Cuban-American professor uses his history to connect with students

Photo courtesy of Cassie Wade
Machado has been teaching at UNO for 26 years. The well-seasoned educator still finds ways to connect with his students today.
Cassie Wade

At 86 years old, University of Nebraska at Omaha adjunct Spanish professor Gerry Machado’s life contains more chapters than the book out of which he teaches.

The intermediate Spanish II professor’s journey to UNO begins in Havana, Cuba, in 1931.

Early Life

Machado, who is named after his great-uncle, Gerardo Machado y Morales, a former Cuban president, graduated from a Catholic high school and attended medical school for three years. His real dream, however, was to be a military pilot, and he joined the army after becoming frustrated with his studies.

“A good mistake, a bad mistake, I don’t know,” Machado says. “I could’ve been a doctor, but you know what? I love what I do here.”

While in the army, Machado fought in the Cuban Revolution. His job was to track down and kill Fidel Castro, and he spent 21 months in the mountains searching for him.

“It was hard… but you survive in your own way,” he says.

Machado was fighting for the Cuban president, Fulgencio Batista. He and several others attempted to overthrow Batista, failed and then were jailed and tortured. They were freed when Batista fled the country in 1959.

Since Machado fought against Castro during the war, he and his family had to flee the country.

“When you fight, you do some good, some bad things,” he says. “Since I was on the loser’s side, the best thing for me to do was to get out of there.”

Starting Life in the U.S.

Machado, his wife and their three children fled Cuba and went to Mexico City. They arrived in Miami when Machado was 29 years old.

“At that time, Miami was just an old town,” Machado says. “There was nothing really there, only the ocean, hotels and retired people.”

It was hard for Machado to make a living in Miami, so he went to the refugee center and asked to be relocated. He was given a choice between two cities: Omaha or New York City. He chose Omaha thanks to the advice of a friend.

“He told me to go to Omaha, Nebraska,” Machado says. “It’s a big farm, but everyone is friendly. He was 100 percent right.”

Machado held a variety of jobs in Omaha and worked in construction, at the packing house in south Omaha and as a draftsman. Once he was no longer able to climb higher on the corporate ladder, he headed to UNL to work on his master’s degree.

Father and Educator

Machado says watching him work on his degree had a positive impact on his four children.

“Always, there was books around,” he says. “If I have one, they can go next to me and get another one. It was like another step for father and son. If I am reading, they have to read, too. If I am studying, they have to study, too.”

While Machado was working on his master’s degree, UNL offered him a teaching position, which later turned into an offer for full-time employment once he graduated.

“I took my wife to Lincoln to take a peek and see if she liked the town,” Machado says. “She didn’t like it.”

So the Machados headed back to Omaha, and he started at Creighton Prep where he taught for 30 years. At the same time, he taught classes part-time at UNO. Today, Machado has been teaching at UNO for 26 years.

The well-seasoned educator says he can still find ways to relate to his students despite his age.

“I have a lot of experience through what happens in Cuba,” he says. “I can relate to young people because many of the things I saw in my life.”

Machado enjoys teaching students about his culture and “the good and the bad, so they can always compare one thing to the other.”

Madelyn López, who was in Machado’s class during the fall semester, describes him as a friendly professor.

“My favorite part of the class were his stories and life lessons that he would relay through metaphors,” she says.

U.S. Citizenship and Reflections on Cuba

Machado and his family became U.S. citizens on Sept. 25, 1969. It was his birthday.

“We are all Americans, like everyone else,” Machado says.

Machado has not gone back to Cuba, “the most beautiful land” he has ever seen, since leaving after the war. He says he will not return.

“I would like to leave this world knowing what I saw before, what I have in my mind as my Cuba,” he says. “I don’t want to go back and see the ugliness, the decay; it’s like cancer. I want to have a good memory.”

Machado has grown attached to Omaha over the years, a little town he has watched grow bigger. The only part of Nebraska life that doesn’t agree with him is the winters.

“It’s too cold for my blood,” he says, “but I love this place, Omaha.”