He is a man of many titles; teacher, coach, author, father, grandfather. But if Michael Ruiz is anything—he is the epitome of the American dream. From his birthplace in Cuba to his 33 years teaching at Manhasset Secondary School, his journey is not one to forget.
Growing up in Fidel Castro’s communist state, Ruiz’s family had strong anti-communist beliefs, but they could not be outspoken against the oppressive regime.
“If you spoke against the government, you go to jail indefinitely,” said Ruiz. “On every block, they had a committee head and his responsibility was to spy and report any activity against the government. Really scary, you’re 8 years old and you think your father is going to get arrested.”
Ruiz’s family lived Havana, the capital of Cuba and his father worked as a cigar truck driver. Ruiz, now 63, says he has a good memory of his childhood and remembers vivid moments that made a huge impact on his life that he carries to this day.
“Cuba was communist, it was Castro and sometimes, there was no food in the fridge,” Ruiz said. “I remember we had a small steak that we divided into four for my grandmother, my mother and I. I was still hungry and my dad was on some sort of trip and they thought he wasn’t going to come back so they gave me the fourth piece of steak. My father showed up late and said he did not eat all day. There was nothing in the fridge. I felt so guilty.”
Everything Ruiz loved was soon taken away from him through no fault of his own.
“My mother pulled me out of school because they were teaching you communism. They closed down the churches, so we couldn’t practice our faith,” said Ruiz.
His family soon realized that they must leave Cuba as many other Cubans were already doing. Ruiz already had family in the United States that left before the revolution, however, the 90-mile journey to Florida was unsafe. The Cuban Coast Guard was constantly on patrol looking for deserters.
“My Uncle Luis was a big jeweler in Havana, he met an ambassador to Morocco and paid him off in gold jewelry. He got us visas to legally leave Cuba on a cargo boat, but the boat was going to Morocco,” he said.
Ruiz was 8 years old in 1964 when his family got on that cargo boat for Morocco. It was not the primary destination, but a step in the right direction of his family’s ultimate goal—getting to America.
Ruiz’s family went to the American consulate in Morocco to obtain a visa in order to legally live in the United States. They were finally approved and, without any of them knowing a lick of English they were on a boat to New York City.
They first lived with Uncle Manny and Aunt Rosa in Brooklyn. His father first worked as a waiter and then eventually opened up a successful deli.
At the time, there were not many people in the neighborhood who spoke Spanish, it was mostly Italians and Irish. So Ruiz had to pick up on the language fast and he eventually did, within less than a year.
After about a year since coming to Morocco, Ruiz’s family moved to Astoria. He would live there until he graduated college. He went to Queens College and got a B.A. in Spanish and English, his native and adopted tongue. He would soon get married after he graduated, though, Ruiz now says he was too young at the time for marriage.
Out of school, he started working as an English teacher at McClancy High School, an all-boys school in Jackson Heights. While he was there, he went back to Queens College to get his masters degree in Spanish, which also gave him a certificate to teach Italian.
“Italian is my passion,” said Ruiz, who would go on to talk about his love for Italy.
In 1982, Ruiz started working at another all-boys school, Chaminade High School. He taught English and Spanish and became an advisor to the school’s newspaper.
In 1986, he finally got what he wanted—a tenured track position at a reputable school. Manhasset Secondary School would become Ruiz’s home for the next 33 years.
He has taught Spanish in the middle school and high school, as well as Italian and Latin in the middle school. Ruiz has also coached cross-country, track and junior varsity tennis at Manhasset. He has also been a class advisor, debate coach, mock trial coach, foreign language advisor and student government advisor.
After 41 years of teaching, Ruiz is retiring at the end of this school year. He is unsure of what he wants in the next step of his life. He has already written a children’s book Miguelito leaves Cuba for America and he may decide to write even more now.
His family has grown, his daughter Michelle Ruiz Andrews is a writer for Vogue and has two kids of her own—Hayden and Jackson. His other kid is also a fully grown adult, Stephen Michael Ruiz, who now works in commercial real estate.
Ruiz does know one thing is for sure—he wants to go back to see his family in Cuba. He communicates with them over email, but the internet can be very spotty back in his homeland. Ruiz has been trying to figure what they need that he can bring over from the United States because the blockade of Cuba is still in place and it is hard for them to get adequate goods.
The trip is currently set for August, but that could change depending on how the geopolitical shifts in the upcoming months.
Either way, Ruiz has shown all his life that he wants to give back. To the kids who inspire him every day in the classroom or on the court, to the country that gave him and his family refuge and to his homeland.
“I consider myself the luckiest man on earth,” said Ruiz.