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What Joe Garcia remembers most are the limitations imposed by the concrete-locked campus and the students' subsequent resourcefulness. "We didn't have an athletic field," he explains, "so the gym teacher would say, “Run a lap around the building,' and we, of course, would cut through the alleys."
Some of the corners cut by the students crossed the line from inventiveness to larceny -- for example, the notorious final-exam scandal of 1980. One alum, who asked not to be identified, remembers the first time he heard a name he and the rest of South Florida would grow to know well. "I crammed for all of my tests and did pretty well," he recalls. "Then I found out I had to take all my exams over again because a guy named Humberto Hernandez and some other people had stolen copies prior to the final-exam day."
Hernandez had taken advantage of the Little Havana building's antiquated design -- which included hard-to-lock windows and doors -- to gain entry to the offices where the tests were kept. The exams were surreptitiously distributed, along with the answers, to various students.
"Twenty minutes into the chemistry final," chuckles Garcia, "a guy with a 40 average gets up from his seat and starts walking toward the front of the auditorium. We can't believe it. We're grabbing for him, telling him to sit back down so he won't give us away." The test proctor, though, didn't catch on until the exam was nearly over, and then only with the help of divine intervention. Or something like that. "One guy was so stupid he couldn't memorize the answers," Garcia recalls, allowing himself all these years later to relish the moment of the caper's collapse. "He actually brought a copy of the exam to the test, then dropped it on the floor by accident."
The tests were readministered to the students; Hernandez was allowed to graduate. After Belén, "Bert," as his classmates still refer to him, attended college and law school and in 1996 successfully ran for the Miami City Commission. The source of the youthful Hernandez's appeal with voters, particularly elderly Cubans, was a naughty-niño-next-door charm: prep-school manners coupled with back-alley smarts. In 1998 the popular politician was found guilty of vote fraud in the 1997 city elections, then later convicted of unrelated bank-fraud charges. He was sentenced to four years in the federal penitentiary at Pensacola.
Garcia, then the state's Public Service Commission chairman, was in Tallahassee when Hernandez's legal troubles began. He recalls a curious exchange he had at the time with his assistant, also a Belén grad. "When we heard [Hernandez] had been indicted," Garcia says, "my aide screamed, “Yes!' and I looked at him like, “Coño, why would seeing Bert in this situation make you happy?'" Because, the aide answered, "that guy stole my sneakers in eighth grade."
The anecdote, both funny and revealing, suggests the poetic continuity between the Belén schoolyard and the political jungle of Miami, illustrating not just the degree to which, in Hernandez's case, the child is the father of the man but the extent to which relationships and opinions forged at the school persist among its graduates.
Certainly all the alumni trace their interest in government and passion for politics to their days at the school. "Student government was something real at Belén," says Garcia. "We'd go to Washington, D.C., as part of the Close-Up Program, and while students from other schools were sightseeing, the Belén guys wanted to go to the National Archives and listen to the Nixon tapes." The point of the yearly trips to the nation's capital, which began in 1975, and of the school's emphasis on civics, says government teacher Pat Collins, was a practical one: "I thought our job was to bring these [Cuban] boys into the political mainstream as expeditiously as possible."
By 1993 Collins's ex-students had done more than simply join the political mainstream. They had stormed it. In that year's District 11 Miami-Dade County Commission race, Miguel Diaz de la Portilla defeated a field composed of not only Joe Garcia ("I was supposed to win that election") but fellow Belén alumni Jorge Alvarez and Justo Luis Pozo. Fittingly the district the ex-Belemitas fought over included the school itself, which in 1981 moved from Little Havana to a 30-acre campus in Westchester.
"This is not the little school that came to this country to take care of the needs of 100 or so students," says Father Marcelino Garcia, reflecting on just how much has changed since Belén offered classes at the Gesu Church in 1961. Indeed almost nothing about Belén today would qualify as "little." The school, already the recipient of several high-profile gifts in recent years, including one of two million dollars in 1997 from the estate of alum and late Coca-Cola chairman Roberto Goizueta, is in the midst of a ten-million-dollar fundraising campaign. An active alumni association of more than 4000 members should aid in achieving that goal. In the meantime several large-scale building projects, including the construction of a science pavilion, are under way.
If the school's campus is constantly evolving, the same cannot be said of the composition of its student body. Belén's enrollment of about 1000 boys, in grades six through twelve, no longer overwhelmingly Cuban, nevertheless remains overwhelmingly Latino and almost exclusively white. "It's been hard to raise the number of black students above a handful," says one administrator. "You're asking parents to send their kids across town to a white neighborhood to be surrounded by a classroom of white students." And while a fifth of Belén students receive some degree of financial aid -- totaling almost $600,000 per year -- the school's $7500 annual tuition undoubtedly remains an obstacle to racial and socioeconomic diversity. Entrance exams designed to select students who already have benefited from good schooling present another challenge. As for the possibility of admitting girls to Belén? It's been raised, say the school's directors, but it's not a serious consideration.