This year marks two important events in our family’s life: the 50th anniversary of our arrival to Coral Gables and the 50th anniversary of the company my parents founded in Miami.
This was my dad’s second start in the auto parts business – as a teenager he worked in the automotive field in 1938 in Cuba.
When Fidel Castro declared himself a Marxist in 1960, my parents, Jose Ramon and Dolores Hernandez, realized it was time to send my sister and me to the United States to be brought up in the freedom they cherished. At that time they had five auto parts warehouses, the American Motors dealership, and several gas stations in Cuba.
We lived in Tampa with our aunt and grandmother for nine months.
On May 13, 1961 (Mothers Day), my parents surprised us by arriving in Tampa, never to return to Cuba.
We drove across Tamiami Trail in a green Rambler, with a U-Haul in tow. My parents, my sister Teresita, my grandmother Teresa, my aunt Carmen and I would see for the first time the city that we would forever call our home, Coral Gables.
My parents had friends who were living in the Gables. Our new home was a small house at 109 San Sebastian, off Douglas Road. The house had a screen door that was only closed before going to bed. Our bikes and toys were left on the front lawn and nobody thought of stealing them.
Thanks in part to his good credit with American companies, my dad was able to start a small auto parts warehouse in Miami on Flagler Street, AAA Million Auto Parts. It was a couple of blocks away from Miami High, and since we had a water fountain, all the kids who walked to school were always welcome to stop inside for some air conditioning and a cold drink.
As a child in the 1960s, I remember a different Coral Gables. The summer movies at the Coral and Miracle theaters cost a quarter, popcorn was a nickel and we got to see two movies. We would go to Miracle Mile, without adult supervision. I remember the old Woolworths, McCrory’s and Jefferson’s, where we were rewarded for good grades. We spent a lot of time at the Coral Gables Country Club, The Big Five or the Westbrook Country Club.
On the days we had off from school, my sister and I would help out at the business, a pattern that continued with our own children in the 1980s, and hopefully will be repeated with my granddaughter, Sofia. We all still enjoy living in the City Beautiful and working in the family business.
I went to a new school, Dade Demonstration Elementary on Douglas Road (now the English Center), where we watched space launches on a TV in the library. Elementary school lunches were only a quarter. Ponce de Leon Junior High was a very different place. I remember the entire school going to the field and listening to a bugler play Taps while they lowered the flag. We didn’t know what had happened until the principal said over the microphone that President Kennedy had been shot and died. This was something I will never forget.
When we went to Coral Gables High, all the girls had to wear dresses since slacks were forbidden. A full lunch cost only 35 cents. While I was a sophomore at Gables High, the schools were integrated for the first time. The school day began with the Lord’s Prayer and later with a “moment of silent meditation.” Times sure have changed.
The University of Miami, where my sister and I attended, cost about $3,000 a semester, a lot less than what a private elementary school costs now. There were still two sets of water fountains and bathrooms everywhere, a remnant of the segregation era.
Five years ago, at my father’s funeral, we were surprised to meet many people from all walks of life who came to pay their respects to a man who had done them many favors.
I remember a homeless man standing in the back. He said he had walked many miles to see my dad for the last time. Unbeknownst to us, my father had bought him lunch for over five years.
My mom, Dolores, is 90 and comes to the business every single day. Now as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of my parents’ business, we look back fondly on our time in Coral Gables and look forward to making the city as nice a place for my grandchild, Sofia, and my nephew, Joseangel.