By Chuck Strouse
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By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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Alonzo Menendez recalls an incident in Havana when his youngest brother, about eight or nine at the time, made friends with some poor children who lived nearby. The Menendezes, with their two successful tobacco businesses, were anchored firmly in the privileged class. Little Jose Luis's godfather had just given him a fabulous gift: an electric train. He brought his friends over to play with the new toy, and when it was time for them to go home, he packed up the train and tracks and gave it to them. "It upset our mother," Alonzo Menendez recalls. "But he was stubborn as hell. He has always shown a certain commitment to social causes."
That headstrong quality probably came from their father, who hopped a ship from Spain at age sixteen to seek adventure and employment with his cigar-exporting siblings in Havana. After moving to Tampa to try his hand at cigar-rolling, he trekked to Boston to study accounting, then back to Havana to work in the flourishing family businesses. He married, settled in Havana, and raised a family of six children. After Castro's forces overthrew the Batista dictatorship and it became clear the Menedezes' prosperity and freedom were in jeopardy, the extended family scattered to all points of the globe. Aunts, uncles, and cousins moved to Mexico, Brazil, and Spain. The three youngest children, Felix, Jose Luis, and Carmen, settled in Madrid with their parents. The oldest brothers, Alonzo, Benjamin, and Francisco, went to the Canary Islands and Miami.
After the flight from Cuba, Menendez says, he read the newspapers every day, especially the international news. In Spain the quiet boy who loved walks in the woods, canoeing on lakes, and rock collecting became connected to global politics and the "revolutions" of the Sixties. It was during a private Catholic school retreat, he says, that he realized he would pursue the priesthood. He was sixteen at the time. "I remember it was late afternoon before supper," he recalls. "I said, 'Lord, okay, do with me what you want. If you want me to be a priest, I will do it.'"
Notwithstanding the family's devout Catholicism, when the young student told his parents of his decision, they were not especially happy. Chalking up the young man's choice to naive idealism, Menendez's father sent him on a European vacation to see the world. The holiday, however, did nothing to alter his determination, and in 1965 he entered a school run by Los Sagrados Corazones congregation in Madrid, with the notion of eventually going to Africa as a missionary. Upon entering the congregation, which is similar to an order, Menendez took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to the bishop.
"To tell the truth, I suffered during that time," says Maria Menendez, a slight woman with unwavering blue-gray eyes and softly curled brown hair. "He chose to be in a congregation that was very strict, a very sterile environment; they didn't even have vacations." Less than a year later Menendez was allowed a brief visit home when his father died of a heart attack.
In 1971, after six years of formal training at Los Sagrados Corazones, Menendez embarked on a new path to the priesthood. That year he and fourteen other seminarians left the congregation, resolving to live and work in the world rather than remain cloistered. Menendez continued his studies at a nearby branch of the University of Salamanca, but spent his days working with Cuban immigrants in central Madrid, where the city allowed the young students to set up an operation in a three-story house to provide medical care, clothing, and food at minimal cost.
To earn money for tuition, Menendez spent two summers traveling, working at whatever jobs he could find. One summer he served tea in a London restaurant. "I hate tea," he declares. He hated being shorted on his pay, too; when he left, his bosses withheld part of his last week's salary, he recalls angrily, because he quit sooner than they thought he should. The previous summer, Menendez had arrived in Hamburg knowing only one sentence in German A "Do you have work this morning?" A which he repeated day after day for a month, going from factory to factory. "I was so desperate and depressed," he remembers. "I always will take those experiences with me."
In 1977 Menendez was finally ordained. As a secular priest, rather than a member of an order or congregation, he was required to take all vows of priesthood except that of poverty, thus making him a paid employee of the Archdiocese of Madrid. Three years later Menendez asked to be transferred to Miami, where he hoped to work with his fellow Cuban exiles. (Menendez's earlier request to be sent to Cuba, to reconnect with his Cuban roots, had been denied.) For his first year and a half after arriving in Miami in 1980 he was associate pastor at St. Mary's Cathedral in Little Haiti; part-time positions followed at La Ermita de la Caridad, south of downtown, and at La Salle High School, where he served as chaplain. The Archdiocese of Miami also drew on his talents as a youth minister at their Miami Shores office. Then he was assigned to Corpus Christi.