Before Lazaro Valdes was breaking records for the Union City High School swim team and a top swimmer for the Montclair State University Red Hawks men’s swimming team, he had to figure out a way to reach the United States.
Growing up in La Havana, Cuba, Valdes’ father left him for Spain when he was just a baby. For most of his time in Cuba, he was raised by his mother, who was a doctor. Despite not having a father figure in his early childhood, Valdes stated that he had a very pleasant childhood growing up.
“Since we didn’t have computers or smartphones like that, for me I always liked to go outside and play baseball at the park and be around my friends,” Valdes said.
Valdes also said the education he received growing up was very advanced, especially in mathematics. It even helped him when he eventually came to the U.S.
Outside of that, life for Valdes and his family wasn’t always easy. Communism in Cuba made life hard for their family, as they never enjoyed the same freedoms that are enjoyed in noncommunist countries. To make matters worse, travel restrictions at the time between Cuba and the U.S. meant they couldn’t immigrate directly here.
However, an opportunity arose. His mother was able to negotiate with the Cuban government to allow her go to Haiti to aid in the humanitarian crisis in Haiti in 2008.
She spent the next few years in Haiti to help rebuild the country, which was extended due to the 2010 earthquake that destroyed much of the country. As soon as she was finished with her work in Haiti, she broke her contract with the Cuban government by going to Jamaica and later settling in the United States.
During those three years, Valdes did not see his mother. He lived with his grandparents in Cuba. Valdes credited his grandparents for raising him during this time and explained the reason why his mother was gone. His grandmother always reinforced that he would eventually see her again.
Valdes and his grandparents knew they had to eventually reunite him and his mother. Unfortunately, the Cuban government punished the family by banning him and his family from leaving the country after finding out about his mother escape.
Valdes’ mother sought out her friend to write up “documents” claiming that Valdes was mentally insane and needed to leave Cuba to see his mother. The documents were able to allow Valdes to immigrate to Spain.
Although he was only meant to stay in Spain for a year, as his mother was planning to fly Valdes back to the U.S., Spain was a tough transition for Valdes, who had to learn a complete dialect in his short time there.
“I moved to an area in Spain where they actually spoke Catalan, which was a different dialect,” Valdes said. “I wasn’t even allowed to speak Spanish in school, only the dialect.”
Despite this, Spain gave him the opportunity to reunite not only with his dad but with his sisters in which his dad had taken with him to Spain.
Valdes and his mother finally reunited in the U.S. in 2012 after she settled in Miami. He explained the feeling he had when he had first reunited with his mother at the airport.
“It was one of the happiest days of my life for sure, we cried and hugged for a good five minutes,” Valdes said. “It’s one of those things that people who are immigrants can understand.”
Valdes again had to adjust to a completely new country. His mother eventually would remarry, giving him a more active father figure in his life.
He also had to learn English, despite having taken basic English courses in Cuba. He maintained that he really hadn’t been properly taught the language, and it took him a while to become fluent. The adjustment of learning a new language would also affect his schoolwork. He was even in danger of repeating a grade in middle school but was able to pass with the help of his mother.
Things would turn around in high school as his parents moved from Miami to Union City, New Jersey. During his freshman year, he was asked to join the Union City High School swim team.
“I have always known how to swim, and I was told to swim for Union City High School so I could stay in shape for soccer, which was the sport I was playing at the time,” Valdes said.
Although Valdes struggled his freshman year, he continuously dropped time every meet. By the time he was a senior, Lazaro had numerous swim records for Union City and was one of the top swimmers in Essex County.
“It was the best experience of my life [being a swimmer],” Valdes said. “I didn’t really have experience with the sport, so it was nice to see the hard work pay off.”
Outside of swimming, Valdes was able to grow close bonds with several of his classmates. However, Valdes particularly mentioned his high school best friends, Abraham, Anthony, Alea and Jeanne, for being the ones who really helped him get through any challenges he had.
Valdes would eventually commit to Montclair State, and like how many things have gone for him for most of his life, he had another challenge ahead of him.
“This season was really hard, having two practices a day and also having weight room,” Valdes said. “These were things I never experienced at the high school level.”
Valdes was able to eventually adjust to the rigorous schedule and his times improved tremendously throughout the season and is now seen by many as an up-and-coming swimmer for the Red Hawks next season.
“I wasn’t really confident going into the season, but eventually that confidence grew,” Valdes said. “I was able to have the best meet of the season at the [Metropolitan Championship], in which I dropped times in all of my events.”
Senior Mick VanOosten has seen first-hand how quickly Valdes has developed into a quality swimmer for the team.
“He’s a great kid, and whenever he struggles, he always finds a way to push through it,” VanOosten said. “He’s always looking to learn something new.”
Valdes also believes that his composure has helped him get through a lot of the struggles he had in his life.
“I think I have that workhorse mentality with everything that I do when it comes to swimming, or even school,” Valdes said. “I always want to work hard in whatever I do.”