Class Act

If you want to know where many of Miami's social and political elite got their start, check the playgrounds at Belén

Not long after that Fidel Castro, class of 1945, ordered Belén shut down and its priests banished from the new socialist state. The upheaval of those days is written between the lines on the pages of the yearbooks George Suarez keeps in his small office. "This priest skydived into the Bay of Pigs," he says, pointing to the grinning photo of a young clergyman from the school's 1956 yearbook. "It was the first jump he ever made." Flipping a few pages, he finds a group picture of the faculty. "And this is the professor who showed up one day in a rebel uniform," he sighs, reliving the moment, "and expelled all of us from the school."

The two-story, mustard-yellow edifice at the corner of SW Eighth Street and Seventh Avenue is one of those structures that appears not to have been designed so much as improvised. The main building, a windowless succession of right angles, is a box. Behind it, running away from Eighth Street and toward Ninth, is a long corridor of rooms surrounded by a small parking lot. The property seemingly has had as many lives as the stray cats that wander the neighborhood. Today it houses the Little Havana Activities and Nutrition Center, an organization that provides meals and recreation for the area's elderly. Years earlier, during Prohibition, it was rumored to have functioned as gangster Al Capone's liquor warehouse. Still, no tenant is more closely associated with the site than Cuba's most elite prep school, which, after operating out of the Gesu Catholic Church in downtown Miami for a year, relocated to the abandoned Little Havana warehouse in 1962.

Fidel: A portrait of the dictator as a young man, 1945
AP/Wide World Photo
Fidel: A portrait of the dictator as a young man, 1945
For God, country, and Belén: Father Marcelino Garcia
Steve Satterwhite
For God, country, and Belén: Father Marcelino Garcia

"Initially, upon arriving in the Unites States, we considered ourselves a temporary support service for Cuban families in exile," explains Father Marcelino Garcia, Belén's current principal. The belief among the school's directors was that Belén and its students would be back in Cuba in a few short years. So persistent were the priests' dreams of a return to the island, in fact, that Patrick Collins, a civics instructor at the school for 30 years, recalls as late as 1971 "the lay teachers were still wondering if this was going to be the school's last year in Miami." Not surprisingly, significant modifications to the property were put off until the Seventies. Only slowly did the structure begin to resemble something other than a warehouse.

The students who attended Belén in the Seventies in many cases were not the scions of well-to-do Cuban families but the children of working-class parents for whom exile, at least initially, had been a struggle. "When they first got here," says Joe Garcia, pausing so the listener can appreciate the significance of his remark, "my father was a car wash at Avis and my mother a waitress at HoJo's." The urban setting and the adversity of exile proved a powerful alchemy. "On Eighth Street," adds Carol Vila, then a math teacher and now an administrator at Belén, "it was a different group of students. They were very street smart. They were survivors." In other words very much like the school itself and perfectly suited to flourish there.

It is those students who attended Belén during its Little Havana era who now exert disproportionate influence on the political and cultural life of South Florida. Those who graduated between 1979 and 1982 alone include not only Garcia, Sergio Gonzalez, and Miguel Diaz de la Portilla but state Rep. Gaston Cantens, WSCV-TV (Channel 51) vice president and general manager Luis Fernandez-Rocha, gay-rights activist Damian Pardo, and former City of Miami Commissioner Humberto Hernandez. This from a school that, at the time, graduated only about 80 students per year. As Garcia puts it: "If you went to Belén back then, you had a pretty good chance of ending up either famous or infamous."

Or so it must have seemed to students who, from an early age, were made to feel they had joined a select tradition, regardless of the fact that it was housed in a cramped former warehouse. Or maybe because of it. "We were like a small family growing up in a little apartment," remembers Jorge Blanco, a member of the class of 1981, the last to graduate from the Little Havana campus. "It was like Dead Poets Society," waxes Garcia. "When we went to see it, my wife actually got mad and punched me, telling me: You don't cry at any other movies and you're crying at this stupid piece of shit.' I couldn't help it."

The rituals, as might be expected, were decidedly male and sophomoric. "The old Belén in Little Havana had no windows," recounts Garcia. "You'd turn off the lights, and it would be pitch black. Then the books and chairs would start flying." Blanco recalls another tradition, referred to only, and ominously, as "the pole."

"When it was your birthday," reports Blanco, now a successful dentist in Kendall, "the other students would take you out to the basketball courts, spread your legs, and ram you into the metal pole that held up the basket." Pause. "I wonder what the sterility rates are for Belén alumni," he asks with a mix of nostalgia and professional curiosity before revealing, somewhat sheepishly, that his own birthday fell safely in the middle of summer vacation.

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