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APSU physicist counts his blessings

November 25, 2003


While many of us take our blessings for granted until moved by the holiday spirit, Ridelto Gutierrez is thankful each day. A native of Cuba, Gutierrez endured more than a decade of trials to create a better life for his wife and three daughters.

In 1982, Gutierrez received one of 20 nuclear physics scholarships to the Soviet Union. He left Cuba to study in Leningrad and, later, Minsk, Belarus. There werent many opportunities to study abroad at that time, says Gutierrez. We knew science in Russia was better than science in Cuba.
November 25, 2003


While many of us take our blessings for granted until moved by the holiday spirit, Ridelto Gutierrez is thankful each day. A native of Cuba, Gutierrez endured more than a decade of trials to create a better life for his wife and three daughters.

In 1982, Gutierrez received one of 20 nuclear physics scholarships to the Soviet Union. He left Cuba to study in Leningrad and, later, Minsk, Belarus. “There weren't many opportunities to study abroad at that time,” says Gutierrez. “We knew science in Russia was better than science in Cuba.”

However, the economy and political climate were not.

“Opinion was changing quickly, because people were becoming aware of the limitations of the communist system and learning more about the United States,” says Gutierrez, who quickly discovered the U.S. was far more scientifically advanced than the Soviet Union. “We saw that everything was a lie and started politically maturing with the people of the Soviet Union. Everything that applied to the Soviet Union applied to Cuba.

“But I didn't want to be involved in politics. I wanted to be a scientist.”

By 1986, Fidel Castro's opposition to Mikhail Gorbachev's liberal reform policies made it difficult for Gutierrez, a newlywed, to study science in Russia.

“Castro was trying to change Cuban opinion about the inefficiencies of the communist system,” according to Gutierrez. “He realized when the U.S.S.R. finally went down, he would look bad. So, he attacked the Russian government.”

Despite the conflict, Gutierrez went to work for the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (JINR) in Dubna, a Russian city located in the Moscow region, after completing his master's degree. He was to spend four years at JINR building an electronic accelerator.

Plans changed, however, when a Cuban government representative instructed professionals in Dubna to return to Cuba.

Gutierrez tried to obtain a reason for the return, but he says it became clear the representative could not justify the orders. He says, “I stood and asked him, ‘Why don't you just say the [Cuban] party can decide when to return scientists back to Cuba with no explanation?'

“I decided at that moment that I wouldn't let them do whatever they wanted with my life.”

Leaving his wife and two daughters behind, Gutierrez and a colleague boarded a train to Moscow and headed to Germany.

There, they encountered their first roadblock.

“We couldn't cross the border into Germany, because things were changing, and they didn't know what to do with us,” says Gutierrez. The Berlin Wall had fallen the previous year.

With hope fading, Gutierrez spent the next 21 days stranded in Poland until, after many calls to his sister in Miami and Spain's large Cuban community, he made his way to Spain. There, U.S. Embassy officials granted Gutierrez and his family permission to come to the United States.

Feelings of joy quickly turned to fear, however, as Gutierrez realized he would not be able to get his Russian wife and daughters to Spain.

“Being of Russian nationality, [his wife, Valentina] was not allowed to leave Russia even after she was given a visa …unless the country [awarding the visa] was a communist country,” says Gutierrez.

It was a gut-wrenching realization for a man who already knew he likely would never see his Cuban family again.

“When Cubans get out of the country like I did, they never see their families again,” says Gutierrez. “I thought I had made the greatest mistake of my life.”

Just when it seemed that Gutierrez would lose his wife and daughters Natalia and Evelyn, fate stepped in.

“Right before I got out of Russia, I asked a friend in Czechoslovakia for an invitation to visit her,” says Gutierrez. “While I was in Spain, my wife got the invitation and used it to get to Czechoslovakia, hoping she could get to Spain from there.”

Soon, hope became reality, as Gutierrez reunited with his wife and daughters in Madrid.

“Imagine two little girls coming to Spain from Russia dressed in very hot clothes,” he says. “They didn't look like they belonged there.”

A month later, the Gutierrez family found a place they did belong: Miami.

Though knowledge of the English language was not necessary for survival in Miami, Gutierrez saw an opportunity to learn the language in the U.S. Army in March 1995.

“Ever since I was a child, I have liked the military,” he says. “I figured I would learn the English language, move up, become part of the real U.S.A. and serve the country, so I could say, ‘I really am an American.'”

Once again, Gutierrez, who now had a third daughter, Alberta, found himself leaving his family behind for basic training. “It was tough—leaving them behind again and facing another unknown,” he says. “And I had to go to basic training with no [knowledge of] English.

“It was fun,” he says with a smile.

Over the course of his military career, Gutierrez eventually became a sergeant, and his family lived in Fort Eustis, Va., and Fort Campbell, Ky., and spent three years in Germany. He also spent a year in Korea, again separated from his family.

After eight years of service, Gutierrez decided it was time to use the education that began the whole adventure. “Having known so much uncertainty in the previous years, I thought about staying in,” he says. “But being an enlisted soldier with a master's degree in physics and mathematics did not make sense.”

Staying in Clarksville did.

“We had bought a house when we got here, the kids—who already had moved so much—were in school and my wife, Valentina, was working as an [APSU] adjunct physics professor,” says Gutierrez.

The deal was sealed when Valentina told him about a job opening.

In November 2002, Gutierrez joined the APSU community as a physicist and lab/equipment manager for the Sundquist Science Complex. He also is credited with establishing the APSU Chess Club in 2003.

Though his professional and extracurricular duties keep him busy, his family is never far from his thoughts. Innumerable photos of 10-year-old Alberta, Evelyn, 16, and Natalia, 17, adorn his office.

Evelyn is a 4.0 student who dreams of becoming a journalist or writer, while Natalia, who excels at mathematics, considers a career in physics. Gutierrez roots both of them on.

“You have to let children have their dreams,” he says. “You can do whatever you want to—it's always possible.

“Getting out of Russia was the craziest thing I could ever think of, especially bringing my family with me. You never saw it work out. But it did.”
—Terry Stringer