My father, Hiram L. Hernandez, had an older brother and cousins in Miami so in 1948 he left Havana and emigrated to the United States in search of work and a new life.
He began working at the Ambassador Cafeteria in Miami Beach and later worked at the Governor Cafeteria, now the sight of one of South Beach’s well-known clubs. He told of having met people like Jimmy Durante, famous prize fighters and other entertainers who frequented Miami Beach during the post World War II years. The owners of the Governor Cafeteria had been in Nazi concentration camps, and years later I remember my father explaining the significance of the numbers on their forearms.
My mother, Nora Cuervo, soon left Cuba to join my father, and they were married at the Dade County Courthouse in downtown Miami. My father often joked that the president of the United States had come to town for their wedding, since President Truman’s motorcade was indeed passing the courthouse at the precise moment that my newly married parents were descending the courthouse steps. What a thrill for a couple of young immigrants!
My brother, Hiram and I were born at Jackson Memorial Hospital and the family lived in an apartment building owned by my father’s cousins, the Monte Carlo Apartments on Pennsylvania Avenue in Miami Beach. The Miami Beach City Hall is now located there.
In those early days of no air conditioning we would sleep with the front and back doors open to catch the ocean breezes as they drifted through the efficiency apartment that was home. Every day we walked to the beach at 12th Street and Ocean Drive. We attended Central Beach Elementary School (now Feinberg/Fisher). More than 35 years later my daughter would begin her teaching career at this same school.
For one year we moved to a federal government housing project located on the very southern-most point of Miami Beach. Few people are aware that so close to the opulence of the big Miami Beach hotels, and right across the street from the big-time entertainers who were dining at Joe’s Stone Crab restaurant, there was a federal housing project.
We would spend Sunday afternoons in Hialeah with my father’s brother and his family. Hialeah was pretty “country” in the 1950s and 1960s; horses, small farms and both horse and race car tracks were common. Other times we would travel to downtown Miami to buy fresh fish and hot peanuts at Pier 5 and go to Burdines, especially at Christmas. This was before our yearly visits to Cuba to visit the rest of the extended family. Occasionally we would fish off the rocks along the side of the MacArthur Causeway (which was only two lanes at the time). My father and brother had fishing rods and reels; mom and I did the best we could with a spool of fishing line and a hook.
My parents became United States citizens as soon as they were eligible, and instilled in us a civic pride and love and loyalty to this country that has characterized us throughout our lives. Daddy campaigned to help elect the late Sen. Jack Gordon when he first ran for the Dade County School Board. Later, I too, would become engaged in the political process.
A huge milestone was when my parents were able to purchase a small house in Carol City in 1959 – mostly cow pastures back then, and for the first time we had a yard and a dog. Tired of the long drive to Miami Beach for work, and wanting a better life for his family, Daddy studied hard to earn his real estate salesman’s license and became one of the first Spanish-speaking real estate agents in Miami.
Our house became a temporary refuge for family members, who in the early 1960s fled Cuba’s communism. For quite some time I slept on an old army cot in my parents’ bedroom so that my bedroom could be used by recently arrived relatives. In sixth grade my elementary school teachers assigned me to serve as English tutor and translator for many newly arrived Cuban refugee children. Little did I realize at the time what a huge and important responsibility I was given at such a young age.
I remember during the Cuban Missile Crisis when the military built a base with missiles not far from our home. The school system distributed military-style “dog tags” that would identify children and provide our blood type and religious affiliation in the event of being bombed, and we held periodic air raid drills during school.
These rather somber memories are balanced by other more light-hearted moments of childhood, including long bike rides; visits to Monkey Jungle, Parrot Jungle, Miami Seaquarium, Crandon Park Zoo and the Miami Serpentarium; Skipper Chuck, Ralph Renick, Weaver the Weatherman and Rick Shaw; bus rides from Modernage Furniture in North Dade to the Orange Bowl to watch the Miami Dolphins; movies at the drive-in; parties at Haulover Beach; marching in the Carol City High School band at the Orange Bowl parade; hanging out at Lum’s and dancing at The Place.
My brother and I finished elementary school, junior high and senior high in Carol City and attended the University of Florida – he in 1968 and I in 1969. My parents couldn’t have been prouder. After a stint in the Army my brother returned to Miami and has spent his career working at the place we were born, Jackson Memorial Hospital.
I returned to Miami in 1976, raised my three children here, and have enjoyed a fulfilling career in higher education. The sky is bluer and the emotions more intense in Miami. I have never wanted to live anywhere else.