Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: A high school graduation made in Miami

High school graduate Nicole Santiago with her parents Kim and George Santiago outside Miami Dade County Auditorium.
High school graduate Nicole Santiago with her parents Kim and George Santiago outside Miami Dade County Auditorium. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Where else but in Miami do seniors break into a “USA, USA!” chant after being declared graduates?

Only in this city of refuge, where most of the parents and grandparents in the audience at the Miami-Dade County Auditorium on Tuesday sacrificed so much for their children to be living this moment of triumph and accomplishment.

To them, when graduate Celina Medina belted out a cappella “the land of the free,” that wasn’t just a phrase in the national anthem, but evidence of a dream come true.

Where else but in Miami does the keynote speaker — the school’s architect, who is introduced as a Tito Puente lookalike when he takes up the timbales — warm up the crowd with an affirmation in Spanish, “Y sí, este cubanito fue a Princeton”?

Yes, Rolando Llanes, CEO of Civica, went to Princeton and he wants the 246 graduates of Mater Lakes Academy to know that they, too, can accomplish whatever they pour their energy into, despite the fact that Hispanic and African American students like them are considered by the statisticians as “disadvantaged and a subgroup.”

These kids have already sent the statistics packing: 92 percent are going to college and 23 percent are graduating with both a high school diploma and an associate in arts degree from Miami Dade College, according to Principal Rene Rovirosa, whom the student speakers, one after another, call Papa Bear.

Not that he’s a softie. He’s enforced quite a few unpopular rules.

“It’s a day to celebrate,” Papa Bear says. “Boys, you can wear your earrings now.”

Llanes focuses them on the road ahead.

Up to this milestone, he tells them, they’ve been carried on their parents’ backs, prodded on to succeed by teachers like his own, South Miami High’s industrial arts teacher David Smith, who recognized his talents 37 years ago and put him on the road to architecture school.

“It’s time to jump off,” he tells the graduates. “It’s time to put your future on your own back.”

Where else but Miami does a non-Cuban Miami-Dade Schools administrator invoke the late salsa queen Celia Cruz before praising the graduates for being part of a generation that embraces diversity “with a sense of pride”?

“Your expansion of spirit leaves the rest of us wanting,” Nicki Brisson, executive director of charter-school support for the Miami-Dade school system, said in a brief but heart-felt send-off. “Now get a life, get a real life, where you are the caretaker of your heart and soul.”

This was but one of many graduations taking place all over town — and I sat in the audience teary-eyed at the sound of Pomp and Circumstance and seeing the last of our children, my niece Nicole Santiago, graduate.

Family drove in from Georgia and Orlando to share the occasion with her parents, Kim and George (the little brother of mine who used to be Jorge but embraced the Miami Dolphins, a band named Kiss and American girls, becoming forever George).

And where else but in Miami does a graduation end with plates of vaca frita, arroz imperial and mojitos at Versailles?

Surely, somewhere else in America, a family also fills a long, long table this time a year to celebrate a graduate. But only in Miami does a young man from Georgia who grew up in this fast-changing city, proud uncle of the graduate, get to savor the sugarcane stalk in a mojito with nostalgic delight.

As Celia might have congratulated this Miami-made Class of 2015: “Azúcar!”