As Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Giménez moved to cooperate with the Trump administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrant, a now-grownup kid remembered meeting children around an apartment complex near Westland Mall.
His parents warned him not to say he moved there from Colombia. They dreaded being sent back to a country where leftist guerrillas had just overrun the Supreme Court, and drug cartels were on a killing spree. They had sold everything to start a new life.
Flunking spelling quizzes at Milam Elementary was jarring for the kid. Back in Colombia, he was an A student. There, his teachers said he talked too much. Here, he didn’t understand conversations. He wore the same clothes twice a week and soon wore donated clothes. These were mere inconveniences, though, compared to the situation undocumented folks face today.
Back then, getting a driver’s license required passing the test and showing valid identification. Today, undocumented individuals are forbidden from getting a license. Arrests of mothers and fathers trying to drive to work are common. Recently, Giménez agreed to turn these people over to federal immigration authorities — afraid of the label “sanctuary city.” He caved to the dictums spewing from President Trump and the his white nationalist adviser Steve Bannon, who equated himself to King Henry VIII’s right-hand man.
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In 1986, divine-right kings weren’t reference points for our government. Back then, caring Miamians extended their hand to new immigrants. I was that 12- year-old, one among a couple dozen kids from Nicaragua, Cuba and the Dominican Republic who had enrolled at Milam.
The enterprising principal decided children should not fall behind because of the language barrier and enlisted Norma Ruiz-Castañeda, who came from Cuba during the 1960s Freedom Flights, to lead a combined class of fifth and sixth graders. Mrs. Ruiz-Castañeda, a dynamo, taught us science, math and other subjects in both languages. Maria Delgado taught the intensive English class.
These Cuban-American women poured their hearts into teaching us conjugations, how to divide “upside down” and the stories of the pilgrims and Abraham Lincoln. When students missed school, Mrs. Ruiz-Castañeda called their parents to ask why they were not in school.
Ms. Delgado and Mrs. Ruiz-Castañeda’s classes weren’t rote lessons. They were conversations. They did not see undocumented or poor immigrant students. They saw children with potential.
Mrs. Ruiz-Castañeda had three mantras: First, the United States was the greatest country in the world — not perfect, but a place that rewarded hard work and smarts; second, if her students returned to see her years after graduation, they’d better show up with el papelito, meaning a college degree; third, freedom was the reason she left Fidel Castro’s Cuba and why she sold knick-knacks door-to-door to feed her children when she arrived. She taught us to treasure the freedoms that politicians or criminals in our birth countries would deny us.
In the following years, other Miamians continued to mentor me, showing me this corner of America was my home. Jorge De Leon, my AP Spanish literature teacher, and another Cuban American, questioned what we defined as “fair” through novels and poems.
At the Miami Herald, editors Andrea Robinson, an African American, and Mindy Marqués, a Cuban American, gave me my first shot at journalism. I couldn’t string two coherent thoughts together, but a desire to learn was the qualification they valued. John Wolin, an editor with a physical disability and a herculean mind, supervised me on weekends, and one Saturday assigned me to chase a lead in the Gianni Versace murder.
Mayor Giménez’s complicity — cloaked in alleged fiscal responsibilit y— and the commission’s relative silence, tarnishes the generosity of all the people in this community who have comforted and encouraged immigrants like me.
But Miami is not just politicians kneeling to a man with autocratic instincts. Miami is the Cuban exile teachers who became parents to hundreds; it’s the diverse editors who shaped me; it’s the high school friend who taught me to surf.
To them, I wasn’t the “illegal.” To them I was José, the Hialeah kid.
They gave me sanctuary in their own way. Miami should continue that beautiful tradition.
José Dante Parra is a Democratic strategist and head of prosperolatino, LLC.