Cuban piano legend Nachito Herrera had worked his way through a few frantic opening songs at the Dakota on a recent Saturday night, his hands darting like hummingbirds across the keyboard. Then, as it usually does, Herrera's show became a family affair as he introduced, "all the way from Havana, Cuba," his 19-year-old daughter, Mirdalys.
She came out in a sleek black dress and gave a small shout to the audience before belting out Dionne Warwick's "I'll Never Love This Way Again."
"There's a lot of things I could say about the people of Minnesota, but I just want to say thank you so much," she said.
Mirdalys came to the United States in 2003 speaking little English. She became fluent by reading Harry Potter books, in English and Spanish, over and over, highlighting words she didn't know. She became an excellent student at Mounds Park Academy in Maplewood, played classical violin, and got accepted to the University of St. Thomas, where she's studying criminal justice with the plan of going to law school. Meanwhile, she sings with her father's band, sometimes studying during breaks.
This summer she surprised everyone, including her family, when she added another title to her already impressive résumé: Soldier.
Mirdalys joined the Minnesota National Guard and spent the summer climbing obstacle courses, doing field exercises and learning to become a soldier. She finished boot camp in time to come back to school, and her art.
"When I got to basic training, people asked me, 'Why would you join when you have so much going on with school and a singing career?'" she said. "Why should that stop me from wanting to do something for this country?"
Mirdalys had run cross-country in school and taken judo for five years, but she was not prepared for the rigors of the Guard.
"It was everything you've heard about, and more," she said. "It was difficult, but at the same time you learn something about yourself, not just about yourself physically, but mentally.
"I started doubting myself. But the more I was there, the more I realized that's where I belonged. It was the best and worst time of my life."
Mirdalys, who is applying to become a U.S. citizen, said her grandmother "was a big influence in my life back in Cuba and I was thinking about how strict and firm she was. I guess I was an Army brat" in spirit.
Her father, Ignacio (nicknamed Nachito), a prodigy who started playing with the Havana orchestra at age 12 and who this summer played with the Afro-Cuban All Stars, said he was startled by her decision to join the Guard.
"To be honest, the very first time we talked about it, it was weird. But her grandmother was in the army in Cuba and she was very proud of that. She's a very disciplined person, and she said, 'I want to try it.'"
As the idea became a reality, "I'm so proud of her to decide to protect the country where we live now," he said.
Lowell Pickett, owner of the Dakota, where Mirdalys sings frequently, said her decision "was beyond me."
"Military service meant a lot in Cuba. Her grandfather served and she was very proud of that," he said.
Pickett recalls that his brother, a student of Shakespeare, found out that Mirdalys shared a love for his favorite author. "They sat there for about three hours, talking about Shakespeare. I think she was 14," said Pickett. "She's very ambitious, very driven."
Mirdalys will be trained to be a paralegal in the military, but she's aware she could eventually end up in a war zone. "I have to have faith that my team will be safe," she said. "As long as I have my family support, I'll be OK."
"I will always be Cuban, no matter what,'' she said, then added, "I feel like an American soldier now, and I am so proud when I stand next to Americans who are there for the right reasons."
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