As a student at Florida International University in the late 1980’s, in search of my identity, I attended a seminar that examined important Cuban historical sites in the state of Florida. That afternoon, I had planned to raise my hand and address the audience about important nuggets of Cuban history I had unearthed in Tampa’s Ybor City. I should have known that like many “best laid plans of mice and men” these pre-orchestrated schemes don’t pan out.
It turns out, my intended exposition was thankfully preempted by Rafael Peñalver, an energetic, well-prepared orator who discussed the preservation efforts he was spearheading at the San Carlos Institute in Key West — a historic building in Key West, or as it’s known to Cubans, Cayo Hueso, an institute that Cuban poet and freedom fighter Jose Martí once referred to as “ la Casa Cuba.”
Minutes into the then-young Miami attorney’s presentation, I understood that rather than sharing my random and quite scattered thoughts on the historical legacy of Martí and his imprint on Ybor City, my time that afternoon would be best spent listening to Peñalver’s lecture. As fate would have it, Peñalver and I would cross paths over a decade later when I was producing the PBS documentary Jose Martí: Legacy of Freedom.
When I sought Peñalver’s insight on Martí for my film, I discovered that he was still very actively involved with the San Carlos Institute. Ralph offered to drive me to the Institute and show me around the place. I accepted his gracious offer and in the ensuing five hours of our journey to Key West, Ralph, with the care and concern of an older, wiser brother, has proceeded to share with me stories that linked me to my past.
I learned about the San Carlos’ colorful history, acquired an interesting perspective on Martí’s pursuit of Cuban independence and gained a profound respect for the preservation of history, which sadly for Cubans, much of it has either been distorted or lost.
We arrived at 516 Duval Street as the sun was setting behind the majestic edifice that is the San Carlos. Suddenly, Key West took on a far deeper meaning than bar hopping, fishing and Fantasy Fest. The San Carlos was first founded in 1871 at another location in Key West before it burned down. The 1890 building that still stands was founded by humble Cuban cigar workers who wanted to preserve their history, educate their children, and aspired to one day liberate Cuba from Spanish rule. It still stands as a repository of Cuban exile hope.
Peñalver remains a key protagonist in the truly inspiring story of his battle to preserve the building and its history.
I recently ran into Ralph at a local radio station where he was explaining to someone that his crusade to save the San Carlos began the day he first visited the building, which was also the day his father was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
“Every Sunday my father would hold a “Cuba culture” session at our home. One Sunday he would invite a Cuban historian, the next Sunday a Cuban musician, and so on. The whole idea was to instill a sense of knowledge and pride in our Cuban roots — and keep alive the dream of a free Cuba,” he said. “I decided to take on the task of bringing the San Carlos back to life — for my homeland — and in my father’s memory.”
Today, the San Carlos Institute proudly represents Cuban exiles’ noblest ideals and aspirations. It also stands as a tribute to the heroic sacrifice of Rafael Peñalver, who for more than 25 years has spent countless time, money and worry on preserving it. Peñalver’s unflagging devotion to the San Carlos is as historic as anything inside the building.
As the late John W. Gardner, secretary of health, education, and welfare under President Lyndon Johnson, once noted: “History never looks like history when you are living through it.”