Autberto Palma had no idea how to find the Green Library. Caught in traffic between the Blue and Gold garages at 5:30 one evening at MMC, in the driver’s seat, he could only flag down a passerby to ask directions. The walk to the towering building, easily pointed out as the tallest on campus, seemed daunting in the end, especially as his wife has trouble getting around.
“I want to drop off my family history,” the 81-year-old explained. “I wrote a book,” he said, reaching into the backseat for a thick, spiral-bound volume.
“Come back another day,” the person he had stopped suggested. “We'll arrange a golf cart for you and your wife, and you'll meet the lady in charge.”
Last week, the much-awaited introduction took place. His wife Maria Ana and a daughter by his side, the 1978 alumnus arrived on campus to present the Palma family history to university archivist and head of Special Collections Althea “Vicki” Silvera. She roundly welcomed the researcher and author and accepted the 324-page tome that covers the years 1830-1962.
“Each person tells their own story, and giving us their version helps [others],” Silvera says of the acquisition’s value. “When you’re doing genealogy, everybody tends to look at the big name,” she adds of any lingering, misguided beliefs that only the rich and famous bear researching. “But the rest of the family also have a say in it. Something like this will be of use to people who are looking at people who may be related. It tells a story.”
The donation fits in perfectly with one of the university's most widely known and highly utilized treasure troves: the Enrique Hurtado de Mendoza Collection of Cuban Genealogy. The largest assemblage of materials about Cuban bloodlines outside of the island nation, available both online and in person, it has been called the “Cuban equivalent” of the popular ancestry.com genealogy site. By sharing his book, Palma has contributed to the university's holdings in that arena.
In anticipation of the informal gathering, Silvera and colleagues Rhia Rae and Annia Gonzalez had set out an original commencement program in which Palma is listed as receiving a Bachelor of Science in Architecture Technology. They also found the FIU yearbook that featured his senior portrait and bookmarked the “Palma” chapter of the authoritative “Historia de familias cubanas” published in 1940.
The story of a life
As the beautifully reproduced photos in his book show, Palma comes from standout stock and grew up himself in an idyllic world. His family line includes a connection to Tomás Estrada Palma, installed in 1902 as Cuba’s first president, and his chronicle positively bulges with professionally taken black-and-white pictures of weddings and quinces and other events, some of them accompanied by clips from newspaper society pages. In one particularly colorful layout, a four-year-old Palma smiles in a headshot next to promotional images for the 1940s films “Best Foot Forward” and “The Three Caballeros,” his first exposures to cinema and the genesis of a lifelong love of movies.
Aspiring to the profession of architect, Palma left his parents’ home in Manzanillo in eastern Cuba to enroll in St. Thomas of Villanova Catholic University in Havana in 1960. But his dream came to an abrupt end when the shocking repression of the Castro regime began in earnest: The school saw its doors shuttered as part of the government’s antireligious push, and the sugarcane plantation and successful dairy operation owned by the extended Palma family — the latter a supplier to the Nestle Corp. — were confiscated. Everyone scrambled for a way out, some by applying for exit visas to the United States, Mexico or Spain, others, such as a brother-in-law, by escaping via a 3 a.m. swim to the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay.
Palma landed in Miami, where a brother had preceded him, and enrolled in Miami Dade College. He took a job locally and then, at a friend’s suggestion, moved to Puerto Rico, which at the time felt more like his beloved homeland — to which he has never returned — than did South Florida.
“I missed my Cuba. It was very painful,” he says of early exile. “San Juan was not Havana, but it was beautiful, and I got, more or less, a good job and I stayed.”
When he made it back to Miami several years later, Palma jumped at the chance to complete his undergraduate education at the recently opened Florida International University. Juggling his studies with work and raising two young daughters, he persevered to earn the degree 18 years after he had first begun.
Palma served for two and a half decades as a designer for the Miami branch of a private engineering firm based in Alabama. He worked on renovation projects for government properties, among them U.S. Southern Command facilities, the Port of Miami and a pair of since-inactiviated U.S. Air Force bases in Panama. Invited to move northward when the local office closed, he instead took a position with Miami-Dade County, from which he eventually retired.
In the intervening years, FIU continued to serve as a backdrop for the Palma family. Both daughters graduated from the university, one even working in enrollment services for some 13 years and holding her wedding reception in the GC ballrooms when she married a fellow employee and FIU graduate in 1998.
An FIU homecoming
Returning to his alma mater with his book in hand, then, made perfect sense.
Palma was led on a serpentine path to a patch of hidden parking spots adjacent to the library. Inside, he wondered aloud how the building connected with the one he remembered as a student. The original footprint remains the same, the librarians explained, but several floors representing thousands of square feet were added in the early 1990s, and the name changed a few years later, from the Athenaeum, to a moniker honoring philanthropists Steven and Dorothea Green.
Speaking to a captive audience about his experience at FIU, Palma recalled an important professor and expressed wonder at the exponential growth of the university, a top research institution that now serves the fourth largest student enrollment in the country. “It’s incredible,” he says of the physical landscape. “When I came [here], it was a few buildings, and you didn’t get lost.”
He also relayed that until early 2020 he volunteered eight or nine times per month to show classic movies (from his personal stash of “thousands” of DVDs and Blue-ray discs) at assisted living facilities. Cooped up during the pandemic, however, he finally found the hundreds of hours needed to finish a sentimental project.
“It’s a family treasure,” says Teresa “Tessie” Palma Gonzalez, class of 1994, of the gift to future generations that her father has bequeathed. She shared pictures on her phone of the reunion that his book spurred earlier this year. With her sister Patricia’s family flying in from North Carolina and additional relatives on hand — the surnames Solana, Heredia and Ezpelosin also figure in through marriage, as detailed in a family tree — the elder Palma held court in the banquet hall at the Big Five Club in front of five grandchildren and others who learned something of their heritage.
“I love FIU, and I love my family,” the man said as he prepared to leave campus.
Having summed up his feelings, the embodiment of living history got into a car and headed home.