By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
Dressed in a plaid shirt and jeans, white cane in hand, Manuel Duasso stands near the blackboard in his classroom at the InterAmerican Center. Desks have been pushed back to accommodate a long table laden with food and sodas, and to make room for Apolonia, a professional singer who is one of Duasso's students. Clad in a purple satin dress, eyes glowing with purple eye shadow, Apolonia sings a few English-language pop standards and some Spanish ballads, seguing from song to song with bits of stage patter. "Ladies and gentlemen, I hope you enjoy this little party, which is in honor of our great teacher Mr. Duasso," she announces. "This will not be the last, and I hope we can have many other parties like this." She slips another cassette into her deck. "A mi profesor A a el le gusta mucho," she announces, launching into a playful cumbia called "La negra Tomasa."
The semester is ending, and Duasso's two dozen speech students have thrown him a poorly concealed surprise party. His best friend and fellow professor Carlos Gonzalez is here, and students have filtered in from Duasso's other classes, too.
Duasso's deep-set eyes are in shadow, his thick brown hair slightly rumpled, no doubt because he has been moving around the room and occasionally grazing another body or being grazed. He is uncharacteristically subdued amid the talking, eating, and nonstop salsa. "Everyone here is struggling to get ahead in their lives. That's a bond we all have," he says, impressed with the fact that most of his students aren't native English speakers and many attend school while working and raising a family.
"At first I said, 'I refuse to let myself be led by the blind,'" concedes 22-year-old James Bertrand, one of Duasso's English composition students. "But as a psychology major I'm always interested in seeing how people work. I told myself, 'Let me just observe what will happen.' Now I truly feel he's an excellent professor. He's capable of explaining things very clearly. I still wonder how he grades papers, and how he knows who's speaking and where they're sitting."
"He's different than the other ones," adds Marielena Enriquez, a 24-year-old speech student who just received an associate of arts degree in psychology. "He worries about people."
Despite having recaptured what he calls "my professional self-esteem," Duasso says self-doubt still ambushes him. "It's never vanished," he admits. "I have struggled in the last ten years to convince myself I am a worthy person."
He says his experiences with discrimination have sensitized him to the plight of other misunderstood groups. That feeling A and, perhaps, a sense of political drive inherited from his councilman father A have inspired in him the urge to gain public office. "I have this little secret dream of sometime running for something," Duasso says. "I've always wanted to be in a position to enlighten people, to help people understand my disability and others, and to call attention to the discrimination against handicapped people, whereas before my disability I didn't know it existed."
Duasso doesn't remember when exactly he forgave his assailant, but it was early on. "The way I looked at it in those years, it was a very, very scary thing, because at any point you could become so bitter and hurl so much hatred. I was really scared my family would pick up on it if I was angry, and I felt something bad would come out of it. Let's say my family, instead of dealing with the situation, would have done something really radical [to retaliate]. We never talked about him; we kind of tiptoed around that and hoped everyone would forgive or forget. It was too much of a Pandora's box. It was very good for me that he was caught and convicted A it was sort of like an affirmation that God is in control and there is a justice system."
Fernando Lamigueiro, Jr., was released from the Hendry Work Camp, where he'd been transferred in 1989 after a stint at the Dade Correctional Institute, on April Fools' Day of 1991. "I had lost the better part of my youth in prison, and I thought I'd have some fun," Lamigueiro remembers. "First thing, my old buddies came by: 'Oh, we're so glad you're out,' but they weren't. My cousin came by with drugs and girls in his car. He said, 'We're gonna have a good old time.' This went on for one year. I was living from one party to the next."
At the close of that year, Lamigueiro dropped LSD at a South Beach disco. Amid the drunken revelry and sexual posturing, he says, he saw demons. The sight turned him back to God. "I realized there are spirits that control every person," Lamigueiro asserts. "I saw the system of this world is controlled by the Devil and his angels, and the result is death." He began meeting with followers of Orlando evangelist Benny Hinn. He'd earned his GED and had taken some college-level accounting courses while in prison, and he was able to land a sales job with a company that published Spanish-language Christian literature. He made good money, drove an almost-new Acura, dated a Christian girl. Then, in July 1994, he was fired after what he says was a disagreement with company managers about back pay.