Meet New Jersey State Trooper Reinaldo Cruz and memories from Mabel G. Holmes Middle School

Rafael Román Martel

Thank you Kimberly Pérez, May God Bless you Always.
Thank you Mr. Daniel Rizzi for your honesty and valuable input.

As Spring breaks in 2013, the students of Union City High School had the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of more than 100 professions, including lawyers, company executives, mechanics, police officers and this year a very special guest: a New Jersey State Trooper, who also served in the Elizabeth public schools for seven years before switching careers and becoming one of the few Hispanics selected to join, representing with honor and pride our community, the elite force of New Jersey State Troopers: Reinaldo Cruz.

I happen to know about his integrity and his commitment, his sense of friendship, his strong belief in God, family, and country; values that uphold America. You see, I was his mentor in Mabel G. Holmes Middle School in Elizabeth when he began his teaching career at the very beginning of the XXI Century.

I could tell that Mr. Cruz – today NJ State Trooper Cruz – wasn’t your average teacher: he is an outstanding educator and human being.
He is a leader.

He began his teaching career in a difficult scenario, the toughest school in the city of Elizabeth, situated next to the projects of the Elizabethport. The school population was comprised mostly of Hispanic and African-American students. It was a school requiring its professionals to give one hundred percent to create a healthy learning environment and they did. It was also the late 90’s. Hip-Hop culture had permeated our communities. It was a time of radical change in the attitude and language of young people growing up in the poorest sections of American society.

Our kid’s “teachers” were violent rappers whose language promoted all things contrary to what we were trying to instill in them in the classroom. Yet most students showed respect and a special consideration and even love to educators. On the other hand, being young and “confused” – as Kaseem used to say – they were easy target for gangsta rap and its extreme lyrics full of defiance for the establishment.

These were tough kids.

In order to gain their respect, and the respect of your peers at Mabel G. you had to prove yourself, among many other musts, you had to prove that you were there to be part of the community. You were taught by our Vice-Principal, The Great Ms. Pamela Pullen, and our disciplinarian, Mr. Larry Paige, that the number one rule was that you weren’t allowed to give up on your students. Never.

Only then would you earn their support, and yes, their respect.

During those years I met some of the best people I would ever meet. Ms. Pullen, Mr. Paige, Mr. Hector Pardo – from whom I learned much about teaching – Ms. Veronica Tapanesn – who is the current Bilingual/ESL supervisor for the Elizabeth school district, and Mr. Reinaldo Cruz, among others.

I’ll never forget Kaseem Abdul, a proud Muslim who read avidly; with him I had the most intense and interesting exchanges during the time I taught at Mabel G. He wasn’t your average bear, his son Asad Abdul-Khaliq was from 2000 to 2003 the starting quarterback: his for the Minnesota Golden Gophers football team. I haven’t seen Kaseem in 15 years and even though I am a Christian and he a Muslim, I will always consider him a brother. Tough as rocks, he was kind and extremely intelligent. He made an impact in my life. He taught me much about the African-American struggle for equality and justice from his perspective, from his own experience and that of his family members. He would tell me stories about life in the South during the fifties that made me greatly appreciate the Civil Rights Movement and gave me an inside look into the heart of the African-American community.

Once during an African-American Southern style funeral of one of our co-workers I expressed to Ms. Pullen how impressed I was by their spirit. It wasn’t a funeral like I had witnessed for years in the Anglo-Saxon and Hispanic communities: it was a celebration of life. Ms. Pullen turned to me and said “It’s our spirit Mr. Martel. Without our spirit we wouldn’t have made it”. This was more than a decade before this country would elect the first African American as president.

Ms. Pullen’s phrase made me reflect on what someone told me once at Mabel G. Ms. Antoinette Omizegba was one of those African-American women that everyone had to respect. Just her presence would demand it. Dignified and proud but gentle and considerate Ms. Omizegba once detected that for a couple of days I was quiet and somber. “Don’t let anyone take your joy away”, she told me with a firm voice. If Ms. Omizegba ever reads this I want to let her know that every time I see a joyful student looking down and seemly sad I repeat her words of wisdom.

Barack Obama won the presidential campaign in 2008. During his campaign from a Cuban patriot I became a “socialist” in the eyes of many Cuban American bloggers. My blog was the only Cuban blog that supported both of his campaigns: the one where he beat the democratic machine and the big one. I campaigned hard for Barack Obama. The most radical bloggers from Miami, those who constantly remind everyone of democracy, took me off their blog rolls.

It was inevitable that the night Barack Obama won the presidency of the United States I thought about Ms. Pullen and Ms. Darnella Boles; another strong woman who cares about students and has a singularly talented voice. The first time I heard her sing in an African-American History Month event I was astonished. There are many professional singers who wish they’d had her voice. “She started singing at the church”, Pamela Pullen told me. I also thought of Mr. Larry Paige, he was the school disciplinarian – not an easy responsibility – and a giant of a man with a heart much bigger than his imposing stature. One day exercising discretion I kept my distance from a small group of African-Americans who were conversing with Mr. Paige, he called me with his thunderous voice and said: “Come here Mr. Martel, come here. If we are here you are with us”, from that day on I knew those great African-American teachers had accepted me. And yes, the night Obama won I thought of my brother Kaseem. I can only imagine his pride and his joy. God Bless them all.

Ms. Pullen is a teacher’s teacher: the ultimate educator. She is an example of the strong American woman, and the spirit that made African-Americans resist and succeed in this society. A woman who underlined my strong belief that teaching comes from the heart. That despite whatever storm you were going through you stuck to your lesson plan which was your life plan – “It’s all good” she used to repeat no matter how bad the weather was outside or, most importantly, inside. No matter what, your duty was to leave it all once in the classroom. She taught us, through example, that to overcome the adversities in teaching and in life, toughness and endurance were a celebration of the human spirit.

My current World Languages Supervisor at UCHS, Dr. Luisa Mendez reminds me of Ms. Pullen’s concern and kindness towards her co-workers, student body and education in the purest humanist concept for you cannot teach without a heart that is willing to embrace not only your students but education as an ecumenical and humanitarian concept.

NJ State Trooper Rainaldo Cruz speaks to students of Union City High School on Career Day, March 27, 2013

When you walk in a classroom and observe a teacher in his environment you just know in a matter of minutes, by instinct, if you are in front of an educator or a person who has been caught in the wrong profession.

Mr. Cruz had it in him.

He was a natural, a motivator. He was an educator.

It was easy to be his mentor. I was also learning from his innate ability, and his creative ways in the classroom.

Ms. Pullen embraced Mr. Cruz and me, like so many others, and we understood and we were given the opportunity to be creative in our classrooms, and thus formulated a healthy learning atmosphere for our students, who had enough trying to grow up in the rough streets of Elizabeth inner barrios.

Ms. Pullen was the soul of Mabel G.

Mr. Cruz was totally committed to this vocation: teaching. He was always cheerful. He would listen to my advice and follow his admirable teaching instincts. He was always his own man. Behind his affable character one could detect a strong will, a God given intelligence, and overall his humanity and compassion made him the most popular teacher in the school.

Mr. Cruz would always promote understanding and to this day he establishes a clear difference between a teacher and an educator. He knew he could not change personalities but he also knew he could mold attitudes to make our young into great Americans. And his students, now men and women, became successful and honorable citizens.

With the support of that great African-American community of educators Mr. Cruz and I became Teacher of the Year 2003 in the City of Elizabeth at a time when Rafael Fajardo changed forever the culture of bias and discrimination that had permeated for decades not only the Elizabeth School District, but also so many other districts.

In the 90’s there was another Master Teacher from Union City who was breaking ground in Elizabeth High School. Mr. Chris Abbato, who would become Teacher of The Year at Union City High School. He marked his ground as an educator in the largest High School in New Jersey among 5, 400 students. He left a wonderful legacy, and impacted positively in the formation of his students, but his heart was in Union City where he is one of the best teachers this district ever had. His wife Sylvia Abatto is an Assistant Superintendent of Schools in our district. This couple has dedicated their lives not only to educate students in a difficult urban district, traditionally home for emigrants, but they have helped succeed most of our students and teachers with their skills, support and overall with their hearts. These are exceptional educators.

Rafael Fajardo, “The Lion of Elizabeth” will always be an inspiration to me for his toughness, his patriotism, his community service, and his dedication to help his fellow humans. He has dedicated his life to help others, myself being one of many. In 1998 when I was a campaign manager for Brian Stack and lost the election by a very close and questionable margin I also lost my job in Hudson County politics. Rafael Fajardo through our great friend Felipe Gómez called me at a time when I was “indefinitely suspended” from my job for clear political reasons. It was Friday and my political rivals did everything possible to humiliate us, especially Brian Stack, Phil Iacovello, and myself. My phone rang that night and Fajardo said “I am Rafael Fajardo, I’ve been told by Felipe what you are going through. On Monday go up to your boss and tell him ‘Go to hell’, you have a job and a friend in Elizabeth starting Monday. You’ve run a great campaign. Come to Elizabeth where as long as I am President of the Board of Education you’ll always have a friend.”

That’s the kind of person Rafael Fajardo is.

For the next few years I wrote for the Elizabeth Reporter; Mayor Chris Bollwage’s most ardent opposition paper. I was the only Hispanic, along with Rafael, working in the most audacious weekly newspaper in the city. I had the opportunity to write alongside some of the toughest and clever Irishmen I’ve ever met. They taught me much with their indomitable fighting spirit, and their experience in Union County politics. They had taken the Board of Education from Bollwage, a formidable opponent and they were committed not to let Mayor Bollwage recover the EBOE. The Board’s budget at the time was bigger than the city’s. They were good-hearted political kamikazes. They were fierce political enemies. They were all retired but politics rejuvenated their bodies and spirit. That wasn’t the first time I’d work with the Irish. In 1984 I met some WWII veterans of Irish descent at Republican Bank of New York. They were also retired from the NYCPD. As I listened to their war stories I came to appreciate the incredible toughness of the Irish people. These men working for the Elizabeth Reporter had been brought up in the same mold. Fajardo had to earn their respect to lead them into the political opposition in Elizabeth, where, an Irishman, Mayor Thomas Dunn, had controlled politics for twenty eight years, with the skill of uniting most factions while reducing his nemesis to humiliating defeats at the ballots. After running against him, Fajardo had been persuaded to join him. Dunn recognized the Cuban-American determination and won him to his side in his latter years, after Rafael had unsuccessfully ran a mayoral campaign against him. Dunn, a Master politician, knew that once he had the young Cuban’s word he had his trust. So it was that even after his death for Fajardo would keep his son as Superintendent of Schools until he retired, and he never took Dunn’s name from the sports arena. Both promises he kept long after the Irishman died in February, 1998.

Rafael Fajardo had learned much from these courageous men, and he would give them more to fight on with his contagious enthusiasm and leadership.

This political war remains to this day. Fajardo and his supporters haven’t been able to take the mayorship from Chris Bollwage. The mayor hasn’t been able to recuperate the Board of Education.

Every Wednesday I worked at The Elizabeth Reporter I got a few lessons in politics. They had PhD’s in the subject. This made life difficult for Mayor Bollwage, who even though was a brilliant politico, has to be watching even where he parked his car. If he had parked it “illegally” just for a few minutes somehow the picture of his vehicle would be in The Elizabeth Reporter. Rafael Fajardo and his team would make sure everyone in Elizabeth got the newspaper: he delivered house by house, apartment by apartment through out the city.

Rafael Fajardo had called me in a most difficult time. It was September, 1998. He knew about me through my militancy in the 30th of November and he had probably seen the images on TV of my brother’s and my actions at the Jacob Javitz Center on January 25, 1992 and throughout the 90’s, a time when I was dedicated to Cuba’s independence from the Marxist tyranny of the Castro Cartel.

How could I ever forget his gesture? How could I not work hard for The Lion of Elizabeth and be a part of that wonderful team that made him win all the commissioner’s seats at the EBOE in 1999? How could I not be grateful all my life to that Cuban-American who was willing to help me at a time when I had no place in a Union City dominated by the political machine – read meat grinder – alliance? Rafael Fajardo, who helped hundreds and hundreds of Latin Americans in his forty years as a community leader in Elizabeth must be recognized not only as a Cuban patriot, but as a great human being, a great American.

In late 1998, a year before I would have the opportunity to work with Mr. Cruz, I was in a meeting at Brian Stack’s apartment on 14 Street and Palisades Avenue. Phil Iacovello and the current – and very successful – Superintendent of Schools, Stanley Sanger, were there, so was Gerry Caputo. There weren’t many of us in Stack’s camp after we lost the election. Brian was fuming about the bias of the Cuban-Americans weekly pamphlets that consistently attacked him. “I am going to launch my own paper,” I said. They all looked at me as if I were a Martian. “How are you going to do that? Where would you get the money?” asked Stack. Mr. Sanger and Mr. Caputo looked at me with inquisitive amazement. I had the experience and the support of Rafael Fajardo, who wrote the check for our first “Political Reporter”. Silvio Acosta and myself would make that monthly newspaper a whip for Brian Stack’s enemies. We published 30 issues. People started calling “The Political Reporter” the “Stack Reporter”.

My brother Mario Fernández took care of financing most issues of our publication as he had always done with all our literary magazines, until Stack became mayor when the paper would lose its purpose. Needless to say we were tired. Besides all my activities Silvio and I had a local TV program, “Debatiendo con la Comunidad”.

It was a time when I started to direct my energies from my militancy at the 30th of November to local politics. This didn’t mean we had stopped denouncing the human rights violations in Cuba. In 2002 we had direct contact with one independent journalists organization, and most of the Cubans mentioned in this article would give us money to send the independent and persecuted journalists in Cuba. One of the most generous contributors was mayor Brian Stack whose record of supporting the Cuban community in Union City is only matched by William Musto, who gave us the opportunity to live and prosper in this city, so close to the heart of two generations of Cubans.

On the other hand, Fernandez was always in the frontlines of the struggle against Castro. He became an example to me and many other Cubans, who spent many hours advocating a democratic change in the island. Mario Fernández is one of most courageous Cubans I’ve ever met, alongside Angel Alemán “La Cotta,” a pro-democracy activist who had fought in the Escambray Mountains War during the early sixties against Fidel Castro when he was 16 years old.

It was Mario Fernández, Israel Abreu, Tony Pons, Carlos Calvo, Jorge Valls, and many others who shaped my personality since my youth. Through their courage and spiritual and physical strength they influenced my militancy against the evil of Communism. I would bring my experiences with these men, their stories, their irresolute democratic political convictions into the classroom. They also taught me that politics and cause were two different and separate issues.

In education, as in most things in life, you need the help of the few, the true patriots to carry a mission. Fernández, Alemán, and Fajardo are those indispensable men you need by your side if you want your convictions to become a tangible expression of your beliefs. These are men without a price tag; their convictions are not for sale.

At the time, Mr. Cruz was successfully finishing his first year as a teacher. I can assure you that even though he never met, or probably heard about these men, he conducts himself in a similar manner.

And it’s just that to change the order of things, in education as in life, there needs to be leadership, there needs to be a school principal who cares, there needs to be Rafael Fajardo who cares, there needs to be a mayor that cares, not about your color or race but about your human condition, and is able to appreciate our most valuable resources: our youth.

Values must be measured in human, not classist or racist terms.

This is a rule that greatly influences NJ State Trooper Reinaldo Cruz.

Educational change happened in Elizabeth with Rafael Fajardo and is happening in Union City today with Union City Mayor Brian Stack and Mr. John Bennetti, an extraordinary educational leader who is being nationally recognized for his achievements. Union City is one of the leading urban school districts in the United States not only by the teachers who put so much effort in educating our students but by our leaders who have been giving us the tools and the freedom to make them critical thinkers and successful citizens.

At Mabel G., Reinaldo Cruz rapidly connected with his students. When I left, in 2004, he was the most popular teacher in a school that had four principals in five years.

All of them, except one, garnered my respect at some degree or another.

In 2003 students engaged in a game that turned into a small riot. I ended up with two broken ribs. Sometimes games became violent. Violence was part of an unfortunate culture in the projects of the border of the Elizabethport. Under the ineptitude of an incapable school principal and his inability to place security guards in the right place at the right time, I was to become victim of the violence that had been part of the Elizabethport for decades. Needless to say that principal was fired a year later. Because of the general discontent this man generated from students and staff The African-American community launched a campaign against him like no other I’ve seen in an educational setting.

One day the whole block that surrounded Mabel G. and three others around it had neon signs that read: “Mr. F Must Go!”

I arrived to work to see this man climbing a ladder, and some of his small group of hacks taking down, one by one, the thousands of neon signs posted in a perimeter three blocks adjacent to the school.

It was a beautiful Autumn morning.

I had returned with my two broken ribs healed and with the same commitment that had caused my co-workers and students to choose me as Teacher of the Year a few months before. It was September 2004.

Those days I reflected on Hudson County politics and the way Brian Stack had come back from adversity. If you worked with Stack you would learn that everything is possible against malice with sheer determination.

Mr. F would understand that. He got cornered into a “teachable moment” himself. His last words to me were: “You are a tough man Mr. Martel. Maybe sometimes we’ll meet in politics.” I answered but to this day I haven’t a clue about the meaning of his words.

Parents, community leaders, and concerned citizens went to the Elizabeth Board of Education complaining about this add man. The community placed letters in all of the EBOE executives and leader’s cars denouncing the mistreatment and the manipulation of this individual.

I didn’t pay much attention except to fully support the actions taken by the community.

I kept working in Rafael’s campaigns, publishing “The Political Reporter”, helping Brian with all of his letters at the time, and completing my Masters in Urban Education.

My main focus was how I could impact my students in the most positive way.

At Mabel G. Holmes you had to gain the most violent students’ attention to gain their respect.

Mr. Cruz did it with ease.

He, like myself, had grown up in mean streets, where you had to stand on your own to survive. Now we both coincided in our past but projected ourselves, as teachers, in a better future for our students. And we taught English and respect and love for the betterment of this country and the future of our students.

In 2004 I got I got a letter from Union City Mayor Brian Stack: “Ralph, we need you in Union City,” it ended in his handwriting. One cold day in February I got a call from Mr. Caputo, the Human Resources Manager at the Union City District. “We need you here” he said. Mr. Gerald Caputo had been my Shop Teacher in 1974 and he was tough as nails. Most of the Italian-American Teachers at the time taught us “tough love” – a term I heard State Trooper Cruz mention today. My generation had come from another planet: Communist Cuba. We knew about the barbaric ways of the Communist system. The Communists destroyed my childhood. It took many years to recover from living in an oppressive military state. They had sent my father and my mother to forced labor camps. They used the most refined methods to bend my will and reduce my parent’s teachings into smithereens. They separated me from my parents and I had to live with my grandmother for two years, time that they skillfully used to “convert” me into their evil doctrine. Hunger, oppression, insults and weekly fights at school were the order of the day. Eggs, tomatoes, and stones were thrown at our house. Since the first grade I was called a “worm” by some classmates, and Communist teachers, who had found in Fidel Castro’s hateful heart a source of reference to expand their own insecurities, the larceny in their hearts, their inner devils among their compatriots, whose only crime was to dissent from a one party system, a Nazi styled, totalitarian society.

That’s why I was struck by some exiliados once I arrived in this country. Some of them were in negation of their past. Others were in a programmed denial orchestrated by their parents as a defense mechanism: “Don’t say you were hungry in Cuba,” “Don’t say anything about our past,” “Don’t say that you were born in Matanzas, always say you are from Havana,” they used to whisper to their sons and daughters because misery has a way of convincing human beings the best way to forget it is to never remember it but that’s another story.

Imagine if the Jews or the African-Americans would have taken the same route. That’s probably why the great Jewish community’s motto is “Never again” and they have made one of the most important contributions to this country, and Barack Obama, representing all Americans but especially black America is today President of the United States for a second term.

Four hundred and forty thousand Cubans visited Communist Cuba last year, bringing millions of dollars to support their hangman and his mafia. That’s probably why we are still living under the yoke of Communism for 54 years. Something incomprehensible for democratic leaders like Lech Walesa, Leader of the Solidarity Movement, and former President of the Poland who in March 2013 said on a CNN interview that it was unreasonable to him why the Cuban people had not risen from Communism being only 90 miles away from The United States, and they – the Polish people – sacrificed hundreds of lives for freedom having Soviet tanks at their doorstep. It is clear that both countries do not have a similar degree of discipline, and sacrifice. Both countries do not share the same degree of conviction. Poles – as Rumanians and Germans and Russians – chose to fight in their homeland for the future of their children. Cubans not only chose to leave among an overwhelming wave of repression, fifty four years later they support their oppressor by bringing billions of dollars into the bloody hands of the Castro’s feudal system.

The way all of these young Cubans in Union City in the early 70’s embraced Mr. Decongelio, Mr. Perino – who can forget Mr. Perino? – Ms. Colaneri – the sweet and generous Ms. Colaneri – Mr. Suriani, the Great Richard Ardito, Carla D’Acieno – a master teacher who taught me my first words in English in 1973, may God Be with her forever – Mr. Daniel Frezzo – what an exceptional man, a teacher’s teacher – and so many others showed evidence that the victims of Communism – consciously or subconsciously – had found a supporting mechanism in Union City’s legendary Emerson High School among true educators – versus Communist indoctrination – that remains to this day in their native land. I’ll always be grateful to all of those great American teachers, most from Italian descent, who through their own experience taught us to be successful in America.

Our generation would break through thanks to our parents, our teachers, and our strong belief in ourselves and the iron shields of our values, and the opportunities that America offers. So would Veronica Pavanes and Mr. Cruz’s generation. Ms. Tapanes and NJ State Trooper Cruz have succeeded in spite of, instead of being part of a privilege class. They are a clear testimony of the greatest democracy in progress, in constant change to enable anyone who is willing to work hard to reach the American Dream.

That’s part of the reason that when I saw Mr. Cruz speaking with our young people in Union City today I felt an overwhelming sense of pride, of accomplishment. Not only America had offered us, as Hispanics, the opportunity to change our lives but to encourage others to move forward. And here, as you see our picture, and can detect pride in the face of our state trooper you cannot see how much pride it is in my soul for having this young man calling me “mentor”. It is an honor and a privilege to be his friend. We posed in his uniform and my teacher’s suit at my classroom on March 27, 2013 in Union City High School.

May God Protect you and Bless you Always State Trooper Reinaldo Cruz.


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