Survival instincts come natural to most. Survival tactics come harder for some. Two young Miami-area men relied on their survival instincts and each found the life of freedom and opportunity in the United States. And playing a part in that opportunity was the Air Conditioning Technical Center (AC Tech) in Miami, formerly known as ARPEC (Air Conditioning, Refrigeration & Pipefitting Education Center).

Six years ago at age 28, Ernesto Oliva decided he could no longer live his native Cuba. Through buying and reselling rum, he saved “penny by penny to raise the $8,000 it took to buy a ticket to freedom,” he said. This ticket provided no guarantee beyond the last opening available on a 32-passenger speedboat escaping to the United States. He took the chance, at one point believing they all would die when a boat of Cuban soldiers approached with guns aimed their way.

Inexplicably the soldiers turned and left without firing their guns. Seven hours later, Ernesto and his companions, only four of whom he knew, made it to the Florida shores. “I sacrificed many things, leaving my mom, sister, and beloved grandfather, but for a great cause; the most beautiful of all - to be free and useful to society,” he said.

He began taking classes at a local vocational school, where one of his teachers informed him about Local Union 725’s technical training center in Miami where he could pursue a career, earning money while he was going to school.

“I couldn’t believe I could actually go on to school, build a lifetime career and not pay any money. Working and getting paid to go to school is something great!” said Freddie Palma, 39, who has a similar story of escape - but he did it with only two other men on a man-made inner tube raft. His six-day, ocean-tossed journey to freedom in 1989 ended on a leased Spanish freighter manned by Germans who picked them up just as they were resigned to die from lack of food and water.

Transferred to a Coast Guard ship, Palma and his traveling companions were brought to Miami where he moved in with his aunt. To support himself, he worked at indoor plant maintenance and numerous other jobs until he learned about AC Tech from a teacher at the school where he was studying English. “It was exciting to hear about this. I wanted to learn about air conditioning and then I found out about this best school where they would help me find a job, so I could work during the day and get paid and go to school at night,” he said.

“Every single day I apply the skills at my job that I learn in school. It’s unbelievable. And, the teachers are different because they have all worked in the trade. They really know how to do it - not just from a book,” said Oliva.

Both young men studied and have become United States citizens. Oliva’s employer of four years is DebonAir Mechanical. Palma has been employed at Siemens for the past eight years, as an apprentice and now as a journeyman. While the two struggle with the separation from their families, they compensate with studying, reading, and work. Their work allows them to send money back to their families in Cuba on a regular basis.

For more information on AC Tech, go to

Publication date:12/17/2007