Chalk dust — that was another reason Leyva was not likely to follow in his mother’s footsteps. Chalk is to a gymnast what flour is to a baker. Their hands are covered with it. Particles of it drift onto everything in the gym, like a light snowfall.
On parallel bars, to improve grip, gymnasts apply honey, corn syrup, saltwater or spit — depending on their secret formula — then more chalk from the bucket.
Leyva was an asthmatic baby, so the last place Gonzalez wanted to take him was the gym. Nor could she acquire the medicine he needed. In crumbling Havana, she was accustomed to deprivation, whether it was a lack of electricity or food. But when her son’s health became another sacrifice to be made for the revolution, she had to get out.
She sent her father in Miami a telegram with the message he had told her to write when she was ready to leave: “Everything is perfectly fine.”
He helped her, Danell and his sister get to Peru, where they waited for six months before moving to Miami in 1993.
Yin Alvarez was performing for Cuba’s gymnastics troupe in Mexico when he decided to flee in 1992. Like Gonzalez, his athletic career had faded, and Cuba’s government-run sports programs, weakened by the end of Soviet subsidization, were only going to decline. Alvarez wrapped his clothes in a plastic bag and swam across the Rio Grande.
In Cuba, Alvarez had been one of Fidel Castro’s “pets,” as people referred to privileged athletes. In Miami, he washed dishes, cleaned bathrooms, sold cemetery plots — and squirreled away money.
Through the grapevine, he reconnected with Maria Gonzalez in Miami. They had known each other since they were 7 years old and slotted into the sports school for gymnasts.
“We were so different,” said Alvarez, 46. “She was perfect. I called her group the monjas [nuns]. My group was funny, crazy, socio. I was talkative, a bad influence. I wanted to show the world I was different.”
Interjected Leyva, rolling his eyes: “And he hasn’t changed.”
Gonzalez, 44, recalled how Alvarez sprayed fire extinguisher foam all over class in the middle of the national anthem.
“I’m the exact middle of them. I follow the rules, but I ask why,” Leyva said.
They talked while making dinner together at home. Their three huge American bulldogs — Jade, Hercules and Pirata — barked on the patio. They discussed their belief in Santeria, how prayers help when nerves are taut.
Leyva was a toddler when Gonzalez and Alvarez met again. Alvarez told her of his grand plan to open his own gym and produce American champions. He was sweet but deluded, she said.
“Do you want to see my gym?” he asked.
“You have a gym already?” she said.
He drove her to a storage unit. Stuffed inside was a balance beam, pommel horse, vaults, mats.
“He was so organized with all his receipts,” she said. “I said, ‘You pretend you are crazy and irresponsible, but you are not.’ That’s when I fell in love with him.”
They married in 2001. They moved from their first small gym to Universal in 2004. Their disillusionment with life in Cuba transformed into a no-regrets outlook in America.
“People here complain about paying their bills,” Alvarez said. “In Cuba, you have no electricity, you can’t afford a car or have a mortgage. So I am happy to pay my bills! People here are looking for the golden egg and don’t realize they are holding the chicken.”