Cuban-American family differs on politics but unites on helping the Cuban people

From left to right: Maria Eugenia Smith, Alex Rivas, Ana Rivas, Virginia Rivas, Tony Rivas, Andy Gomez, and Frances Serantes Gomez toast with a glass of wine and a slice of pastel de carne at the Gomez family home in Coral Gables. The extended family is giving monetary support to an after-school program at Santuario de la Merced in Havana, Cuba.
From left to right: Maria Eugenia Smith, Alex Rivas, Ana Rivas, Virginia Rivas, Tony Rivas, Andy Gomez, and Frances Serantes Gomez toast with a glass of wine and a slice of pastel de carne at the Gomez family home in Coral Gables. The extended family is giving monetary support to an after-school program at Santuario de la Merced in Havana, Cuba. Special to the Herald

Like many Cuban-American families in South Florida, Andy Gomez and his relatives are all over the lot when it comes to Cuba. Gomez, his wife Frances and two of their in-laws are heading to Cuba as pilgrims during Pope Francis’ visit, but other extended family members vow they will never set foot in Cuba as long as there is a Castro in power.

Still, the whole extended family — 15 people in all — have managed to come together around a common theme: helping the Cuban people. The family, including the second generation, is helping support two programs at the Santuario de Nuestra Señora de la Merced, a Catholic shrine in Havana dedicated to Our Lady of Mercy.

It was Gomez’s idea to get the whole family behind adopting the church in Old Havana. They help finance an after-school program that teaches children about God, the Church and human values in a fun way and provides snacks as well as a new project that brings counseling to kids who face school and home life challenges in the poor neighborhood surrounding the imposing Baroque church.

No one in the family is a fan of the Castro government, but they all say helping the church programs is their way of reaching out directly to the Cuban people. “We strongly believe we made a mistake putting the Cuban people together with the Castros. They are not at fault, and we cannot blame them for what has happened,” said Gomez. “More people should be doing this type of thing.”

On Saturday, the day Pope Francis arrives in Cuba, Gomez, his wife, and Tony and Virginia Rivas, the in-laws of the Gomezes’ eldest daughter, will line the streets of Havana with tens of thousands of Cubans as Francis passes en route to the Apostolic Nunciatura. Then they’ll head to La Merced to meet with some of the people helped by the church’s programs, which also include elder daycare and breakfast for children.

The idea to help started to come together after Gomez, a retired assistant provost and dean of international studies at the University of Miami, struck up a conversation with a group of seminarians at the papal Mass in Santiago, Cuba, during the 2012 visit of Pope Benedict. Some of them were studying at the seminary next to La Merced and Gomez stayed in touch. “They started to talk to me about the needs of the church,” he said.

It was one of those seminarians who put him in touch with Father Gilbert Walker, the rector at La Merced who belongs to the Vincentians missionary order founded by St. Vincent de Paul.

Gomez, who was a longtime senior fellow at UM’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, presented the idea of helping La Merced at a family gathering last December. Not everyone was instantly sold on the idea.

“I had a little bit of mixed feelings. My parents were forced to leave; they lost their living. I wanted to make sure it was a worthy cause,” said Jeannie Smith, whose paternal grandfather was a large landowner.

According to family lore, the farm where her parents lived in Camaguey was taken over and used as the headquarters of Huber Matos, a revolutionary who became a political prisoner after expressing dismay at the Marxist turn of the revolution. He was sentenced to 20 years for treason and sedition.

Smith wavered until she met Walker during a trip he made to Miami. “I had a wonderful impression,” she said. “What I see with this priest is a man who is nurturing values in the minds of young Cubans. Cubans have been programmed, programmed, programmed. The value system is gone. It won’t happen overnight, but if the church begins with children, there is hope for the future.”

Recently the extended family got together at the Gomezes’ Coral Gables condo to enjoy a meal of slow-cooked pork, fried platanos, boniato, rice and a Cuban-American concoction, flake — a combination of chocolate flan and chocolate cake, to discuss Cuba, the pope’s visit and why they want to help La Merced.

“I want the best for the Cuban people. When I send money to help kids, I’m not helping the government. I’m making their lives better,” said Tony Rivas, who was 14 when he arrived in Homestead aboard a stolen crop duster with 13 other people in 1968.

Even though Rivas, a businessman, jokes that “if I talk to my sons about Cuba, I may as well be talking about Mars,” the younger generation also is helping with the La Merced project.

Gomez’s youngest daughter, Kristi Gomez Smith, is holding a children’s clothing drive for La Merced kids at habit, her Coral Gables boutique, and her older sister Frances Marie, a teacher, and others have collected school supplies that the family will take to La Merced.

But Jeannie and José Smith, of Coral Gables, say they have no interest in going back to Cuba while the Castros are still in power. “I will never go back as long as there is communism,” she said. José Smith feels so strongly about it that he hopes the next president will cut off diplomatic relations with Cuba. However, other members of the extended family support the rapprochement.

Rivas said that although he hates communism, he’s in favor or renewing ties with Cuba. “Nothing has happened in 54 years,” he said, “so let’s try something different. It can’t get any worse.” He will be making his second trip back to Cuba since the crop duster incident. His first trip was when he rented a boat and went to claim his brother Alex during the 1980 Mariel boatlift.

His wife Virginia hasn’t been to Cuba since 1980 when she went alone to meet her husband’s parents and introduce them to her 1-year-old son. She is looking forward to Francis’ visit but said many in her family don’t think she should go. “I am going as a pilgrim; I am not a tourist,” she said.

Alex Rivas and his wife Ana, who live in Kendall, aren’t going on the pilgrimage and they don’t want to return to Cuba until the Castros are gone either. But Ana said, “When Andy told us about [the La Merced project], we thought the cause was wonderful.”

“Even though we’re family, we have differences of opinion, but we all want to help Father Gilbert,” said Gomez, who will be making his third trip to Cuba since leaving in 1961.

Frances Gomez will be making her first trip back to the island since she left at age 4 in September 1961. She admits to being a little nervous.

A relative of hers, the late Santiago Archbishop Enrique Pérez Serantes, indirectly had a role in making the day the bearded rebels marched triumphantly into Havana on Jan. 1, 1959 possible. When Fidel Castro, Raúl Castro and their fellow revolutionaries failed in their assault on the Moncada Barracks on July 26, 1953, Pérez Serantes is credited with intervening and having the brothers sent to the city jail in exchange for having Batista forces searching for the rebels end repression against the city’s residents. Most likely that action spared the Castros’ lives because most of the rebels held at the Moncada Barracks were shot, Gomez said.

“As a true Christian, he had to do what he had to do,” said Frances Gomez, who is the great grand niece of Pérez Serantes.

Walker said he’s delighted by the extended Gomez family’s involvement with La Merced, which was dedicated in 1886 and is one of the most popular churches in Havana because it attracts adherents of both Catholicism and Afro-Cuba religions. “The church is open to everyone. We welcome everyone,” said Walker.

Having international support for the church’s programs is “certainly new for us,” said Walker, an American priest from the Gulf Coast who has been in Cuba for 12 years.

“We have always been about reconciliation and building bridges,” he said. “This is certainly building bridges between people here and Andy’s family.”