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Barbara Agrait — Using Both Your Cultures To Enhance Understanding

Barbara Agrait (Photo courtesy Barbara Agrait)

Barbara Agrait, a Cuban-American public relations professional, loves being able to speak both English and Spanish.

“I wish I would speak more languages,” she says. “I think there’s such richness in all the cultures of the world and for the first time ever, I was in Europe this spring, and it was just beautiful, going between country to country on the train and just seeing all the people speak three, four, five languages.”

CAREER PATH

Agrait has carved an extraordinary career path from humble beginnings as an immigrant who arrived in the United States at 3 years old.

Barbara Agrait (Photo courtesy Barbara Agrait)
Barbara Agrait (Photo courtesy Barbara Agrait)

Like countless other immigrants, resilience, determination and a strong work ethic marked her family’s journey from Cuba to the United States.

Now, Agrait is a senior public relations manager of global media relations at Amazon and oversees all reactive media for Latin America and Canada. Before joining Amazon, she worked in government for nearly 25 years, handling national and international high-profile media and policy matters.

She’s a crisis communications expert who has trained Department of Homeland Security and Department of Defense personnel, governors and elected officials. Agrait has also conducted training for the Center for Homeland Defense and Security’s Mobile Education Team at the Naval Postgraduate School. As a native Spanish speaker, Agrait often spoke on behalf of DHS. Spanish-speaking news programs worldwide routinely interviewed her.

In 2013, the Profiles in Diversity Journal named Agrait a “Woman Worth Watching.” She attended Florida International University in Miami, graduating with a master’s degree in public administration and a bachelor’s degree in psychology. She also holds a graduate certificate in Human Resources Management from FIU.

Barbara Agrait as a child (Photo courtesy Barbara Agrait)
Barbara Agrait as a child (Photo courtesy Barbara Agrait)

For Agrait, growing up in the vibrant city of Miami was “wonderful.”

“Miami is a beautiful town,” she says. “It’s a melting pot. You have people from all walks of life. And it was certainly the place that I call home, the place that made me into the woman I am today.”

Because she was so young when her family left Cuba, Agrait says she has no actual memories of moving to the United States.

“But, of course, as any immigrant, you sit around the family table and you discuss what it was like and why the journey,” she says.

For her parents, the journey was for freedom, due to the communist regime in Cuba.

“My parents were seeking freedom for themselves and freedom for their two children, my brother and myself,” she says.

Agrait is fiercely proud to be a Hispanic-American and at the same time, thankful for her heritage.

“I would say I’m more thankful that I’m an American because I can’t imagine living in Cuba with that regime — the regime that killed both of my grandparents and that’s why eventually my parents had to flee,” she says.

IMMIGRANT MEMORIES

Agrait’s parents would tell stories about those early days in Miami, the challenges of learning a new language, and the “stigmatization” of being new immigrants.

“Some people don’t really understand other cultures and it scares them when instead of scaring them, it should actually be something that interests them so that they can learn new things,” she says. Her parents told her about their process of working hard and paving the way for her and her brother, “who really would be the recipients of the American Dream.”

My parents were seeking freedom for themselves and freedom for their two children, my brother and myself.

In their book “Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds,” authors Ruth Van Reken, David Pollock, and Michael Pollock observe that the experience of growing up in a culturally diverse environment is increasingly prevalent, extending beyond traditional Third Culture Kids (TCKs) to include children of immigrants, refugees, international adoptees, and minorities.

The authors emphasize that these individuals, who engage deeply with various cultural worlds, share common characteristics with traditional TCKs, as detailed by Ruth Hill Useem. Additionally, the book explores the concept of Cross-Cultural Kids (CCKs), encompassing children of immigrants who not only coexist but actively interact with multiple cultures, fostering meaningful and relational involvement.

‘AN EVOLUTION’

For Agrait, “having two cultures is a beautiful thing.”

Barbara Agrait (Photo courtesy Barbara Agrait)
Barbara Agrait (Photo courtesy Barbara Agrait)

She loves her Cuban culture — the music, the food, getting together with family over for Thanksgiving or Christmas, particularly for “Noche Buena,” the evening of Christmas Eve when many Latino families celebrate the holiday, and for Dia de los Reyes Magos, or Three Kings Day.

“All of those things were just so cool,” she says.

For Agrait, “Noche Buena” counts among her favorite traditions.

“You get together around the table and you normally have roast pig and white rice and black beans, and you have some sweet fried plantains, and you put on some salsa music and you dance and you egg each other on,” she says with a chuckle. “It’s a lot of fun.”

BEING BILINGUAL

For some who come from bilingual families, they may do certain things in one language and other tasks in another.

For Agrait, “I actually think in English.”

“I dream in English,” she adds. That said, having spoken English and Spanish most of her life, Agrait has been on international TV shows where her fluency in Spanish was a plus.

“I’ve had to speak in Spanish on live TV and it’s interesting how there’s a processing in your brain of immediate translation from English to Spanish,” she says.

For the most part, that translation “happens seamlessly,” Agrait says, with some exceptions that might elicit a “chuckle” from her intended audience.

“I mean, sometimes certainly I say, ‘Oh well, I’m not sure if that was the right word,’ but as any PR professional will say, ‘We’re all human,’” according to Agrait. “If you say a wrong word, you just keep on going and either the anchor will correct you or the viewers will get a chuckle out of it.”

I’ve had to speak in Spanish on live TV and it’s interesting how there’s a processing in your brain of immediate translation from English to Spanish.

Regarding accents, when asked if people peg her as Cuban when she’s speaking Spanish, Agrait says if she’s around Cubans, “I definitely will be pegged as Cuban.”

But in her life as a PR professional — both in government and out — Agrait says she tries to maintain a “neutral tone.”

“Especially when you do PR, you don’t want to have necessarily something that’s going to be confusing for the viewers,” she says. “So I try to be as kind of neutral in tone as possible, but definitely when I’m around my family or any Cuban, it comes out.”

LESSONS FROM A BICULTURAL LIFE

The biggest lesson Agrait takes from growing up bicultural in her profession “is just always having an open mind and always trying to kind of meet people where they are in their journey.”

Barbara Agrait (Photo courtesy Barbara Agrait)
Barbara Agrait (Photo courtesy Barbara Agrait)

Many people navigate the complexities of being either an immigrant or being bicultural, she continues, with some of them not even knowing where they fit in.

“I want to believe that I’m the type of person that sees the people where they are,” she says. “I like to see people, and I like to love them because I think we need to love each other and support each other more.”

Sometimes, navigating those complexities of being bicultural means interpreting between cultures, according to Agrait.

For instance, when she would prep a government official to speak with a Telemundo or Univision reporter, she has to explain specific cultural nuances.

For example, meeting someone at 3:00 may actually mean that the other person shows up at, say, 3:15, “and that’s OK. And it’s acceptable,” she says. Or explaining that it’s normal in Latin America to greet someone with a hug or kiss, where that’s equivalent to a handshake.

I like to see people, and I like to love them because I think we need to love each other and support each other more.

“So really explaining those things, I think, is really helpful because sometimes it could put somebody off and they won’t understand the cultural difference of, ‘Yeah, we really don’t shake hands,’” she adds. “We hug and we kiss, and you can be a perfect stranger, but that’s how we say hi.”

Even written correspondence can be different depending on what country you’re from, according to Agrait.

Barbara Agrait (Photo courtesy Barbara Agrait)
Barbara Agrait (Photo courtesy Barbara Agrait)

“I remember growing up and my mom telling me, ‘Saludame [Greet me]. Make sure you’re looking at the people,’” she adds. “‘Make sure you’re greeting everybody in the room, ask about their children or their grandchildren before you say, ‘Hey, I need X, Y and Z.’”

To this day, Agrait says she’s more prone to start and email with a slightly longer greeting than folks in North America might be used to.

“All of my emails will always literally be ‘Hi, I hope you’re well,’ or ‘How are you?’” she says. “And some people think that’s really bizarre, but I feel like I can’t get to business without seeing you as a person. And I really think it’s a cultural thing. I think it’s definitely a part of my Hispanic roots.”

‘ALWAYS GOOD TO STEP BACK’

Consequently, Agrait says you have to explain to people that while it may be different or strange, this is just the way it is in this part of the world.

“It’s always good to step back and kind of just be human again and just be like, it’s OK, we’ll get to work, we’ll get to business, but let’s take those five minutes to get to know each other or let’s take those 10 minutes to go have a coffee,” she says.

On the other hand, being immersed in U.S. culture can sometimes be jarring when traveling abroad, according to Agrait.

Traveling to South America, she remembers going out to lunch with some colleagues with whom she was collaborating on various PR campaigns and her surprise that the meal would last 90 minutes to two hours.

In the U.S., by comparison, Agrait would eat lunch at her desk while answering emails or taking phone calls.

“I mean, yes, granted, they work until like 9:00 at night,” she says. “So, it’s not like a nine-to-five typical job. And yeah, you have a two-hour lunch, but they really are intentional about taking that step back and saying, ‘No, I’m going to take that step back. And I’m going to take that time to have a nice lunch with you, to get to know you, to talk. We can talk shop. But we can also not talk shop.’”

“So I think definitely in my professional life, I’ve had to do that kind of switch,” she continues. “OK, I don’t have to eat at my desk. I could actually go and have lunch with them. It’s a cultural thing. It’s acceptable.”

ADVICE TO ONE’S YOUNGER SELF

When asked what advice Agrait would give her younger self if she could go back in time, she says: “I feel like sometimes when you’re young, you really struggle to find your identity and you struggle to fit in and you want to be liked.”

Everybody wants to be liked, she adds.

“And I feel like growing up — maybe there were times where I didn’t really let my bicultural identity really come out as much, because again, it was like, is this acceptable?” according to Agrait. Will she fit in?

“So I think as I grew into adulthood and matured, I learned that it was wonderful, that it was great and that I should let it out,” she continues.

I feel like sometimes when you’re young, you really struggle to find your identity and you struggle to fit in and you want to be liked.

One example of this is a day where Agrait was eating in a North Carolina diner, and she encountered a man persistently inquiring about her place of origin.

“And I was like, ‘Oh, you know, I’m from Miami,’” she says. “And he was like, ‘Where are you really from?’ And I was like, ‘I’m from Miami.’ And then he’s like, ‘Before Miami.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I was born in Cuba,’ but you know, all the while I was processing: ‘Sure, I’m proud of that. It’s not like I didn’t want to share that, but why does there have to be a ‘before Miami?’”

That “hump” of acceptance from some people has caused Agrait to learn to embrace the fact that it’s not necessarily from a mean-spirited place, “but really a place of just, ‘I don’t know, but you look different and you talk different and maybe you have an accent, but I don’t know, is it a Hispanic accent? Is it a Miami accent, or what is it?’

Barbara Agrait (Photo courtesy Barbara Agrait)
Barbara Agrait (Photo courtesy Barbara Agrait)

“So, I’ve really learned to just embrace it and just understand that, look, at the end of the day, not everybody likes everybody,” she adds. “And maybe they don’t like that you’re Cuban-American or Guatemalan-American or whatever. And that’s OK, too.”

“Just live your life,” she advises. “Just be happy, be comfortable in your own skin, what has really made the fabric of who you are. And that’s where I am today.”

With age and maturity, one learns to love oneself, be kinder, and accept all aspects of oneself — “the good, the bad, the ugly, the misunderstood, which obviously that was a situation [where] he really didn’t understand, ‘Well, she looksdifferent, and she speaks different, where is she really from?’” she says.

“And that’s OK,” Agrait adds. “And I think that’s what I would tell people is accept who you are, love who you are, and if you come from a bicultural family, that’s wonderful, that’s beautiful, learn to tap into it, and I think it will certainly take you to good places in life.”

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