Photo: Alan Phillip
"One of the things I would like to see is more houses for low-income people."
Florida Icon: Alicia Cervera
(Founder and chairman, Cervera Real Estate — “the Queen of Brickell” — Miami; age 92)
I have done 48 major projects in Brickell. My daughter Veronica says: ‘Mother, when I see the skyline of Miami, I see your name.’ Sometimes when I drive on the causeway and I look over at the city, I feel so much joy to see that we’ve been able to contribute to Miami becoming a global city.
In Cuba, my husband’s family had a sugar farm. I found out that the children there did not have any knowledge of how to write or read, so I made a school on the veranda of my house. I was teaching ages 6 to 16, and it was very easy to teach the children, but I realized that there were people older who did not know how to write or read, so I extended the age from 16 to 60.
I think that the prime for human beings is from 19 years old probably to 70-something. I think Miami is like a 35-year-old, so we have had very much that has happened, but the city still has a big future. We have much to achieve, but we are going in the right direction.
When we lived in Cuba, there were people I knew who were in favor of Castro because they thought he was going to bring more like the democracy of the United States. They thought that Castro was going to be like a savior, but my husband, who was very young, 24 years old, he realized that this man was a Communist. My husband was very much clear that this guy was a fake. I don’t even like to discuss Castro. He was a horrible man. I have five friends who were shot by a firing squad, all not older than 32 years old. It was horrible.
My favorite book was written by a French man, In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust. He writes so beautifully. I have used Proust to sell property because without talking about real estate, he talks about how to conquer a person.
When I arrived in Miami, we came through Mexico. One of the things we did to start our new life is my husband asked for us to be in first-class seats. He said our privileged life was over, but he wanted to arrive in the United States in a very good way. We had caviar and champagne on the plane — and I didn’t have caviar and champagne for many years after that. We arrived penniless.
In Florida, my husband started working in a sugar mill with very low pay. He worked in the Okeechobee area. I got very sad. I would stay in my room with the windows closed, feeling bad for myself, until all of a sudden, right in the middle of having no money, I got pregnant. When my son was born, it changed my life completely. I felt like I belonged in the United States. I had roots. My perspective changed. I said: ‘I have to start working.’
I was looking for a job. I went to Sears, and they gave me a paper to fill out — your age, your Social Security number — and they never called me. Later, I was walking on the Miracle Mile in Coral Gables, and I walked into an office of a friend of my husband’s sister. She was in real estate, and she said, ‘Why don’t you work with us?’ I took my exams, and I got my real estate license. The first year, I earned all of the incentives you could get if you were a top producer. I was putting all of my heart into it to come out on top.
After two years, I decided that I wanted to be a broker. I had seen the market and had some very definite ideas of what I wanted to do. I realized that Miami was geographically fantastic. From Europe to South America to North America, the point in the middle is Miami, not New York. Miami! I realized that the Miami real estate industry didn’t have the capacity to serve foreigners. They didn’t know that Argentina wasn’t Brazil! They didn’t know a lot of things that I knew.
One day, I read in the Miami Herald that Harry Helmsley, the New York real estate investor, had bought a property on Brickell and was going to build a condominium (to be called the Palace). So, I said, ‘I need to write this guy.’ I wrote to him, with very little hope that he would read it or anything. I explained my background and that I understand the idiosyncrasies of the people who are moving to Miami and I think I can help you.
To work with Harry Helmsley was like going to Harvard. He taught me a lot. He wanted me to be with the people who were building the building at 6 o’clock in the morning so I would understand what I was selling.
One of the things I would like to see is more houses for low-income people. We need to make apartments that are livable and affordable. The thing is, I am 92, so all I can do is talk to young people, to get them to help create some land or something that we can use to create those projects that are so needed.
When I was selling the Palace, people started calling me the Queen of Brickell. Many people remember that time, and now they have named a street in my name. Everybody has told me it was really well deserved, but I don’t know. I’m a little humble about it.
My father didn’t like salespeople. He really disliked them. They’re pushy. They talk too much. When I became a salesperson, I was afraid to tell him.
I was married 68 years to the same person. My husband died two years ago. I cope with it by thinking that I am not that far away to join him, you know. But I want my children to be happy and not to have an unhappy mother. I have a lot of support. Every day, my three children call me at least once. And my grandchildren and great-grandchildren bring joy to my life.
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