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Ricardo Miranda: From refugee to cabinet minister

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Ricardo Miranda

Ricardo Miranda, the MLA for Calgary-Cross, was part of the wave of New Democrats who entered the Alberta legislature in May 2015, giving the party a majority government. A native of Managua, Nicaragua, Miranda was a flight attendant for 15 years before he entered politics. The province’s only Jewish, gay and Hispanic legislator, Miranda was named minister of culture and tourism on Feb. 2, 2016.

Tell me a little bit about yourself. When and why did you come to Canada?
I was born in Nicaragua, Managua, to be exact, and I came to Canada in 1988. I lived in Guatemala for two years prior to that. We left Nicaragua in 1986, after the civil war there. We came to Canada as a family, as refugees.

Were you raised in a traditional Jewish household. Was your family Zionist?
Those questions didn’t come up very often. We were in the middle of a civil war and I think it was more nationalistic in the sense that we were trying to avoid the war around us. The question of Zionism didn’t come up until much later in my life. As far as my family, they were trying to stay alive, to keep us alive.

In my family, we had a memory, but it wasn’t a religious thing. We knew we were not Christian. We knew we were Jewish. We lit candles on the Sabbath and broke bread and those things.

READ: ENTREPRENEUR HEADS TO ISRAEL TO SHARE ACCESSIBILITY APP

It wasn’t traditional in the sense of North American Jewry, where there are much more cohesive families and a centre for religious practice and religious living. Our families practiced our version of Judaism, with the traditions that were passed down through the generations. But there was not much of going to temple and I wasn’t bar mitzvahed until much later in life.

It was kind of strange for me when I came to North America, because it wasn’t until I got here that I realized there were different sects of Judaism – Reform, Conservative, etc.

Did you personally experience persecution growing up?

No, not in Nicaragua. It wasn’t until I got to North America that I experienced anti-Semitism.

Under what circumstances?

Last night, for example, it wasn’t directed at me, but in my constituency, a car was torched and a swastika was painted on it, and white power written on it. It’s a hate crime that is actually being investigated and it wasn’t too far from where I live.

“IT WASN’T UNTIL I GOT TO NORTH AMERICA THAT I EXPERIENCED ANTI-SEMITISM”

In terms of incidents being directed at me, I’ve had names called at me. There were a variety to chose from, targeting the fact that I’m Hispanic, Jewish, gay – you name it. I’ve been the target of many names.

Was being all those things an impediment to you in politics?

No. I guess it’s interesting growing up and knowing you don’t share the same faith as the people around you. I guess you build a resiliency towards being the other. That’s never been an issue for me.

Tell me about your entry into politics. What were your goals?

I was working as a public policy analyst at CUPE. I was president of my local union, vice-president and treasurer. I have always tried to fight for those who don’t have a voice, or are otherwise marginalized.
I was lobbying government against the cuts that were being proposed to the education system.

Ricardo Miranda

I approached the party and said that I was interested in running. I wanted to build a name and expected that two or three elections down the road, I’d be able to make a difference and hopefully get elected.

The party said, ‘great, yeah, we want somebody who is committed to the area, committed long term.’ They were more than happy to see me on the ballot.

In your capacity as a cabinet minister, have there been any exchanges or connections you’ve made with Israel?

I went on Birthright many years ago, so I developed some connection to the land and to the community, to a lesser extent.

Having become the minister, I’ve had the opportunity to meet with the consul from Israel in Alberta. She’s an archaeologist and archaeology and paleontology are parts of my ministry, so we were excited to talk about the possibilities of some educational exchanges, of expertise being shared back and forth and opportunities there.

Of course, tourism is a big driver in Israel and I figured we could talk about those things, so we’re in the process of working on that.

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) told us that you are part of its outreach efforts in Alberta. Can you tell me about that?
We have in this province a Yom Hashoah remembrance day and, over the years, it had waned a little. So I re-engaged the legislators and said to my caucus, ‘this is a very important thing,’ and explained to them why it was important for us to have these discussions and include these kinds of things in the education curriculum.

On Yom Hashoah this year, I made a statement to the house. It wasn’t to tell the story of the Holocaust, but to put it in the larger context of anti-Semitism over the ages and how it affects people to this day.

I understand you’ve also lit Chanukah candles in the legislature?
I’ve been lighting Chanukah candles in the caucus room and having to explain to people what it meant and it was kind of fun. I’ve been educating my own colleagues, as well, on the significance of it.

And I think that over the years, as I grew older, and the more I wanted to know about my heritage and the more invested I became in my heritage, I’ve become much more educated myself and much more attached to that part of my identity.

There are people in your party who are not very sympathetic to Israel and I wonder if you ever encounter that, have you tried to persuade them otherwise?

The few times I have actually come across it, I have been very clear about what my positions are. Until you have actually been there on the ground, and understand that things are much more complex than this us-versus-them situation, then you’re not really grasping the issue.

Things like having access to water. People don’t always know that. When you’re talking about land for peace, there are other complexities that come into play that don’t get air time, unfortunately. I didn’t know that until I was actually on the ground and had people show me and explain to me why different things mattered and why other things do not.

Was that when you were a minister, or when you were on Birthright?
That was on Birthright. I ended up staying afterwards. To me, the whole point of Birthright is to take people like me, who have not had exposure to Judaism and wanted to be immersed in it.

Did Birthright play an important role in your identity?

Absolutely. The first night I was there, they went around and asked why we were there. One person said she was there to find a husband. People laughed.

When they got to me, I said I wanted to know what if felt like not to be a minority for the first time in my life.

In Israel, I was another Jewish person in the majority and I never knew what that felt like.

It was a different kind of experience for me and I think after that moment, it kind of focused my attention on all the things happening around me. For me, it was very poignant and especially moving.

Do you feel that as a cabinet minister who is a Jew, you have a special role to play bringing forward issues that may be of concern to the Jewish community?

Absolutely. You talk about security, but the other part is sometimes missing, and that’s the education piece, the building of bridges. I think it’s great that the temple in Calgary has a sit-down with the Muslim community. And they just recently had a LGBTQ Shabbat at the temple, as well, and people from around the city came. And I was moved to see all the political parties showing up.

Do you think you have a similar role to play in bringing forward issues of concern to the gay community?

Absolutely. People say to me that I have bonus points for hate groups, because no matter what, they hate something.

Even when I was elected, the media, all they wanted to talk to me about was the fact that I’m gay.

And I remember saying to them that I’m also openly Hispanic and openly Jewish. But only the being gay part was getting traction.
There are so many parts to the makeup of who we are

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