Alicia Cervera was an essential part of creating modern Miami. She was and still is a visionary and realist focused on success. Although Ms. Cervera arrived exhausted in Miami, saddened over her recent tumultuous escape from Cuba, she was determined to make a better life for her children and recapture what she lost in the Cuban revolution.
Alicia Cervera pioneered the transformation of slumbering nascent neighborhoods in Miami into some of the most thriving cosmopolitan areas rivaling New York City. To her credit, Ms. Cervera has rightfully earned her reputation as the Grand Dame of Miami real estate with her preeminent Cervera Real Estate, a leading Miami firm. But Alicia Cervera worked hard for her success, and she did it with grace and charm. She came to Miami under duress and the knowledge that she and her family had to work extremely hard to attain the goals she had always harbored for herself and her children.
One can imagine the city of Miami that Ms. Cervera confronted as she arrived via plane in the 1960s. Miami had a reputation as a glamorous tropical destination where well-to-do visitors could enjoy the sun and surf unfettered by crowds and bustle. But by the 1960s, the Miami Beach experience had started to dim as it became a commodity that allowed increasing numbers of investors to build hotels and entertainment centers on shaky and expensive financial terms. Quickly after some unexpectedly slow tourist seasons, the hotels and restaurants built for the boom in the postwar era began to falter and become bankrupt. Miami must still have been a beauty, albeit faded, in the 1960s when Alicia Cervera first arrived. Nonetheless, she was one of the first people to recognize that the concept of Miami Beach, which was ingrained in the psyche of America as a metaphor for sunny beach days and glamorous nights, was dissolving into a slightly seedy and quiet beach town living off of past glories. The people still came, just not the right people.
As I first greeted Ms. Cervera, I immediately recognized her as a delightful woman with a warm, genuine smile and elegant style. She reminded me of the grand Latina women in my life. All of them were intelligent people with impeccable manners and sophisticated charm but entirely approachable. The corporate offices had a familial feeling that could not be faked. You could sense that everyone in the offices cared deeply about how Avessa would portray Ms. Cervera. Cervera Real Estate does not function as a typical corporate hierarchy because there was a warmth and a level of playfulness that permeated through the relationships between the staff and Ms. Cervera and her family.
Alicia Cervera works closely with her children and grandchildren, which is delightfully appropriate since there is great respect and love between all the family members. I had an opportunity to visit with Veronica Cervera Goeseke, CEO, Alicia Cervera Lamadrid, Managing Partner, and granddaughter Alicia Lamadrid Paysse. But never far from Ms. Cervera’s grandson Nickel Goeseke Jr. and granddaughter Alexandra Goeseke Cervera who are also a part of the tightknit group that works to maintain their company as a leader in the voracious and competitive world of Miami Real Estate.
As I talked with Ms. Cervera, I was extremely curious about how she began her career and the story behind this fascinating woman who started in a decades-old world that was predisposed against women business owners and Latinos in general. Ms. Cervera came from a diplomatic family, with her father as the Peruvian ambassador to the United Nations and a successful business family with her husband, a significant sugar producer. The Cuban Revolution was a whirlwind shock as it targeted her friends and family forcing Ms. Cervera to flee in 1961 with her husband Javier to join their young daughters in Miami. During an agitated period, they were quickly invited by the Mexican ambassador to join them on his plane. Still, as the group nervously waited for the plane takeoff, revolutionary Cuban guards stopped the flight and pulled Alicia from the aircraft. The ambassador hid Javier and refused to depart until Alicia was safely back on board. I asked Ms. Cervera about this frightening episode, but with a gallant shrug, she stoically responded that it was a part of the times. She was eventually able to reboard the flight, all the while knowing that she left behind stories of other friends that were lined up and executed, and so she shook her head at me, signaling there was no more to say.
In Miami, they reunited with daughters Veronica, then 6, and Alicia, 3, who had been sent ahead with a nanny. She told me it was then when she alighted the flight that she suddenly realized she had nothing. Her future was now to adjust to a different culture and start over. I reflected on what I had previously researched about Ms. Cervera. As a young woman, I knew she had been part of a gentile world that routinely received invitations to meet world figures like Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt. Still, after 1961 she then had to straighten her shoulders and, with quiet dignity, move forward.
I wasn’t surprised that this very charming and intelligent woman succeeded, but I was curious about what triggered her eventual business success. When I asked her, Ms. Cervera smiled and told me she had a preternatural maturity from her youth. Although she had an older and younger sister, her father quickly recognized that Ms. Cervera was the one to help him manage the family. She remembers being handed money before sisterly outings to ensure that all three young ladies enjoyed themselves and to be mindful that her sisters came to no harm and to take care of them. So from the beginning, Ms. Cervera started to be a leader. Her daughters also credit their father, who never once considered that women had limitations and wholeheartedly supported his wife and daughters.
Ms. Cervera, with the help of her two daughters, explained what happened next after arriving in Miami. Her husband, Javier, started working as an engineer to support the family, which left Ms. Cervera to consider her future. There was a difficult period of adjustment, with her husband working in Okeechobee for low pay, when Ms. Cervera unexpectedly got pregnant. Her son’s birth ignited Ms. Cervera, making her feel like an integral part of the United States with new roots and a changed perspective. She knew she also had to start working to help the family regain even a portion of what they had lost. She did what any of us would do; she went to different companies and applied for jobs but with limited success. One day Ms. Cervera was walking on the Miracle Mile in Coral Gables and entered a real estate office owned by a friend of her sister-in-law. Her family friend said, ‘Why don’t you work with us?’ Ms. Cervera took her exams and received her real estate license. The first year she was a top producer. Not a shocker. She stated, “I was putting all of my heart into it to come out on top.”
So in her role in the real estate industry, Ms. Cervera recalls seeing the changing culture of Miami Beach but also thought that the rest of the city was primed for a renaissance. The city’s great potential was first recognized at the turn of the 19th century as wealthy widow Julia Tuttle, and railway tycoon Henry Flagler worked together to help the city grow. As more and more people flocked to the area more than a century ago, the town grew so fast that winter visitors remarked that the expansion seemed magical. Hence the nickname, the Magic City. Brickell, for example, was a sleepy neighborhood with some office buildings, single-family homes, and access to remarkable seaside views. Ms. Cervera was convinced that this slow-paced neighborhood and others could be refreshed and restructured to be a more international city. She understood real estate since her mother was a pioneer home developer in Peru. She still had access to her network of wealthy Latin Americans just beginning to buy in Miami. She understood the potential for a luxury niche in Miami in a way other complacent real estate brokers couldn’t. From Europe to South America to North America, for wealthy Latin Americans, Miami was the point in the middle, not New York. Ms. Cervera could immediately see that the Miami real estate industry of that time didn’t have the ability to serve foreigners. They didn’t know that Argentina wasn’t Brazil. They didn’t know the people and cultures that Ms. Cervera did, and she excelled.
In the early 1970s, Ms. Cervera gained a vital job and reference, allowing her to grow and create a reputation that underpins the company’s success today. Harry and Leona Helmsley, New York developers, announced the construction of the Palace Condominium on Brickell Avenue. Ms. Cervera consequently wrote them a letter pitching her services, and as day followed night, the Helmsley’s phoned her and set up a meeting at their Palm Beach hotel.
Veronica Cervera Goeseke spoke to me about the trip. “So we drove to Palm Beach, and my mother went up to meet them, and I stayed in the lobby. When my mother came down, she told me Leona Helmsley stated, ‘Alicia, I really like you, and you need this job. I’m going to have Harry give you this.’” Ms. Cervera became the project’s exclusive sales agent, consequently opening new opportunities for her. But what was fascinating was how Ms. Cervera maintained and grew her business. It was not only sheer hard work that intertwined social and business activities, but more importantly, it was Ms. Cervera’s beguiling nature and generosity that sealed her reputation. She told me, “Alfonso, I did not sell homes just for my advantage; I wanted my clients, my friends, to be happy. To help them purchase a home was a privilege; it was a unique, important part of their lives, and I wanted to help them.
Today as the eternally beautiful turquoise skies darken, visitors will notice how the skyline gently brightens until the dazzling lights from Miami’s skyscrapers and other iconic buildings create a rainbow of colors and reinforce the growing strength of the city. Ms. Cervera was a fundamental part of building this beauty, and as I sat and listened to three generations of women tell their stories, what was particularly poignant was the respect and affection that shone brightly in their eyes. Ms. Cervera took her daughters with her on every site visit or evaluation. She demonstrated to them her tenacity, ambition, and love of her career that was required for success. Although Javier, their father, encouraged other higher education beyond real estate, the women came back to support their mother and reinforce the love of real estate that was now a part of their nature. But let us not kid ourselves; business success in the ferocious world of Florida real estate also requires a stone-eyed view of financials and a commitment to meeting obligations. These women are not only charming, but they are also intelligent, clear-eyed, and analytical. They would have to be in order to maintain their level of achievement.
Today, the company has worked with 85 developers and sold more than 115 luxury high-rise condominium towers, representing $21 billion in sales and over 70,000 units. Cervera Real Estate has eight South Florida offices and more than 300 agents. But they are not done yet. With Ms. Cervera’s daughters in their prime and her granddaughters already engaged in the business, the future looks as bright as the Miami skies. As Ms. Cervera and I finished our conversation, I could not stop but admire her twinkling smile and gentility. As I mentioned, Ms. Cervera reminded me of the grand Latinas I had met from a more gracious time. Still, I was intrigued to see that her ability to connect was already passed on to her daughters and grandchildren. Ms. Cervera can be proud that her work and values will continue to benefit Miami and add to the legend of the Queen of Brickell.