It was September 1961, and I was just 6 when my parents and I fled Cuba for Miami.
Originally, we planned to move to Colorado, where my father had a job offer. But Miami’s warm, familiar climate — a welcome contrast to what we expected in the Rocky Mountains — convinced my father to stay and find a job here.
Before leaving Cuba, he had craftily retrofitted a belt where he hid a $50 bill. He used some of that money to call his friend in Miami Beach who generously took in our family in our first few nights on U.S. soil.
My father landed his first job selling sodas at the Orange Bowl, and since we couldn’t afford to buy a house we rented several places, the first of which was on West Eighth Street in Hialeah.
Two weeks into the new school year and knowing very little English, I entered the first grade at Hialeah Elementary. At that time, schools didn’t have bilingual programs, so I learned to speak English on my own.
Providing me — their only child — a solid education was my parents’ No. 1 concern, so we moved around a lot, chasing the area’s best public schools. I attended five elementary schools (Hialeah, Riverside, Shenandoah, Auburndale and Kinloch Park); two middle schools (Kinloch Park and Miami Christian); and two high schools (Coral Park and Coral Gables.)
My father, an entrepreneur in Cuba, started his own handbag manufacturing business in 1963. His business grew, our family’s quality of life improved, and we were living the American dream in Miami.
But Miami was still a sleepy little town in the 1960s. My best friend growing up was my bicycle, taking me on weekend rides to the Burger King on Coral Way and 30th Avenue; the sandy shores of the old Fair Isle in Coconut Grove and Tahiti Beach, now part of Cocoplum in Coral Gables; and Key Biscayne (when the two-lane bridge was still there).
If I couldn’t get somewhere by bike, I rode the bus.
My academic ambitions were the reason I left Miami for the first time in the 1970s. After taking courses at Miami-Dade and Florida International University, I transferred to Purdue University in Indiana to complete a degree in mechanical engineering in 1978. There, I also met my wife, who agreed to move to Miami with me under the condition of marriage.
With my eyes fixed on returning to Miami, I took a job with an executive training program that would allow me to transfer to the company’s Latin America headquarters in Miami after a year. I spent that first year working in Chicago, my wife’s hometown, during which time I proposed. We married before packing up and heading south to the place I called home.
I returned in 1979 with a newfound appreciation for Miami, not just because I missed the city, but now I had my wife — and soon, our two children — to share it with.
I grew my career, taking a job with a small company as a hydraulic engineer before IBM hired me in 1984. Nearly three decades later, I’ve watched my company drive progress while living in a city that has defined it.
Today, Miami International Airport and the Port of Miami are among the busiest in the world. And Miami is more than just the “Gateway to the Americas.” We’re home to global companies in every major industry, leading healthcare institutions, nationally ranked universities and one of the largest school districts in the U.S.
Like me, our children grew up in Miami’s public school system. Our daughter, now 26, lives in Chicago, and our 22-year-old son is in Philadelphia. I often wonder whether they’ll follow my path, returning to Miami after they’ve had enough of the cold, northern winters.
If they do, I envision a stronger, smarter and sustainable Miami for their future children — and perhaps a first-ever family bike ride to the many places that define my Miami story.
Bert Silvestre has worked for IBM for 25 years; he is IBM’s senior location executive in Miami.