Cuban Americans

Recent arrival from Cuba already headed to Yale

Posted August 10, 2005 by mattlawrence in Cuban Americans.

A 23-year-old Hialeah man has moved from a local community college to Yale in just three years after leaving Cuba.


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Luisel Peņa, fresh from Cuba, sat in an English night-school class in Hialeah High School three years ago with migrant workers and others seeking a glimmer of American success.

‘‘I didn’t know where, I didn’t know when,’’ said Peņa, 23. ``I just knew I wanted to go to school and get an education here.’‘

Peņa zipped through the steps to American prosperity. This month, he moves from the cot next to his parents’ bed to a dorm at Yale University.

‘‘It’s amazing,’’ said his father, Luis Peņa, who took English classes with Luisel but is not yet fluent. ``In only three years he can make this huge leap.’‘

The facts alone sound overwhelming—he just finished community college and he’s about to enter one of America’s bastions of privilege and prestige. But Peņa projects a calm modesty that makes his accomplishments seem inevitable.

‘‘A lot of people think because he came from Cuba, he’s disadvantaged,’’ said Daphne Bareket, a close friend and former classmate. `` . . . But he doesn’t see himself that way at all. So I don’t see him that way at all.’‘

Peņa’s story begins in Pinar Del Rio, a small city in western Cuba.

‘‘When he was 1, the first thing he grabbed wasn’t a toy, but a book,’’ his mother, Maria Elena Peņa, said in Spanish.

His parents divorced when he was 2. In 1992, Peņa’s father came to visit his brother in Hialeah and stayed, leaving behind a career as a civil engineer to work in construction.

Back in Cuba, Peņa kept reading. He especially likes Italian author Umberto Eco, whom he calls one of the best living authors in the world. He studied English, learning how to read and write but he did not feel confident speaking.

Luisel’s father became a U.S. citizen and visited Cuba five years ago to tell his son he wanted him to move to Miami. Luisel was indifferent. He would miss friends. But his parents believed he needed to leave the island to fulfill his promise.

Something else happened on that visit. His parents fell in love again and decided they would remarry nearly two decades after their divorce. Luisel left Cuba on Aug. 22, 2002, his mother 18 months later.

Luisel Peņa—who was 20 and didn’t know anyone except his father—took jobs at Best Buy and Spec’s Music while studying English.


He also searched local colleges on Google and decided Miami Dade College gave him the best and most affordable opportunity. When he went to the Wolfson campus to apply, an admissions clerk erroneously told him he would have to wait a year to avoid paying out-of-state tuition. He learned eight months later that was a mistake.

But Peņa wouldn’t end up paying anything. His grades in Cuba, entrance exam scores and an interview qualified him for a scholarship at the school’s three-year-old honors college.

The honors college offers small classes, intensive academic advising and seminars. The program enrolled 363 students last year and cost about $1.5 million a year to run. Many honors college graduates go on to local universities. Others have attended Georgetown, Wisconsin, Columbia and elsewhere.

Peņa read books—architecture, chemistry and philosophy—into the night. His mother recalls waking up hourly to brew coffee until 6 a.m. One B blemished two years of otherwise perfect report cards.

In March 2004, he earned one of 40 Miami Dade spots at a 10-day global seminar in Salzburg. The trip was a turning point. He does not like to dramatize the despair in Cuba, but the isolation there confined him, he said.

‘‘Growing up in Cuba, you think your life is not really closely related to the life of the greater international system,’’ Peņa said. ``It’s like Cuba and outside of Cuba. There’s nothing else.’‘

In Salzburg, he sat next to people from around the world discussing politics and economics. He returned home with a new sense of voice. He joined the model United Nations club and traveled to New York. He started a philosophy club.

And, most profoundly, he co-founded a group to bring awareness of Sudanese genocide. As president, he organized a conference that linked Miami Dade’s six campuses by television. When he attended a national college genocide conference in Washington, D.C., he and co-founder Bareket were the only students from a community college.

Despite moving among increasingly worldly crowds, Peņa continued to empathize with other students just beginning their American education. He got a job at Miami Dade’s Wolfson campus as a tutor, helping mostly non-native English speakers write papers.

Students respond to Peņa because they know he shares their experience, said Caridad Castro, coordinator of the campus writing program.

Peņa applied to Yale and other top-flight national universities at the urging of Alexandria Holloway, dean of the honors college. Holloway said many of the talented, mostly immigrant students at the honors college are reluctant to apply to universities outside Miami, apprehensive about leaving family.


Yale has few students from community colleges. Last year, 700 students—from four- and two-year colleges combined—applied to transfer to Yale, said Dorie Baker, a Yale spokeswoman. Of those, only 24 were accepted.

‘‘Clearly, they’re pretty exceptional people,’’ Baker said.

Peņa’s parents were excited about Yale, but only realized the depth of his accomplishment when they learned President Bush had attended.

Peņa, who will major in philosophy and math, hopes to become a doctor or lawyer and to find a career in human rights.

Yale is granting Peņa a full scholarship. But first, he has to get there.

He applied for a Southwest Airlines scholarship that offers plane tickets to needy students, but hasn’t heard back from the company.

If the airline doesn’t come through, Peņa says he’ll find some other way to get to Yale.

Member Comments

On August 10, 2005, bernie wrote:

I hope PERLA reliazes that CUBAN PEOPLE paid
for the basic foundation of his education that
enabled him to accomplish what he has.  PERLA
should consider some kind of rewarding PAYBACK

On August 10, 2005, mattlawrence wrote:

Bernie, puhleeeeeze, had he not come to the U.S. he may have not realized his full potential.  He’d probably have been paying for school by cutting sugar cane or some other demeaning job required by the government. . ..

Hell, I offered to pay for his plane ticket to Yale!

By the way, is your kid smart enough to get a full ride at Yale?

Matt Lawrence, Author
Dyng to Get Here: A Story of Coming to America

On August 10, 2005, GregoryHavana wrote:

Peņa is a great case of the American dream. But in the cut-throat society of the U.S.A., how many people fall through the cracks and end up on the street? Thanx to the Cuban educational system, Peņa, and many Cubans like him on the island, have solid educational preparation. In fact, The Cuban achievements in education have been verified by UNESCO surveys showing that Cuban third and fourth graders perform so much better in language and mathematics skills than the rest of Latin
America that UNESCO returned to test them again.[New York Times, Dec 21, 2001]. So before we take the example of Peņa as an American success story, a broader contextual understanding will make us see the extraordinary acheivements of the Cuban educational system. I know, because I live here and my daughter went to public school here…

On August 10, 2005, GregoryHavana wrote:

Matt…Your ignorance of Cuba is truly astounding. Since when do Cubans have to pay for their education by cutting sugarcane? What planet are you from, Matt? And how do you explain the fact that per capita, Cuba has way more professionals (doctors, engineers, lawyers, scientists…) than the great U.S.A.? There are a lot of things you can criticize Cuba for, but you are a fool to aim at its educational system. But keep pumping your book… p.s. Did you pay for the ticket to Yale?

On August 10, 2005, mattlawrence wrote:

Gregory, is it not true that the Pioneers do time in the summers working in the sugar cane fields.  I’ve many friends who have “worked” for the good of the revolution to “pay” for school prior to migrating here.  I don’t dispute the successes of the educational system, nor do I dispute the good of the island.(nor do my comments contain vitrolic crap like the by, could we have this conversation in Cuba?  Doubtfull)

It’ not a matter of pumping my books bro, it’ a matter of pumping out the TRUTH. . .a truth I know all to well.

As far as the “ticket to Yale”. . .I’ve formally offered to pay for the plane ticket although I doubt Southwest Airlines will let him go without.  American companies recognize potential.

By the way Gregory. . .did your kid get a scholarship to anywhere after being schooled here?  (With all America has to offer)  This kid comes here three years ago and goes straight to the top of his class….he deserves a ticket to anywhere he wants to go. And I can afford to pay for it, thanks to my book!

Matt Lawrence, Author
“Tales from the Tropix”

On August 12, 2005, GregoryHavana wrote:

Matt…Your ignorance is truly pathetic. Cuban Pioneers working in sugar cane fields? I just shared this one with my Cuban neighbors here in Centro Habana, and they broke out laughing. You gringos are really out to lunch. How much time have you actually spent in Cuba? But then again, as you said, your books are pumping out the TRUTH…what modesty.

On August 12, 2005, mattlawrence wrote:

Gregory,at least I live in a country where I can earn enough to go out to lunch (unlike the pay scale Cuba’ “professionals” are forced to live on) I’ll think of you tomorrow when I order my mid-day meal.

On August 12, 2005, GregoryHavana wrote:

Matt, it is not surprising that in your value system, monetary considerations of primordial. Such is the general thinking in the United States. Everything has a price and everything is based on consumption. Such is the parochial world view that plagues the US population…the same population in which 52% thinks Saddam Hussein was behind the World Trade Center tragedy. Ignorance is bliss…
Regarding lunches however, you fail to point out the Cuba is the only country in the Third World that guarantees all children up to the age of seven one liter of milk per day and has a universal school lunch program. There are millions of malnourished children in Latin America, but none are Cuban. How do I know this? Because I work for the United Nations Development Program here in Havana. Come to Havana and see for yourself…your next book might actually be more enlightened.

On August 12, 2005, mattlawrence wrote:

How does my paying and morally supporting a migrant to the U.S. become milk for babies in Cuba?  (Sounds like a UN smoke screen to me) If CUBA is such a great place, load up your family, take your child out of her AMERICAN public school and move there permenantly.
I’ve never heard of an American family packing it all in, loading up on a raft and risking thier lives to go to Cuba.  Fact is, the U.S. EXPORTS more AID than it IMPORTS and you are helping. . . .thanks to you, babies in Cuba get milk….
HOWEVER, as you do yur job you’ve chosen to do, DO SO without reducing the good others do. . .by the way, I did not get a donation from you to help this guy get to college. . .it’ OK though, donate your part to a charity in Cuba . . this thread is closed.

On August 13, 2005, GregoryHavana wrote:

Alas the thread is closed. Oh, by the way Matt, imports and exporst ARE NOT “aid”. The United States DOES NOT send any aid to Cuba. Cuba buyes powerdered milk from US producers, in cash, without any credit. That is how it pays for the sustenance of its children. Why do Cubans get on rafts to go to the United States? It is very simple, although I am not sure you will understand it: Cubans go for the same reason that Mexicans, Colombians, Jamaicans, Puerto Ricans, etc go….They are all poor countries (with differences between Cuba and the others, which I already elucidated) whose people have bought into the “American Dream”. This has nothing to do with socialism vs. capitalism, but the fact that after several hundreds of years having a hardworking, entrepreneurial population, very favorable natural resources, along with stealing/exploiting the Third World, the USA has become a very wealthy country that is attractive to anyone from the Third World. Getting there is a great “individual” solution to someone from a poor country (minus the crime rate, drug rate, and lack of universal healthcare). Too bad the American way of life is completely environmentally unsustainable on a global level. But you guys keep on eating your cake while refusing to sign the Kyoto Protocol… Ah, but this is another matter. The thread is closed…
p.s. By the way, where can I buy your books?

On August 13, 2005, bernie wrote:

GREGORY; Don’t buy anything from this jerk.
Notice he said he would buy a TICKET to Yale,
not tickets (ROUND TRIP). CHEEP, CHEEP, CHEEP matt.

On August 13, 2005, GregoryHavana wrote:

I asked Matt where I could buy his books because I get the impression that his books are just as bad as his arguments on this website and that he probably doesn’t even have a serious distributor. He thus needs to pump his books in these discussion groups. But then again, maybe reading one of his books would be good for a laugh. All I can say is that he DOES NOT understand Cuba…

On September 23, 2005, PABLOPUEBLO wrote:

I wish all the best to Peņa,The Yale University is a very A-1
University,I have two comments to say.1-Intelligent people,
talented people are quite a few in poor-resources settings,I
met many of them in Africa,in the long list of lost talent,
because of poverty and lack of opportunities,the would’nt have
the chance,not even a A-2 university,then my point is human
with talent are in the developing world even more than in the
developed one and my second point is just to be real,to be
genuine,despite that I am not a Castro hendman,I know well
what the education system in Cuba is all about,it has failures
it has byassed political opinion,but it is so good and in principle and very much so in the real practice,is for free.In this subject Castro scores higher than a lot of ‘democracies”
Critics to be strong should be raise on steady ground.

On December 18, 2008, Liz wrote:

You guys do miss the point. it was all about Luisel going to Yale and congratulating him for his success. I consider him to be a very good student and I am very proud of him. I have kown him since we were kids. We actually went to the same middle school in the same Pinar del Rio town where we grew up. I am 24 and he is 25 and we went to the same church for a long period of time. I came to this country 2 months before he got here and I was very glad for him when he came here. Now that he has gotten to Yale, I consider that it has been something extremely important for him and that is why I am so proud, but apart from that, you got into a political conversation that had nothing to do with his accomplishment.
I totally agree with Matt because Cuban kids LIKE ME, do have to go to a field not to cut sugar cane (in my case) but we did have to go to work on tobacco and to grow oranges and lemons. It is really sad that a 12 year old kid has to spend 45 days in a field faw away from his parents and still work as an adult or at least as no kid in this USA country has ever had to work. Eat a very bad food, take a very cold shower even if these 45 days are during winter and then go to sleep in one of the worst bunkbeds you will ever see in your life.
All of this is true and I had to experience it for myself. Not at the age of 12 because I was always a sick girl, but when I was 16 I did have to go to one of this places, and if I started describing all of the atrocities that I saw at that place, you would say that I am just a liar that does not know what is talking about.
Plus, unfortunately, I doubt that now, the UNESCO will recognize Cuban “Free” education (as you call it) as one of the best ones in Latin America (or maybe it does) but let me tell you Gregory, when you have a 16 year old KID teaching a 14 year old group of adolescents, believe me, nothing good comes out of there. I also had to experience that and the kids were not learning absolutely ANYTHING.
I have to recognize that my education was very good one, because it was 10 years ago, but now, things have truly changed.
If you decide to compare Cuba with all of the other countries of Latin America, maybe we are better than they all are, but you will also have to notice that we were far ahead of Latin America before 1959 when Fidel Castro decided to destroy Cuba starting with the values, morals and family.
If you live at the level that you do, you will never be able to realize what I am talking about and you will never understand how things really work. Move from Havana, and try to be a regular guy who has to travel on CAMELLOS (the big busses in Havana) and go to the BODEGA to buy something when you find out that you dont have anything to eat, and then tell me how does the Cuban Paradise look to you.
I am sorry if I am offending your position because I dont even know who you are, but believe me, I prefer to be poor in this country but free rather than to have money in Cuba and go to jail just for saying or writing what I think about the government as it has happened to MANY people in Cuba since 1959.

On December 18, 2008, publisher wrote:

Thanks for your insight. It looks like 2009 might be an interesting year for US Cuba relations. Whether that means better living conditions in Cuba for the Cuban people, we’ll have to wait and see.