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Congressman Joe Garcia Fights for His Political Life

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"I don't think Garcia survives," says David Custin, a Florida political analyst, "because his guy went to jail!"


It was a hot spring day in 1982, and an 18-year-old Joe Garcia and his grandfather Nicolas leaned against the bumper of Nicolas' old white van, parked somewhere in Miami's Westchester neighborhood. In Cuba, Nicolas was a guaguero, a bus driver, ferrying passengers back and forth along Route 7 between Havana and nearby El Cotorro. But in Miami, he had struggled to find work. He ended up cutting neighborhood lawns to scrape by, and Joe tagged along to help with the jobs and translate.

"Bueno, abuelo. I'm going to finish college. Then I'm going to go to law school. Then I think I'm going to go into politics."

"We'd be walking down the sidewalk and he'd say, 'See that guy over there?'" Garcia remembers. "'Go tell him his yard is ugly and we'll mow it for him.'"

Tired after just finishing a lawn, the pair guzzled water. Then Nicolas, a tough old man who later lost the tip of his middle finger in a mowing accident, asked his grandson what he planned to do after high school. "Bueno, abuelo," Joe replied, "I'm going to finish college. Then I'm going to go to law school. Then I think I'm going to go into politics."

Nicolas' eyes welled with tears, Joe thought from pride. "And he said, 'Son, politics is only for the lowest people.'"

Not that Garcia could be deterred. Ever since he was a know-it-all, Afro-sporting teenager, he seemed destined for a life in public service. He was a precocious kid who didn't get the best grades but impressed everyone around him with his outsize personality and intelligence. "Everybody liked him. Everybody knew him," says Hector Formoso-Murias, a former high-school classmate who's now a Miami attorney. "He was a leader."

In Cuba, Nicolas had gone to school until only fourth or fifth grade. His wife, Angelica, had continued through ninth. The couple had a daughter, Carmen, who fell in love with a handsome young man named Jose Garcia when both were just 13 years old. It was the late 1950s, in the middle of Castro's communist revolution. Jose fled to Miami in 1961. Carmen soon followed, and the couple was married a week after she arrived.

On October 12, 1963, Jose and Carmen's first child, Jose Antonio Garcia Jr. -- who would later Americanize his name to Joe -- was born at Mount Sinai Hospital in Miami Beach. The family initially struggled and for years crowded into a house with various relatives while Jose Sr. worked at a car wash and Carmen waited tables. Seven years after Joe was born, another son, Mo, joined the family. Gaby, another boy, arrived seven years later. By then, Jose Sr. had found a career as a banker, Carmen ran her own hair salon, and the family of five settled into a four-bedroom ranch house with a pool in the back and a small screened front porch in Westchester.

"It was a nice, middle-income house," says Edward Iturralde, a high-school friend of Joe's and now an attorney in Tallahassee. "We would watch MTV or Miami Dolphins games or whatever."

In seventh grade, Joe's parents enrolled him at Belen Jesuit Preparatory, an elite private school that, like nearly all of its students' families, had migrated to Miami from the island after the revolution. In Havana, Belen had produced generations of young political leaders, including Fidel Castro, whose government troops later seized the school. When it relocated in 1961, the all-boys academy became the breeding ground for South Florida's new Cuban-American elite.

But even at Belen, Garcia stood out. He was big for his age, both in size and personality, with a brash confidence, endearing wit, and voracious energy. In high school he played defensive tackle and defensive end on the football team for three years. He served on the student council for four years, was president of both the philosophy and chess clubs, and was also a member of the Tombola Committee, which organized the school's signature three-day spring festival.

Garcia was best known as co-editor of the school's yearbook his senior year. It was a huge responsibility for which he spent countless hours poring over photographs in the school's darkroom and managing a staff of a dozen students. "To carry the helm of being editor in chief," Formoso-Murias says, "it was a big deal."

The book Garcia produced is, most notably, thorough. It includes 246 pages of uncaptioned black-and-white photographs; generic, occasionally witty sports season and event recaps; and a full page dedicated to each senior. In Garcia's senior photo, he wears a dark suit, big glasses, and a wide smile while standing in front of a full-length mirror. His right hand is tucked into his jacket pocket, and his left holds a silver camera -- Garcia was a photography buff, and he took the portrait himself. "I think Joe may have been the originator of the selfie," says Iturralde, who co-edited the book.

As a teenager, Garcia was captivated by history and biographies (Teddy Roosevelt was a favorite subject), and he displayed a passion for government and social studies. In Pat Collins' 11th-grade government class, Garcia's large hand was always in the air, his deep voice often leading class discussions. Collins organized class trips to Washington and government shadow programs; it was this teacher, several Belen alumni would later say, who instilled in immigrant kids like Garcia a lifelong love of their new country's government.

"I thought our job," Collins explained to New Times in 2001, "was to bring these [Cuban] boys into the political mainstream as expeditiously as possible."

Garcia wouldn't waste any time. After Belen, he put himself through Miami-Dade Community College using saved lawn-mowing money; then he transferred to the University of Miami, where he studied political science and public affairs. During his senior year, he was elected student body president.

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Trevor Bach
Contact: Trevor Bach

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