Miami – When he was 10 years old, Rafael Penalver would roam the cavernous lobby of downtown Miami’s Freedom Tower. He’d walk inside a room where he would pick up cans of peanut butter and packages of dry milk being handed out to Cuban refugees who had recently fled the communist Castro regime. Sometimes, the line would snake out into the hall.
Penalver’s family arrived in Miami in 1961, a year before the U.S. government leased the building to use it as a refugee assistance center serving thousands of Cubans seeking political asylum. But Freedom Tower would play a large role in his childhood. Penalver’s father ran a clinic on one of the first floors of the Mediterranean Revival style building.
“It was the only place where Cuban doctors could practice medicine,” Penalver explained. “And it was the only place we could receive medical treatment. I had my wisdom teeth pulled out at Freedom Tower.”
His father would eventually become one of the leading figures in Miami’s Cuban exile community and Penalver, now 63, is a successful attorney who spearheaded a grassroots campaign to save Freedom Tower from a developer’s garish plans to place a high-rise condo behind Miami’s most iconic structure.
According to Penalver, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio could not have selected a more appropriate venue to make his first appearance as an official 2016 presidential candidate. The Cuban-American Republican announced today to a group of donors that he is joining the crowded field of contenders vying for the party’s 2016 nomination.
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“It’s a tremendous expression of the opportunities the United States offers,” Penalver said. “The son of Cuban immigrants announcing at Freedom Tower that he wants to run for the most important office in the U.S. should give all of us tremendous pride.”
In an interview with the Miami Herald recently, Rubio – whose parents arrived in the U.S. and were given permanent residency in 1956, that is before Castro’s revolution took place – said he chose the Freedom Tower because the building holds significant personal value to generations of Cuban-Americans.
“To me, it’s a place that’s symbolic of the promise of America,” Rubio told the Herald. “Literally, five decades ago, tens of thousands of people came here after losing their country and began their new life.”
Ironically, the building was developed by a presidential contender from the early 20th Century. Four years after losing the 1920 election to Republican Warren G. Harding, former Ohio governor James M. Cox began construction of the building, which is based on the design of the Giralda tower of the Cathedral of Seville in Spain.
When the 17-story building was completed in 1925, Cox made it the headquarters and printing facility for his newspaper Miami Daily News and Metropolis, which later became just the Miami News. Blending Spanish and Italian architectural techniques with Moorish ornamental embellishments, Freedom Tower has become one of the most distinctive buildings in the Miami skyline, said Paul George, a Miami-Dade College professor and local historian.
“It was designed by Schultze & Weaver, the architecture firm that also designed the Waldorf Astoria in New York,” George said. “And it became known as the ‘Ellis Island of the South.’”
After the Miami News moved to a new facility in 1957, the tower sat vacant for five years. In 1962, the U.S. government leased the building to deal with the large number of Cubans fleeing the island. That’s when it was renamed Freedom Tower.
“The name was coined by the late businessman and civic activist Walter Etling Sr.,” George said. “It was a way of showing the people fleeing a Marxist dictatorship that they could thrive here.”
From 1962 until 1974, the assistance center provided thousands of Cuban refugees with resources for adjusting to their new lives in the United States. At Freedom Tower, Cuban immigrants had access to basic medical and dental services, records on relatives already in the U.S., and relief aid for those starting a new life with nothing. Refugees were furnished with identification cards and were interviewed to identify both their needs and strengths. They received medical examinations and surplus foods like cheese, canned meat and peanut butter, and dry milk. Federal funds were also distributed for financial assistance.
The Freedom Tower represented, for many Cuban refugees, a turning point in their lives, George said.
“It became a symbol of Cubans coming to the U.S. and becoming the most successful immigrant group to make it in America,” George said. “You couldn’t pick a better place to make an announcement about a presidential candidacy.”
Five years after the federal government sold the building in 1974, Freedom Tower was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. However, the building sat vacant and became dilapidated for more than a decade. In 1997, the building was purchased for $4.1 million by Cuban-American businessman Jorge Mas Canosa, founder of the Cuban-American National Foundation.
He restored the tower, using it as museum about the Cuban exile community, as well as a library, meeting hall, and offices for his foundation. After Mas Canosa’s death, the building was sold to local developer Pedro Martin in 2004. Martin unveiled plans to tear down the rear of Freedom Tower so he could build a gargantuan condominium behind the historic structure.
Martin’s proposal galvanized an effort led by Penalver and the Miami-Dade Heritage Trust. Faced with the public outcry, Martin scrapped his condo proposal and donated the tower to Miami-Dade College, which opened a museum and a cultural center on the second floor.
“It was a very personal battle,” Penalver said. “For me, Freedom Tower is sacred ground. The Cubans who came through there came to this country looking for liberty and dreamt of one day returning to a free Cuba.”
But as Rubio makes the biggest announcement of his political career, some non-Cuban immigrants scared of being deported in the present day are critical of the senator’s venue choice. Saul Aleman, a 22-year-old Mexican-American who supported the Dream Act, said Rubio’s opposition to President Barack Obama’s executive actions providing relief to immigrant children and their parents is hurting a large majority of the senator’s non-Cuban Latino constituency.
“It’s ironic Sen. Rubio choosing Freedom Tower to announce he is running for president when he hasn’t taken a clear stand on what he wants to do about immigration reform,” Aleman said. “For me and my family, we want to see someone like Rubio taking a leadership role in the conversation.”
Viviana Llano, a 47-year-old undocumented Argentinian, said Rubio has taken a negative stance against immigrants like her.
“As a representative of the Hispanic community, he should think about all of us and not just one group,” she said. “I would like him to open a dialogue with us so he can see the dire situation we live under.”
Francisco Alvarado is a freelance journalist in South Florida.