Miami-Dade High Schools

Belen-Columbus high school football game tailgates draw Miami-Dade’s Cuban-American power brokers

The best place to find Miami-Dade’s Cuban-American movers and shakers as the sun set Friday was not a staged ribbon-cutting or a stuffy fundraiser.

It was in the muddied grass parking lots outside Florida International University’s stadium, at dueling tailgates for the annual Belen-Columbus high school football game.

On the Belen side, former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, class of ’73, chatted with U.S. Congressional candidate Joe Garcia, class of ’82.

Later, on the Columbus sideline, Cuban American National Foundation and MasTec chairman Jorge Mas, class of ’81, cheered for a touchdown, then turned to shake hands with a fellow booster.

“Politicians tend to be Belen graduates,” Mas teased, “and businessmen tend to be Columbus graduates.”

That passes for trash talk between Miami-Dade’s two Catholic, all-boys private schools.

“We tell them that we’re going to end up representing them when they’re in jail,” Diaz countered. “Or when they’re looking for a job, they’re going to come to us to hire them.”

The outcome of the game was a foregone conclusion. The Belen Jesuit Preparatory Wolverines have yet to defeat the Christopher Columbus High Explorers since the teams began facing off on the gridiron about eight years ago. On this Friday, Columbus won 49-3, the most lopsided score in the young rivalry.

But never mind that.

“It’s a great way to catch up with people and sort of play the perennial, perpetual underdog,” Garcia said — speaking of the school, not his campaign.

Though gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink made an appearance at the game two years ago, all sides agree the tailgate is not a time for overt politicking. Candidates work alumni directories “pretty hard,” said Garcia, a Democrat.

“They’re all Republicans anyway,” he joked.

Cuban exiles who settled in Little Havana (Belen) and Westchester (Columbus) have long sent their sons to the schools to continue the Marist (Columbus) and Jesuit (Belen) educational traditions from the island. Belen, which has moved from its original Southwest Eighth Street home to West Miami-Dade, is named after its Havana predecessor — Fidel Castro’s alma mater.

“All my law partners are Belen alums,” said state Rep. Carlos Trujillo, Belen class of ’01. “My legislative aide is a Belen alum. My campaign manager is a Belen alum. Just about every single person we do business with are Belen alums.” His lower-level law firm associates, he joked, went to Columbus.

Both schools stress the importance of public service, which might explain why so many alumni have ended up as political operatives, legislative staffers, elected officials and civic leaders.

When Frank Quesada, Belen class of ’98, made his way around the stadium Friday night, a boy in a Columbus T-shirt stopped him like a celebrity — or a soldier.

“Are you Coral Gables Commissioner Frank Quesada?” the boy asked. “Thank you for your service.”