"The All-American Cuban Comet," an SEC Storied documentary about Carlos Alvarez's life and Hall of Fame career with the Florida Gators, debuts on SEC Network on Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. ET. Alvarez spoke with ESPN to discuss his story, his activism and the state of athlete empowerment ahead of the debut.
"We're never going back. So -- become an American."
A year and a half after Fidel Castro's revolution, years after my father attended law school with the same Fidel Castro, we took a ferry to Key West with our car and not much else.
Our lives in Cuba had been idyllic, but Dad knew Castro could spell danger. So we got visas at the U.S. embassy (being harassed while we waited in line) and we fled. Once on American soil, my parents basically lost everything. As for the kids, we didn't know we were actually moving until we landed. Until my dad's decree: "Become an American."
I didn't feel American. Not knowing the language was a big barrier, and my parents barely spoke it. I even saw a couple of signs that said "No Negroes, No Cubans, No Dogs." But Dad was so intent on so-called Americanness that he moved us into North Miami, where nobody spoke Spanish. For four or five years, I felt like an outsider.
It would start early -- 4:30 in the morning, in fact -- when my brother Arturo and I delivered the Miami Herald. I was probably 11 when I handed a note to a woman who was notorious for not paying, asking for payment on my brother's behalf.
She looked at me and said, "You stupid s--c. Get out of here."
I was devastated, shaken. Arturo had a temper. I knew if I told him, it wouldn't go well for either of them, so I lied, said she wasn't there and paid him from my own money.
We never forgot her hatred. Whether it was her xenophobia or the misguided advice of a nun at St. James Elementary who suggested I change my name from Carlos to Charles, becoming "American" seemed an impenetrable goal, one that required us to abandon our own identities.
Until I found football.
I was a running back in high school, but I wanted to be a wide receiver in college. I liked what quarterback Steve Spurrier did in his 1966 Heisman campaign, passing for more than 2,000 yards. And receivers like Charlie Casey and Richard Trapp had great careers in the mid-'60s. My brothers were going to be in Gainesville, far enough from Miami but not too far for my parents to see games. And Lindy Infante, the assistant who recruited me, was Italian, but he looked Cuban. So when he walked into our house, Mom loved him. (Lindy joked later that he'd faked a Cuban accent to curry favor.)
The rest is history, isn't it? My very first game I caught a 70-yard pass to help the Gators upset a heavily favored Houston team. I was quickly dubbed the "Cuban Comet" before becoming a literal consensus All-American. And after catching the game-winning touchdown in the 1969 Gator Bowl, I became an American citizen. I was at peace -- simultaneously Cuban and American.
So I'd fulfilled my father's wish, right? There's not much more American than that.
Well, there's one thing. Nothing is more American than protest -- using your freedom of speech to champion for the things you believe in.
So I did. As I watched friends return from Vietnam traumatized, totally changed inside and out -- it changed me as well. It was a real learning experience. I had a platform, so I used it.
I protested Vietnam at a time when athletes were really supposed to "shut up and dribble," as Muhammad Ali and others like Olympians' Tommie Smith and John Carlos were showing the first steps for athletes to become involved in the political system. I got letters telling me to go back to Cuba, lots of letters. But I always believed that advocating for your beliefs is an essential part of American citizenship. It's a muscle; if you don't practice, you lose it.
As so many do, I represent the American Dream. We love, push and advocate for America. Pushing for America, though, doesn't mean you're not pushing for the rest of the world. America does (well, should) lead by example, in spite of its recent setbacks.
This year, I've seen so many athletes do wonderful, nonviolent protesting. LeBron James. Colin Kaepernick risked it all. Trevor Lawrence and his teammates showed grace and maturity talking about police brutality and Black Lives Matter. Here's this absolutely fabulous quarterback on maybe the best team in the country with a lot to lose. He's willing to put himself out there, and I'm thrilled for that. And I'm very happy with a lot of the coaches who demonstrated alongside players. They sent a message that this is absolutely appropriate; it's not only appropriate, it is a demonstration of good citizenship to protest in America.
So many student-athletes are using their voices to effect change. Trevor is the biggest name in college football, but no one should be afraid of this. Athletes continue to lead by example, be wonderful role models who show us all how to be better Americans, to help make this a better union and society.
Americans have a duty as citizens to listen to those running for office, make choices and vote. In 1944, when Allied forces invaded Normandy, American soldiers landing there knew the door would come down, they'd run onto that beach and half of them would die. They knew it.
They did it to give us the ability to vote, and my goodness, you ought to think about that every day. You don't have to land on that beach, but you can certainly honor them by voting.
I believe in America so much. I really do. And it's a scary time, but the core of America is good and there's so much potential. There is goodness out there, and that will move us forward.
Take it from me: an American.