Meet Alexandra Tyer: Her father's dislike for dictators shaped her path from Cuba to the Berkshires

The voices of our immigrant neighbors in the Berkshires


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LENOX — Alexandra Tyer’s father did not like dictators. And so they did not like him.

Gustavo Avila got jailed by Cuba’s Fidel Castro when Alexandra was 7 years old. He was released several months later, on the condition that he take his family on the first flight out to Panama. 

That country granted the Cuban family asylum because Alexandra’s mother, Alejandra, was Panamanian.

In Panama, Avila, a lawyer who published his anti-government views, ran afoul of Manuel Antonio Noriega. Another monthslong jail term was the result.

The United States invasion of Panama in December 1989 set him free.

“By then he was ready to move us to Venezuela,” his daughter says, laughing. 

Venezuela could have resulted in a trifecta of political troubles for her father.

“But my mother said, ‘Oh my God, no! Stop with your newspaper writing. We’re staying here.’

“And now they are retired in Panama.”

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It was the American invasion that brought the former Alexandra Avila to the United States. Her grandmother lived in Miami and worried through that “horrible” period. 

“She insisted to my father, ‘Bring the children here,’ ” Tyer says, sitting in the Lee Library where she regularly works on her English language skills.

She moved to Miami and then moved up northward, with stints in Pennsylvania and New York, until a friend suggested she might like the Berkshires. She arrived here in 2009.

She cleans houses in several towns in South County. In the winter months, when some of those houses are closed up for the season, she also works at J. Crew at the Lee Premium Outlets.

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“I went there with my daughter when she applied for a job,” Tyer, 45, recalls. “And the lady asked her, ‘What about your friend? Does she want a job here, too?’ ”

She married Michael Tyer in April 2016. They live in Lenox with their blended family: her daughters Sandra and Hannah and his daughter, Ella. Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer is a cousin through marriage.

Tyer has mixed feelings about Cuba, her father’s island country. She happily remembers warmth: the weather, the ocean’s water, the people, and her family’s small, cozy quarters.   

“People live in very small apartments there,” she says.  “And I remember my mother bringing me to the supermarket. Everything there is the same kind, the same color. We have no difference.

“If you go buy rice, for example, it’s all the same rice,” she says. “No other.”

She was at school when the police came to arrest her father. 

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“My mother didn’t know how to tell us,” she says. “But then came 8 o’clock, 9 o’clock and he didn’t come home and my brother and everybody kept asking, ‘Where’s my papa? Where’s my papa?’ ”

When they were put on the plane to Panama, their Cuban passports and all their belongings were confiscated. Sheltered by her parents from a lot of what was really happening, 7-year-old Alexandra was excited.

“We were happy,” she remembers. “We had never been on a trip like that. We had never seen such a huge, different city [Panama City].”

“But we had nothing left,” she continues.  “Nothing, nothing, nothing. Only God.

“And that is what my mother said, ‘It’s OK. God supports us. We don’t need all that stuff because that is just material.’

“And my father also always said, ‘We are together, that is the best.’ ”

Her Christian faith is very important to Tyer. She wears a blue elastic WWJD (What would Jesus do?) wristband under her sleeve.

She is a member of the Rev. David McIntosh’s Christian Assembly Church on Williams Street in Pittsfield.

 “Every day I say, ‘Thank you, God, for everything in my life,’ ” she says.  “If you have God in your heart, and love and family, you do not need the material.”


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