San Carlos Institute in Key West: Keeping hope alive for Cuban exiles

Cuban American filmmaker Joe Cardona in The Miami Herald:

San Carlos Institute keeps hope alive for Cuban exiles

  The San Carlos Institute in Key West was built by humble Cuban cigar workers who wanted Cuba free from Spain. As a student at Florida International University in the late 1980’s, in search of my identity, I attended a seminar that examined important Cuban historical sites in the state of Florida. That afternoon, I had planned to raise my hand and address the audience about important nuggets of Cuban history I had unearthed in Tampa’s Ybor City. I should have known that like many “best laid plans of mice and men” these pre-orchestrated schemes don’t pan out.

It turns out, my intended exposition was thankfully preempted by Rafael Peñalver, an energetic, well-prepared orator who discussed the preservation efforts he was spearheading at the San Carlos Institute in Key West — a historic building in Key West, or as it’s known to Cubans, Cayo Hueso, an institute that Cuban poet and freedom fighter Jose Martí once referred to as “ la Casa Cuba.”

Minutes into the then-young Miami attorney’s presentation, I understood that rather than sharing my random and quite scattered thoughts on the historical legacy of Martí and his imprint on Ybor City, my time that afternoon would be best spent listening to Peñalver’s lecture. As fate would have it, Peñalver and I would cross paths over a decade later when I was producing the PBS documentary Jose Martí: Legacy of Freedom.

When I sought Peñalver’s insight on Martí for my film, I discovered that he was still very actively involved with the San Carlos Institute. Ralph offered to drive me to the Institute and show me around the place. I accepted his gracious offer and in the ensuing five hours of our journey to Key West, Ralph, with the care and concern of an older, wiser brother, has proceeded to share with me stories that linked me to my past.

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