer and as an activist was to devote a lot of my time to the LGBTQ cause.”

Both experiences made him the lawyer he is today. Varona recently became dean of the University of Miami School of Law.

“I had that lawyering bug bite me very early in my life,” he said.

Varona specializes in gender and sexualty law and has worked as general counsel for the national LGBTQ rights group the Human Rights Campaign. He said he hopes to help connect UM law students with internships or volunteer opportunities at similar organizations in Washington, D.C., and South Florida.

Varona also taught at American University Washington College of Law in the nation’s capital before moving to South Florida for his latest role. He said he hadn’t been looking for a job, but couldn’t turn down Miami.

When he got an e-mail from a search firm asking him to apply for the deanship, “my response was a visceral one. It was just a big ‘Wow!,’" he said. “I knew that it was something that I had to do.”

Varona already had personal connections to South Florida. He and his husband own a second home in Fort Lauderdale. His parents retired to Surfside. And he grew up visiting family in the area, learning how to drive as a preteen on a farm in Kendall and vacationing in Miami Beach.

He said the cultural fusion is what attracts him to the Magic City.

“I love how there are places here where you can get a Cuban cafe con leche with your bagel and lox,” he said. “The Publix … near my parents’ home sells dulce de leche rugelach, which just blew my mind when I first saw it. It was as if the Cubans and the Jews came together and said to themselves, ‘How could we concentrate as much sugar and fat into one outrageously delicious morsel of goodness?’

“Miami is where it's at,” he said.

As for the law school, he said he is still in a listening stage after starting the job Aug. 1. He is meeting with faculty, staff, students and alumni.

“I am all ears at this point,” he said. “Only once I hear from everyone will I have a crystalized plan and vision for this law school.”

Jessica Bakeman is Director of Enterprise Journalism at WLRN News, and she is the former senior news editor and education reporter. Her 2021 project "Class of COVID-19" won a national Edward R. Murrow Award.
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