In 1955, a woman asked Dr. Luis Queral to reduce the size of her breasts. And his life changed forever.
Without the cash to pay for the operation, the woman gave Queral, a plastic surgeon, a pair of silver earrings as compensation. He sold the jewelry for $400 and used the proceeds to pay for a trip to the United States. When his train from New York City to Miami stopped in Baltimore, Queral got off and visited local hospitals. The rest is Maryland's Cuban-American history.
Today Queral, 77 and retired from practicing medicine, is considered one of the most important Cuban-born figures in the Baltimore area. In recent weeks, he has emerged as the de facto coordinator of anti-Castro protests scheduled for the hours before Monday's game between Cuba's national baseball team and the Orioles.
"People keep calling me from all over the East Coast," says Queral. "I'm on the phone the entire day."
Monday afternoon, Queral will greet an estimated 15 bus loads of protesters from New Jersey, and about 400 people from Miami, at Fayette Street and Broadway, the site of a statue of Cuban patriot Jose Marti that is modeled on a similar monument in Cuba. After listening to speeches and placing flowers there, the protesters will walk and ride to Oriole Park, filling the Camden Yards air with chants of "Cuba Si, Castro No."
Police and city officials have met repeatedly with Queral and view his influence as critical to making sure that the Cuban exiles remain civil.
"We're really depending on Luis for advice on where we should go and how to make sure this runs smoothly," says Roberto Rodriguez Aragon, who is national president of the Miami-based Cuban Patriotic Council, which is flying in about 100 people for the game.
"We have been coordinating with Dr. Queral," says Baltimore police Col. Bert Shirey, who is heading the security effort. "He is a key player in all this."
A native of Oriente province and the son of an accountant educated in Philadelphia, Queral chose early to study medicine in Havana. Jose Herrera, a retired Cuban-American chemist from Ellicott City who first met Queral as a teen-ager, remembers that the soon-to-be-doctor was "a very peaceful person, even when he was young."
But Queral chafed under the Batista government. On his breast surgery-financed trip to Baltimore, he landed a job at Franklin Square Hospital. When Fidel Castro took over in 1959, Queral went back, thinking the new ruler was a benevolent Robin Hood. Within a week, Queral had soured on Castro, and soon returned to the United States.
Queral and his wife, Dr. Eva Ramos, had run a health care clinic in Cuba, and stayed at the same hospitals -- first Franklin Square, then Union Memorial -- in Baltimore, where she had relatives. Willie Miranda, the Orioles' Cuban shortstop, introduced Queral to prominent Baltimoreans, a favor done in return for a tummy tuck on Miranda's wife.
The plastic surgeon made a comfortable home in Owings Mills. He moved to Towson recently. The Querals are a family of doctors. A son is a vascular surgeon, a daughter is a dentist.
Queral soon became the mover behind projects in the Hispanic community. Twenty-three years ago, after struggling to organize a festival for local Hispanics, Queral founded El Mensajero, a monthly Spanish-language newspaper, to better inform them of community events. He still publishes the paper. Typically 16 pages, the paper includes poems, history lessons, recipes, religious services, health columns, pictures from society events and advertisements for immigration lawyers.
The paper crusaded for years for a monument to Marti, who died in 1895 while fighting for Cuban independence from Spain. Queral, who considers Marti a personal hero, has painted the scene of Marti's death. To honor the martyr further, Queral helped raise much of the money for the monument.
Marti, like Queral, dabbled in painting and founded a newspaper. "Others go to bed with their mistresses," he wrote in 1890, "I with my ideas." The monument's dedication last year seemed to cement Queral's place in the community. Some Hispanic leaders use the terms "Cuban-American" and "Queral's people" interchangeably.
"Dr. Queral is emblematic of Cubans of a certain age," says Manuel Alban, publisher of the weekly Spanish-language paper El Heraldo de Maryland. "Over the years, the times have changed, but the views of people like Queral, who left Cuba around the time of the revolution, have stayed the same."
Rodriguez, a friend from Miami, explains the outlook this way. "You know how the Orioles have a very bad record this year, ever since they decided to play ball with the Cuban government. Well, it's not luck. Anyone who has contact with Castro turns bad.
"Basically, the big fact is: Fidel Castro is the right representative of the devil on Earth. That's how Luis and I think about it," Rodriguez says.