Havana to Harvard: The ‘Impossible Journey’ of Carlos Garcia Perez


Yacob Reyes, Staff Writer


Senior Carlos Garcia Perez sits in a car beside his father as he tries his hardest to keep his composure while his anticipation festers.

With every second that goes by, his breaths begin to grow rapid and shallow as his pulse pounds in his temples.  

When he sees the number appear on his phone his heart stops, the blaring noises of traffic begin to grow silent as he places it to his ear and the whole world around him fades away. He knows in that moment that this phone call could change his life forever.

With the end of his high school career approaching and his ambitions within his grasp, he can’t help but remember how impossible this journey had seemed five years ago.

A journey that began 334 miles away from Tampa on the outskirts of Havana, Cuba in an 18 feet by 8.5 feet apartment.  

“It was there that I realized I had been born in captivity, that my patria [homeland] was in chains and its people [were] bleeding. However, it was also there that I determined I would not be bound by any chains, and that I would follow my path with dedication wherever it led me, always aiming for success,” said Garcia Perez.

This decision led him to follow in the footsteps of his older sister, Kaivis Garcia, who won many national academic competitions, something he would go on to do as well. With many role models to look up to and the support of his parents, his humble seed of intelligence began to flourish.

“When he was very young we would sit together and I would help him with his homework. I would make sure he understood things well and always encouraged [him] to ask questions to learn more,” said his mother Maira Perez Puig. “His curiosity has always been one of his greatest strengths. His father and I always showed confidence in his abilities and encouraged him to explore and to take advantage of any opportunities that were available to him.”

Despite many crowning achievements, Garcia Perez’s childhood years in Cuba were far from pleasant: in fact he would look back at these years as some of the hardest of his life. As a family of non-communists, they were often harassed by the government. One memory he has is of his father’s merchandise being confiscated and his small shop closed down because he refused to pay bribes to inspectors.

As the government opposition began to intensify, his parents hoped to give their son a chance at a better life by seeking asylum in the United States.

Having no American embassy to turn to at the time, they appealed to the Embassy of Switzerland, which had American interests for aide. With a multitude of other families who shared similar hopes to start a new life being denied, their likelihood of standing out seemed inconceivable. After waiting five years to begin an extensive Interview process, they were finally approved to seek refuge in America.

Saying farewell to their relatives and friends who would remain in Cuba, Garcia Perez and his parents boarded their flight, leaving many of their possessions and loved ones behind.

When the plane landed in Miami, thunderous applause and cheering erupted from all the passengers.      

“We were really emotional, having left everything behind to pursue this. We all understood that this was the dream of many people, that people had spent their whole lives waiting for an opportunity like this. The moment the plane landed it was like confirmation that this was real,” said Garcia Perez.

Upon arriving, Garcia Perez held hope that he’d be able to see all his dreams come true, but despite this optimism his problems were far from over.

“When I first entered school here, there were challenges everywhere. From understanding school work to finding someone to sit next to on the bus. The experience was very isolating at first: imagine not being able to talk to anybody around you,” said Garcia Perez.

But adversity had never been a stranger to Garcia Perez, and he was determined to overcome it once again. With a small foundation of English under his belt, he wasted no time in learning the language fluently to take full advantage of his new opportunities.

Garcia Perez familiarized himself with the English language any way he could: reading children’s books, listening to children’s music and watching cartoons with closed captions, all while taking notes.

“The experience was terribly humbling, at the age of 13, after winning an academic competition a month before leaving Cuba to [be] reading children’s books,” said Garcia Perez.

In about three months after arriving, Garcia Perez was already thriving in school, eventually being promoted to regular English classes from English Second Language classes.

After years of fierce dedication to his school work while also managing baseball and other extracurricular activities, Garcia Perez entered his senior year and was later named the valedictorian of his class.

Aside from acquiring his valedictorian status, he has also accumulated over $10,000 in scholarships as well as been accepted and given full rides to multiple Ivy League universities such as Princeton, Yale, and Stanford.

But despite all these accomplishments Garcia Perez still wanted more, refusing to let go of a dream he’s had since he was a child in Cuba.

And so when he placed the phone to his ear and was told he’d been accepted into Harvard, one of the most prestigious universities in the U.S., Garcia Perez felt one of his biggest dreams finally come to fruition.

“I remember being 11 years old and dreaming about being accepted into Harvard, picturing all the buildings and how cold it’d be, but I always figured I’d be able to handle it as well as any other challenges,” said Garcia Perez.

With all the sacrifices Garcia Perez has made to get to where he is now, welcomed to Harvard University with a full ride, he’s proud to see his hard work finally paying off.

“All my life I have been an underdog, starting every race for my goals from the last row and with my shoes untied,” said Garcia Perez. “I have had to jump over hurdles placed in my way to achieve everything I have today.”