Spanish teacher finds home in two countries

By Gabrielle Kesh, Features

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Spanish teacher Gil Alvarez was born and raised in Cuba until he was 13 years old. He had a terrific childhood living with his parents and spent his days playing with friends, swimming,  creating homemade go-karts and riding his bike. But once communist revolutionary and dictator Fidel Castro assumed power of the Cuban government in 1959, Alvarez’s life was turned upside down.

“The big rumor in the capital, Havana, was that the government was going to take teenagers, give them ideological schooling and train them in communist principles,” Alvarez said. “My parents were panicking, and since we had aunts and an uncle in Spain, my grandfather shipped my cousin and me to live with them.”

The living situation in Spain was supposed to be temporary, but Castro’s powerful reign made it impossible to return back to Cuba. Alvarez’s aunts and uncle decided the best thing to do was begin the lengthy and arduous process of moving to America.

It took eight to 12 months before the departure to the United States could be made. Choosing to embark on this journey, his aunts and uncle had to forfeit all of their property and money in the bank to the Cuban government.

“In order to avoid losing excessive amounts of money, people started withdrawing from banks and shipping their money to people in the U.S.,” he said. “You picked up your whole life and packed it in two suitcases.”

Alvarez had family by his side throughout his entire travel experience. Other children were not as lucky. In a desperate attempt to free their children from the communist-based programs being installed by Castro, parents shipped their children to America through a process called Operation Peter Pan sponsored by the Catholic Archdiocese in Miami.

Between 1960 and 1962, thousands of unaccompanied minors boarded planes in Havana and were sent to Miami. The children stayed there for however long it took for American families to adopt them.  

“My parents were going to put me on one of those flights, but my grandfather refused,” he said. “For many people, it was the only way to escape.”

After months of paperwork and patient waiting, Alvarez was able to come to the United States.

“When I first got to America, I thought ‘I finally made it,’ ” Alvarez said. “There is a tradition in my family that the boys go to college in the United States.”

Alvarez’s uncle graduated from Rider University in Trenton and his father spent a year at Boston College. His father was forced to come home from the university because World War ll was about to begin.

Alvarez followed in the footsteps of the generations before him by attending St. John’s University in New York and graduating from Queens College.

After graduating from college, he had a degree in Spanish literature and education and started teaching high school in New York for six years.

From this profession, Alvarez decided he wanted to be involved with business and went to computer school so he could learn programming. He took a position with Verizon and moved to Arlington, Virginia.

After Verizon, Alvarez moved back to Jersey. He took a teaching position at Lakewood Middle School teaching seventh and eighth grade and eventually received a masters from Kean University in school administration. After this job, he became a long-term substitute in Fairlawn before West Essex found him.

“Ms. Laura Drago called me in for an interview, and the rest is history,” Alvarez said. “I am extremely happy here.”

Alvarez has made journeys back to Cuba since his departure. In 2014, Obama established diplomatic relations with Havana and relatives were legally able to visit.

On his last trip two summers ago, he visited his mother’s side of the family and the places he remembered from his childhood, including his elementary school and beach club.

“The U.S. and Cuba are two very different places,” Alvarez said. “It’s the pace of life. In the U.S. time is very short and people are very busy, but in other countries, there is more time for friends and family on a regular basis.”

From all of his travels, Alvarez said he has been able to meet a variety of new people and have incredible experiences.

“I am very appreciative because I have a great job and family,” Alvarez said. “That’s all I could ever ask for.”