Miami Herald memories from the kitchen to the newsroom

As I walked into The Miami Herald at its Biscayne Bay location for the last time last week, I pictured all of the characters who entered and exited the building like a stage during its half-century run.

I imagined hearing the echoes of all the scandalous politicians, flashy celebrities and gutsy Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists who have stomped around in the marble lobby. I thought of all the legacies made, reputations ruined, voices heard and lies exposed as a product of the hard work done inside the walls of the six-story building over the years.

Most of all, I thought of my Abuelo.

My mother’s father was a dishwasher at the third-floor cafeteria inside the brand-spanking-new Herald building — one of many odd jobs he tirelessly worked to help his family survive in a foreign country.

He and my Abuela fled Fidel Castro and his encroaching communist Cuba with their two adolescent children — my aunt and uncle — in 1962. Once their plane touched down at Miami International Airport, Abuelo, like many other macho Cuban fathers, scrambled to find work to support his family.

According to my storyteller uncle, Abuelo worked the night shift at One Herald Plaza for six to 12 months sometime between 1963 and 1964, when the building was spanking new. My uncle said Abuelo brought home any and all leftover food from the cafeteria; by this time he had a fifth mouth to feed, a baby girl — my mother.

By day Abuelo was also a dishwasher at a restaurant near Liberty City, and on weekends he and my uncle went door-to-door in the well-to-do Roads neighborhood washing cars.

And in his sparse spare time, he operated a small side business of creating picture frames out of a one-car garage rented out of a house in Little Havana, a trade he made a living off of in Cuba.

In my two years as a Miami Herald newsroom intern, I frequently ate lunch in that cafeteria. Sitting next to the floor-to-ceiling windows facing the bay, I tried to envision what my grandfather looked like working in the same kitchen where my chicken salad wrap was made.

I wondered if he ever thought, while he juggled several jobs just to keep his family fed, that someday his granddaughter would be an aspiring journalist with the opportunity to eat in the same cafeteria.

Abuelo eventually started a fencing company that became profitable enough to leave a Little Havana apartment behind for a house. He was able to pay for my mom’s college education. He gave his children a better life.

But he never saw the day I proudly wore my press pass to work.

My Abuelo was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2004, when I was just 11, long before I dreamed of being a journalist.

He died seven years later, while I was a high school intern at The Herald. And while he might’ve been physically alive during part of my time at The Herald, his mind was far away some 60 years ago in La Habana.

Times change. People change. Newsrooms change.

Box by box the Herald is moving to its new home in Doral and abandoning its shell of 50 years in downtown Miami.

Many only see the glow of the tired, soft blue neon sign outside of a decrepit building that will be torn down in the name of the new and glamorous. But I see a landmark.

Inside its worn exterior, One Herald Plaza has roots deep in Miami’s history. The building is a witness to the Mariel boatlifts, a survivor of Hurricane Andrew and a neighbor to the boom and bust of the housing market. It’s a testament to the city’s restless past.

It’s easy to get lost in nostalgia. But The Herald will continue to serve its readers thorough and credible information with 20 Pulitzer Prizes in tow — a result of hard work and passion compounded over the years.

It’s more than just an address change. Doral means new experiences for the paper. New stories to be told, new opportunities to arise, new legacies to begin. But it bears the same humble beginnings. Perhaps one that started in a kitchen.

Colleen Wright, a former Herald intern, is a junior at the University of Florida.

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