Graduates at St. Thomas University may have expected just the average commencement speech from keynote speaker Miguel “Mike” Fernandez at Saturday’s ceremony.
Instead, they got inspiration as they witnessed the relationship between two men who fought adversity and circumstance to make a better life for themselves.
Fernandez, a leader in healthcare service companies who was presented with an honorary degree, spoke of failure and adversity as learning experiences — and shared many of his own.
“Failure and adversity are necessary steps in the road of success,” he said.
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Then he introduced Jorge Alvart, a former Cuban political prisoner, who Fernandez recently befriended.
“The real lesson to be learned is this man came on a raft five years ago with nothing but the desire to work, but he didn’t take the easy way out,” Fernandez said.
Fernandez shared Alvart’s story, which began in Cuba, where his arms were amputated while in prison. He never gave up in achieving his dream of coming to America, where he started a business and brought over his wife and two children.
“He is the role model for anyone who thinks he’s had a bad day,” said Fernandez, 60.
The relationship between these two men was sparked last week when Fernandez was watching NBC6 news and saw a story on Alvart and the difficulties he was having selling Christmas trees at his orchid business.
“I was touched by the fact he had his life savings in this business and Christmas trees,” Fernandez said.
He was so moved that he went to Jorge’s orchid shop and met Alvart, answering Alvart’s prayers by offering to buy all the trees.
Fernandez presented Alvart with a check for all 600 of his Christmas trees on behalf of Simply Healthcare Plans, of which he is chairman of the board. He told him that they would be donated to needy families in Miami-Dade.
“This Christmas is the best I have ever experienced,” Alvart, 43, said in Spanish during an interview last week. “He didn’t just help me but he helped 600 other people.”
Alvart was so happy that the trees would be donated and that he had been saved from economic ruin that he insisted on being present as the trees were distributed.
He blamed his struggle to sell the trees, in which he had invested $30,000, on road construction in front of his orchid shop at 2032 SW 57th Ave.
“Anyone who says that this country doesn’t provide opportunities for those who want them can just look to him,” Fernandez said.
Buying Christmas trees was not the only way Fernandez brought hope to Alvart and his family. When Fernandez learned that Alvart was suffering from the final stages of cirrhosis of the liver as a result of hepatitis B contracted while in a Cuban prison, he contacted Jackson Memorial Hospital CEO Carlos Migoya to see about getting Alvart evaluated to be placed on the liver transplant list.
“What he is going to do for me, no one does today,” Alvart said.
“We will step in and take care of the bills,” Fernandez said, in anticipation of insurance denying coverage for the procedure.
While their journeys differed, both men are Cuban exiles who endured adversity to leave their homeland in pursuit of life in the United States.
The Fernandez family sought exit visas following the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.
While they were granted the visas, the two years between that and their departure saw Fernandez kicked out of school and his father fired from his job.
In Saturday’s speech, Fernandez said Alvart, “never let adversity beat him.”
Alvart was imprisoned in Cuba for the first time at the age of 14, after he was caught in anti-government acts such as burning down sugar cane fields. He was released two years later but imprisoned again within six months when he was caught trying to illegally flee the island on a raft.
While in prison, he says he was tortured several times.
In a planned attempt to escape, Alvart injected gasoline into his fingers so that he would be taken to the clinic. The plan backfired when he was denied medical attention and gangrene set in on both arms, which were then amputated.
He was released from prison after serving four years but was jailed again after trying to take his story to the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. He spent two more years in jail before being released.
However, that did not stop his dream of coming to the United States.
After his third release from jail, Alvart tried five other unsuccessful attempts to flee.
He succeeded on his seventh attempt five years ago. By then, he had a wife and two children, who joined him in Miami three years ago.
While in prison, his dream to come to the United States inspired him to tattoo an American flag on his back, and on his chest theseSpanish words: “ A noventa millas soy feliz” (I’m happy 90 miles away).