Two minutes into a drive from Davie, where the Miami Dolphins train, to Calle Ocho, where lunch beckons, Kiko Alonso — speaking in English and Spanish — admits that when he was younger he didn’t much like the idea of being Hispanic.
“I heard Spanish at home but I didn’t want to speak it,” he says. “I didn’t like it, you know? I didn’t want it to be an issue at school. I didn’t embrace it. I just didn’t have a feel for any of that.”
His feelings have changed.
The Dolphins’ new starting middle linebacker is rooted in a culture and in places different from the ones that gave rise to the NFL and America’s favorite sport.
His father was born in Cuba and exiled to Puerto Rico, where he was reared. His mother was born in Colombia.
And Alonso wants you to know about his heritage because, for some time now, he has been actively connecting with the culture he wanted to leave behind as a boy.
“Obviously, when the boys were growing up, we would do Spanish and English at home, and for the longest time they would not want to talk back in Spanish,” Monica Alonso says of Kiko and his brothers, Carlos and Lucas.
“But they hit a stage as teenagers that it became kind of cool to know Spanish and be out there. Maybe it was also a little bit of maturity that they realized, ‘Hey, aside from Mom making Spanish food, we really are Hispanic.’
“Then they started wanting to take classes in high school aside from just the required. And once Kiko got to [the University of] Oregon, he really got into his Spanish classes. He became friends with his Spanish teacher — I think she was from Costa Rica. He got into it, reading, getting into the literature, the islands. And that happened with all three of them.
“It’s kind of cool to see them finally — grafted, I guess is a good word — almost adopted into their own culture.”
Alonso seems more than simply adopted by the Hispanic culture. He seems more like a full-blooded family member.
“Yeah,” he says with a smile, “I don’t feel the same anymore about being Hispanic. Now I’m happy I’m Hispanic. Some guys in the locker room, they ask, ‘Man, what are you?’ They don’t know what to make of me because you don’t see too many Hispanics in the NFL.
“I just laugh.”
The Alonsos are a living example of what happens when disparate people from disparate countries come to America and help give rise to a new generation of Americans. We see in them how it can be when people try to reach for their cultural roots without losing contact with their natural-born country.
Alonso, born in Newton, Massachusetts, is an American. But beyond that undeniable link to hot dogs and apple pie, a significant part of Alonso feels, acts and reacts Hispanic.
He loves soccer, and when Colombia played the United States in a recent Copa America match, he donned a Colombia jersey and was very happy with Colombia’s 2-0 win.
His Twitter account is, for all intents and purposes, bilingual. His Instagram handle is, in part, “el bravo.”
He loves boxing because, well, Cubans love boxing. We just do.
When Alonso and I talked about beisbol, he mentioned how Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Cespedes are “monstruos,” or monsters. We talked about how they play like Cubans — with passion, at times with recklessness, always at breakneck speed.
Kiko’s father, Carlos Alonso, swells with pride when he talks about his three sons. And when the conversation turns to Kiko, Carlos speculates that pretty soon South Florida will see how a Cuban plays football.
“Kiko’s a really gentle guy. He’s very friendly. He has a big heart,” Carlos says. “But when he puts that helmet on, he’s a different person. Go back to him being Hispanic, his Cuban side, I think that fire comes partly from his culture. His humility, not so much, that’s an individual thing. But that competitive spirit he has comes from that Hispanic heritage, I think.”
The reason Alonso has agreed to ride 40 minutes one way to lunch is because we’re going to eat Cuban food and a good bistec de palomilla, arroz blanco y frijoles negros con maduros is worth that trip.
(For the non-Spanish readers, the meal was a thinly sliced sirloin steak, white rice, black beans and fried plantains. And Kiko is stopping there plus a yuca appetizer because he’s in training and has practice the next morning.)
We have an interesting ride. It’s a good time. Alonso, traded from the Philadelphia Eagles to the Dolphins in the spring, is the team’s starting middle linebacker. And he is sometimes an anomaly to teammates.
“The other day I changed the music in the locker room and everybody was looking around, not knowing what was going on,” Alonso says.
Alonso changed the tunes to his favorite Reggaeton — a music genre with roots in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, combining Latin hip hop, salsa and bomba. It is sung in Spanish and English.
“I think if I play it more, the guys will start to like it,” Alonso says. “But not yet.”
Alonso has on occasion convinced several of his teammates to meet him at his favorite night spot in Midtown Miami called El Patio. Alonso enjoys the atmosphere and largely Hispanic crowd even though he doesn’t fit the stereotype look of a Hispanic man at 6-3 and 240 pounds with light brown hair and fair skin.
“It’s funny because the people look at you and make judgments,” Alonso says. “Then I start speaking in Spanish and everything changes.
“It breaks the ice. It’s all good.”
During our ride to Little Havana, Alonso and I talk about Cuba’s history. He wonders why Cubans never mounted an offensive to recapture the island from the Castro brothers and communism.
I tell him about Brigada 2506 and the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Later we drive by the monument to the invaders on Calle Ocho. It is three blocks from where I grew up.
Carlos Alonso Ramirez, Kiko’s grandfather and Carlos Alonso II’s father, was an educated man in 1950s Cuba. He had three doctorates, including one in philosophy and another in law.
And when he fled communism in 1961, Alonso could only find work selling encyclopedias in Miami because doctorates from Cuba meant nothing here.
The eldest Alonso eventually sent for his family, including Kiko’s father and two sisters. And months later, not feeling at home and realizing there might be more opportunities in Puerto Rico, he moved the family to the island where Kiko’s father was reared.
Kiko’s dad returned to the United States at age 17 when he was accepted to Tulane University. After graduating from Tulane, Carlos II moved to Boston in 1980 to get his master’s degree in computer engineering from Boston University.
Around that time, Monica left Santiago de Cali, the most populous city in southwest Colombia, first to attend Hunter College in New York and then to attend the University of Massachusetts. Monica graduated from UMass with a double major in psychology and political science.
The couple met in Boston and married in 1986.
Kiko is the middle child behind the oldest, who of course is also named Carlos Alonso. Maybe it’s a Cuban thing with the naming of first sons after their fathers. Lucas is the youngest.
Carlos plays Triple A baseball in the Philadelphia Phillies’ organization and Lucas is attending the University of Idaho.
It has been 55 years since the first of the Alonso clan landed in Miami, finding a place where he didn’t feel at home, causing him to leave after only a brief time. Now a winding, weaving family story has brought a grandson to the same geographical place although to an admittedly changed town.
“I love it here,” Kiko says.
“He’s in the right place for him, the best place for him right now,” Carlos Alonso adds. “I’ve told him, I hope he plays well and the fans get attached to him. He could end up at Pitbull’s house having dinner.”