Saturday, January 22, 2005

Exiles bring semblance of Cuba's past to South Florida

Click here: Exiles bring semblance of Cuba's past: South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Exiles bring semblance of Cuba's past

By Madeline Baró Diaz
Miami Bureau
Posted January 22 2005

MIAMI GARDENS · When Fidel Castro took power in Cuba, his government seized and silenced some of the country's beloved institutions, from prominent religious schools to funeral homes.

In the four decades that followed, Cuban exiles in South Florida restored much of the Cuba of their memories by re-creating those lost treasures.

Many places and associations in the Miami area have their roots in pre-Castro Cuba, among them La Liga Contra El Cancer, or The League Against Cancer, a respected Miami charity with an annual telethon.

Founded in Miami in 1975, La Liga was modeled after a similar organization created in Havana in 1925. The Havana center grew to include an oncology center and operated until Castro came to power in 1959.

Another example is the popular El Dorado furniture chain and its opulent showrooms. Its owners, members of the Capó family, first became known to Cubans with the Casa Capó chain of furniture stores, which dated back to the 1920s in Cuba.

Two of the most enduring symbols of Cuba recreated in Miami-Dade County are Belen Jesuit Preparatory School and St. Thomas University, which have churned out prominent and successful graduates as their predecessors did in Cuba.

"The re-creation of these businesses and institutions are a way of paying homage to the splendor of the Cuban Republic," said Ricardo Pau-Llosa, a poet and art critic who was among the last children to celebrate their first communion at the original Belen in Havana/

Agueda Ogazón attended the Universidad de Santo Tomás de Villanueva in Havana in the 1950s. A private university, Villanueva offered students the opportunity to finish their degrees without worrying about student-led shutdowns, such as the ones that set back students at the public University of Havana.

Ogazón was among the last graduates of Villanueva, earning a business degree in 1958. Today she is a business administration professor at St. Thomas University where she keeps old pictures of Villanueva in her office.

"I think this is the closest I could get to my campus, where I graduated from," she said. " ... The wave of people who knew Villanueva looks up to this place as a link to Villanueva."

Villanueva was founded in 1946 and shut down by Fidel Castro's government in 1961. The Augustinian priests who established the school left the country and founded Biscayne College in Miami. Biscayne College was later rechristened St. Thomas University, in honor of its Cuban heritage.

For years, former Villanueva students were able to continue their studies in the United States because the school sent copies of its records until 1959. Those records helped Ogazón obtain a master's degree at Hofstra University and later a doctorate at Florida International University.

Cuban exiles have also sought to re-create Belen Jesuit, first established in Cuba in 1854. There it grew to be a 60-acre facility with 1,200 students known as "The Palace of Education" and had dreams of becoming an institution of higher learning.

"Fidel Castro shattered that dream," said Javier Riera, director of development for Belen, now located in Southwest Miami-Dade.

Castro himself was a graduate of Belen in Havana, but after coming to power expelled the Jesuits, who brought Belen with them to Miami, first conducting classes at a downtown Miami church and later moving to a Little Havana building.

Today the all-boys school is on a 30-acre site with high-tech equipment in classrooms.

Madeline Baró Diaz can be reached at or 305-810-5007.

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