HAVANA – She has her uncle's penchant for speaking her mind. From her father, she inherited a disciplined tenacity.
But Mariela Castro, a married mother of three and member of Cuba's most powerful family, has paved her own way in making gay rights her life's cause. And now the 49-year-old daughter of President Raul Castro is about to make a controversial visit to the United States for a conference on Latin America.
"She has put herself at the forefront of the struggle for rights for the LGBT community," said Gloria A. Careaga Perez, a professor of psychology from the National Autonomous University of Mexico who will be on Mariela Castro's panel at the San Francisco gathering of the Latin American Studies Association on Thursday. "What she does is praiseworthy because she is a pioneer, an academic and political authority who stands up for human rights."
Requests to interview Castro were not granted ahead of her trip, and four friends and admirers declined to speak on the record, a symptom of Cubans' deep misgivings about openly discussing members of the Castro family.
But while others are shy of giving their name, Castro has not been, particularly when it comes to her signature issue. She has lobbied for years for her father's government to legalize same-sex marriage, something he has not done. Earlier this month, Castro said the president privately shares her views on gay rights, and declined to push him to go public.
While she has no doubt benefited from her surname, Castro says it has always been important to her to have a separate identity.
"I never wanted any part of that, 'the daughter of ...'" she said several years ago at a book launch in Havana. "I despise people who get on that kind of carriage, and I love myself very much for not doing so. I never did, and I never will."
But no matter how much Castro desires to set her own course, controversy will follow her on her trip to San Francisco precisely because of her father and uncle, both reviled by many Cuban-Americans and enemies of Washington for more than half a century.
When word came last week that the State Department had issued an entry visa to Castro — as well as at least 60 other Cuban scholars — Cuban-American politicians were quick to pounce. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio accused her of bringing a campaign of anti-Americanism to U.S. shores, while New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez said he was "indignant" over her presence.
They and others noted that U.S. rules prohibited Communist Party members and other high-ranking Cuban government officials from entry without special dispensation. While Mariela Castro is not officially part of the government, her personal ties to Cuban leaders are clearly evident.
The State Department has refused to comment on individual visa cases. Castro is due to chair a panel on the politics of sexual diversity in San Francisco and to meet with the local LGBT community. On May 29, she is to participate in a talk at the New York Public Library.
As head of Cuba's National Center for Sex Education, or Cenesex, since 2000, Castro has acquired a much higher profile than her siblings and cousins, becoming a leading advocate for gay rights in Cuba, Latin America and beyond.
Attractive, intelligent and quick to smile, Castro has a flair for dressing elegantly in bright colors. She is commonly seen heading up annual gay pride marches in the capital, flanked by six-foot-tall transvestites. Outspoken and self-confident, she meets regularly with visiting dignitaries, including a delegation of U.S. women last year, and travels the world giving talks about gay rights.
In conversation she looks questioners directly in the eye, is quick to speak and punctuates her words with animated gestures. She is reported to have two children with her husband, a Sicilian-born photographer, and a third child from a previous marriage, though even those basic details are not easily confirmed in Cuba.
And while Castro does not regularly give interviews, she is far from reclusive.
She is the only member of her famous family to really embrace Twitter; Fidel and Raul's accounts are dry and impersonal, apparently managed by underlings. She's also not afraid to mix it up with critics, as she did last year in a very public Twitter spat with dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez.
Grumbling about "despicable parasites" criticizing her just hours after her debut on the social media platform, Castro tweeted: "Were you ordered by your employers to respond to me in unison and with the same predetermined script? Be creative."
It was a rare moment of direct confrontation between a Castro and one of the dissidents, who are officially disparaged as counterrevolutionary sellouts doing the bidding of Washington, and it showed her willingness to depart from the prepared script, even if in defense of the government.
She was born July 27, 1962, to the power couple of the Cuban Revolution: Raul Castro and Vilma Espin, also a prominent guerrilla who later was president of the Federation of Cuban Women, a member of the Communist Party's Central Committee and Fidel's first lady stand-in for years when he had no official partner. Espin died in 2007.
Mariela, who bears a close resemblance to Espin, cites her mother's influence and has called her work a continuation of Espin's labor to advance women's rights in Cuba and Latin America.
"She was very sweet and tender. She passed along her values in educating us," Castro once said. By contrast, Castro sometimes quarreled with her father, though she has said she was always proud of his accomplishments.
It was at college in the late 1970s that Castro had her eyes opened to the gay rights movement, as a student leader who successfully fought off attempts to have gays expelled for their sexual orientation.
That tendency to go against the grain stuck, and four decades later Castro is still speaking her mind.
"It would be very easy for me to repeat what the whole world wants to hear, not contradicting anybody, being sweeter and more accepted. But my work obliges me to present realities that not everyone wants to face," Castro said at the book launch. "I'm not going to stop doing and saying what I believe in. The day I can no longer do that, I might as well spend my time planting lettuce instead."