In My Opinion

Fabiola Santiago: The riches of Miami’s exile community reflected in its young

 

fsantiago@MiamiHerald.com

There’s seldom a dearth of pathetic and pitiable news on my plate.

Drunken bad boys, otherwise known as the U.S. Secret Service, disrespect with their reckless behavior the president they swore to protect. The campaign for the governorship of Florida turns into an ugly little ethnic war. The Cuban charade known as the National Assembly hands down the edict from Mount Havana to The Exile that Cuban-Americans, whose homes and businesses the same government confiscated, are welcomed as “investors.”

When high school senior Flavia Cuervo popped into my day, I was well into Saturday satire, writing about how far Cuban-Americans have come from the label “ gusanos” (worms) when we fled Cuba’s Communist regime to now being privileged “ inversionistas extranjeros,” a right still denied to Cuba’s citizens.

Flavia chimed in like a burst of light and hope.

“Good news!” the editor-in-chief of The Harbinger, the school newspaper at Miami Lakes Educational Center, wrote me. “Last night, I learned that I was accepted to Harvard, Yale and Princeton.”

I choked up, as thrilled as if she were my daughter.

The Harbinger staffers are something else. They weigh in on social issues, world events, generational riffs — and a couple of weeks ago, they held a Twitter Talk on the Cuban embargo that was a more interesting and respectful conversation than what I’ve heard from many adults.

“The underlying importance of the discussion is not simply to be used as a trading chip or ultimate move, it is a discussion that bridges a gap between generations,” Flavia wrote about the embargo on the school’s online newspaper.

If this is what “The Selfie Generation” looks like, snap away.

The granddaughter of a Cuban political prisoner, Flavia came to this country with her family in 1999 when she was 3 years old, and the family settled in the Hialeah-Miami Lakes area. She went into elementary school as an English-for- Speakers-of-Other-Languages student. At 5, she could read in Spanish — her mother taught her — but knew little English.

By first grade Flavia was out of ESOL, and by third grade, she was excelling at Miami Lakes Elementary’s gifted program, where she remained until eighth grade when the school became a K-8 center. She had talent and worked hard at every subject, but she loved most of all, science.

Flavia applied at Mast Academy, the prestigious Virginia Key magnet high school that has become controversial because worthy students are turned down in favor of less academically accomplished students from nearby Key Biscayne.

“It was my dream to go there,” Flavia told me, still a bit wistful.

But she was turned down.

She went with her second choice — Miami Lakes Educational, now an “A” school but once considered only a vocational school for potential dropouts. She became a part of the rigorous Cambridge Academy program, which focuses on engineering technology, forensic science, and journalism.

It was in journalism that she found a mentor in English teacher and newspaper adviser Neyda A. Borges, whose own life story mirrors Flavia’s, and along with her 6.39 weighted grade-point average, her writer’s voice. She’s taken on people who stereotype her generation as apathetic, ignorant, indifferent. She moderated the embargo debate. Her college essays are heart-wrenching and uplifting at the same time.

“Too often, I fall into these categories: female, Hispanic, immigrant, divorced parents,” she wrote on her Harvard application. “The numbers tell me that I am supposed to fail, that I'm destined to… Too often I'm reminded that I am not expected to excel in a male-dominated industry or get accepted to a top college or graduate with honors.”

How sweet it is to watch her conquer.

A Gates Millennium scholarship finalist, Flavia hasn’t yet decided where she’ll go. There will be campus visits and financial aid packages for the working-class family to review.

“A friend tweeted about me being an Ivy League girl now, and I thought, ‘Oh, wow, that’s me now.’ That’s so surreal.”

But it’s all too real. Hers is the kind of story we’ve come to expect from immigrant-rich, multicultural Miami.

Such are sometimes the spoils of exile.

Read more Fabiola Santiago stories from the Miami Herald

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