Class Act

The early morning dropoff at Belén Jesuit Preparatory School unfolds with almost military precision. Young uniformed boys, backpacks in hand, one by one jump out of late-model SUVs and minivans. The vehicles, many displaying "Belen Wolverines" license plates, linger momentarily at the school's entrance before lurching back into west Miami-Dade rush-hour traffic. Older boys, all wearing the standard-issue white shirt, blue-and-red-striped tie, and navy trousers, pull up in cars of their own, parking them in neat, single-file formation just beyond the chainlink fence that surrounds the campus.

It is not entirely a coincidence that the scene should recall a well-coordinated military operation. Before his religious conversion, St. Ignatius of Loyola, the sixteenth-century founder of the Jesuit order, served as an officer in the Spanish army, a vocational antecedent that still finds expression in the Jesuits' insistence on strict discipline.

But the purposeful march of uniformed students into the school building suggests something else as well: a long-running assembly line spanning the distance between Havana and Miami and producing as many esteemed, beloved, corrupt, and hated public figures as one school could ever hope to include on its alumni rolls. The school, founded almost 150 years ago in Cuba and relocated to Miami in 1961, lists among its graduates more than one Cuban president, a former Miami-Dade County commissioner, a disgraced Miami city commissioner, the current Miami-Dade mayor's right-hand man, and the recently appointed executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation. And that's just for openers.

The Duke of Wellington once observed that his victory over Napoleon in the battle of Waterloo had really been won years before, on the playing fields of Eton, the elite school that produced England's nineteenth-century ruling class. It would not be too far a stretch to similarly suggest that much of Miami-Dade's contemporary political landscape was long ago mapped on the playgrounds of Belén.

"There's a certain pride that comes with graduating from Belén," says Sergio Gonzalez, sipping Cuban coffee in his 29th-floor office at the Stephen P. Clark Government Center. Gonzalez, who graduated from the school in 1981, has been Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas's chief of staff for three years. If not for the salt-and-pepper hair and wedding band, the youthful-looking Gonzalez might still pass for a choir boy. "Do you know what the dean at Georgetown once said about Belén students?" he asks, proudly pointing out that six students from the '81 graduating class, himself included, went on to study at the prestigious Washington, D.C., university. "He said, “They're worth their weight in gold.'"

Academics and accolades aside, Gonzalez insists the most valuable lesson he learned at Belén is the Jesuit dictum of "Men for Others." Indeed, he says, pointing to a framed poster containing the phrase and commemorating not the millennium but the "Bellennium," it's the reason he's in politics.

Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, like Gonzalez a 1981 graduate of Belén, agrees that public service is a motivating principle for the school's alumni. "Belén ties you into the community," says the lawyer and former county commissioner who last year ran for Miami-Dade mayor against Gonzalez's boss. "It inculcates a sense of oneness between the individual and his environment."

While the Jesuit commitment to serve others may have something to do with the school's disproportionate representation in the local political power structure, Joe Garcia, who trailed Gonzalez and Diaz de la Portilla at Belén by a year, graduating in 1982, thinks that's only part of the reason. "It's that arrogant feeling," says Garcia, the new executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation. "We had that “Those who can't do, teach' attitude even in high school. We were trained to think there wasn't anything we couldn't do."

Garcia appears to have taken the lesson to heart. Literally. From his table at Versailles, the Calle Ocho restaurant that is a favorite with the Cuban politerati, Garcia works his cell phone and the crowd with equal vigor. "Three seconds. Go!" he shouts, instructing the person on the other end of the phone to begin speaking, while jumping up from his chair to say hello to "the political consultant of the moment."

Watching Garcia in action, visiting Gonzalez in the county mayor's office, or, for that matter, looking out over the Miami skyline from Diaz de la Portilla's 34th-floor law office, it seems irrelevant to ask why Belén students get involved in public affairs. A better question would be: What is it about the school that makes little Cuban boys want to run the world?

El Colegio de Belén first opened its doors in Havana in 1854. The all-boys Catholic boarding school inherited its name from the building's previous tenant, a convent called Nuestra Señora de Belén (Our Lady of Bethlehem). By 1925, when the school moved to a 60-acre campus on a residential edge of the city, it had become the island's most renowned educational institution, the place where boys from Cuba's most powerful families got together and began discussing how they would one day run the island nation. There was little to suggest this was anything but the natural order of things. By 1950 Belén could count among its alumni the Cuban president Carlos Prio Socarras and the editors of three of Havana's largest newspapers.

To say Belén was the Cuban equivalent of exclusive New England prep schools like Choate and Philips Exeter Academy, however, would be to miss the point. Those schools had to compete with one another for their share of Kennedys, Bushes, and Rockefellers. In Cuba, Belén alone attracted the sons of the country's leading families.

"The physical structure of the place was imposing," remembers Miami talk-radio host Francisco Aruca, who attended the school between 1953 and 1959. "It was like a fortress." Old photographs of the school, including a wall-length black-and-white aerial view that hangs in the foyer of the modern-day Belén, suggest a cross between the Roman Coliseum and the Pentagon: a main building with eight large, seemingly impregnable wings assembled in a semicircle around a massive courtyard, fronted by a Neoclassical façade.

The school, which took students from first grade through the completion of their secondary education, was arranged into six divisions, each composed of two or three grades. Discipline was a central tenet. "They would ring a hand bell at 6:45 or 7:00 a.m.," remembers Aruca, "and you had three minutes to get up and into line. There was a line for everything: mass, breakfast, everything." Honors and awards, not surprisingly, were based on the military model. The top student in each division was called the division general; the top student in the senior division, the brigadier. Aruca admits he never made it that high up the chain of command, but he likes to point out that he often was put in charge of recess. "That was an honor that entailed responsibility," he recalls, no doubt quoting the priests who instructed him as a youth. "I had to make sure the equipment was on the field when students got there, then pick up all the stuff when they left."George Suarez, Region 4 director of the Miami-Dade Public Schools system, flashes a wide grin when reminded of the various tasks assigned to students at Belén. Suarez, who followed both his father and grandfather to the school, was one of Belén's most distinguished students; named brigadier in 1955, he graduated the following year. Four years later, while studying for the priesthood (a pursuit he eventually abandoned), he returned to Belén as an instructor. His brother Xavier, the former mayor of Miami, was still only a fifth-grader at the school.

The mid-Fifties were portentous years on the island, and at Belén. While President Fulgencio Batista's soldiers were having no luck cornering Fidel Castro and his band of guerrillas in the Cuban countryside, students at the school knew exactly where to find the rebel leader. "There's Fidel!" Aruca remembers students shouting as they walked past the Belén class portrait of 1945, hanging on the wall in one of the school's assembly halls.

And Aruca, for one, became obsessed not only with Castro's life in the mountains but with his career at Belén. He recalls going to the school's library and requesting Fidel's senior yearbook. To this day the radio host and businessman (his Marazul Tours operates flights to Cuba and has made him a controversial figure in the exile community) can recite the cryptic inscription beneath the young man's photo, words Aruca interpreted as prophetic. "Fidel has timber," Aruca recounts, his index finger in the air. "The artist will have much with which to work." Knowing the Jesuits were not free with their compliments, Aruca set out on a comparative study. "I went through all the yearbooks in the collection, one by one," he says, smiling at his own youthful exuberance, "and there was never a prediction like that for any other student."

Castro's ties to Belén were well-known throughout Cuba. George Suarez recalls that on his triumphant march into Havana in January 1959, the rebel leader was handed the school flag. Castro reputedly took the school symbol in his hands and kissed it, pledging to visit his alma mater.

According to Suarez, Fidel did visit but not for two years, and then only Suarez caught a glimpse of him. "One day in early January 1961, I was making a phone call from the school's switchboard, just inside the main entrance," remembers Suarez, leaning back in his chair to get a better look around the corners of the past. "Someone comes running in, out of breath, and says to me: “Allí está el caballo.'" Suarez understood the slang phrase (literally translated: "The horse is here") to mean Fidel was outside the school. He remembers walking into the sunlight, looking across the bridge that separated the campus from the surrounding community, and seeing Castro's motorcade perched just on the other side. Suarez made it across the bridge and over to Castro's vehicle. "It wasn't a jeep," he recalls, painting the scene with great care. "Just a car, a sedan." In it sat Fidel Castro and four bodyguards. Everyone in the car carried a machine gun. "I asked him if he was there to see anyone in particular, but he just looked at me, stared back at the school, eventually nodded to his driver, and drove off."

Three months later, on April 17, 1961, 400 government soldiers seized the school. Suarez recalls the exact date because, at precisely that moment, on a beach south of Havana, a small army of Cuban exiles was launching the failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs. Suarez and the rest of the faculty were herded into the school's auditorium and held at gunpoint while the buildings were ransacked. The episode, though terrifying, was not without its moments of levity. "A soldier would come down every couple of minutes with some device from the observatory," says Suarez, referring to the school's celebrated star-gazing and weather-forecasting facility. "And he'd say, “This is what you use to communicate with the CIA.' And we'd say, “No, that's what we use to measure atmospheric pressure.' Then he'd come down with something else and accuse us all over again." Suarez smiles wryly, shaking his head and muttering, "Comemierda."

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.

"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.

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.

It is the continuities with the old ways, after all, that most define Belén. The students wear the same school-uniform colors their Cuban counterparts once wore. The school remains affiliated with the Catholic Church, even if only a small portion of its faculty is ordained. Mass is still held every morning, once before school begins and again during homeroom. Theology classes are a required component of the curriculum.

In many ways the current incarnation of the school more and more resembles the Cuban Belén, if not in its physical appearance (though architectural echoes of the Havana fortress remain) then in its social and cultural function. It is once again the place that successful, prominent, and connected fathers send their sons so they, in turn, may become successful, prominent, and connected. "My five-month-old is going to go to Belén," vows Jorge Blanco. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla's son already is there.

And the school continues to nurture good relations with the area's political stars, alum and otherwise. Belén boasts, according to Pat Collins, not one or two but "a slew" of students working in Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's Miami office. Internship opportunities in local government may expand next year if attorney Manny Diaz, Belén class of 1973, succeeds in his Miami mayoral bid.

Nevertheless those associated with the institution maintain the school confers no special advantage beyond a good education, a desire to succeed, and a commitment to reach out to others. "Folks believe there's a network," stresses Sergio Gonzalez, excusing himself for a meeting with Juan Mendieta, acting director of communications for Miami-Dade County. "Did I mention he went to Belén, too?" Small world.

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