Chess has taken Santiago Brito a long way. As a child chess prodigy in Cuba, Santiago was competing in a tournament in Mexico when his parents decided that one day, they would defect to the United States. That day came a couple of years ago, when they made it to South Florida.
"To be a good chess player, you need dedication, a lot of thinking and basically, contemplate every possibility that you see on the chess board, and you can apply that knowledge to life," Santiago explains, as he plays against one of his chess club buddies.
You could say that Santiago and his two best friends have found success through chess. All three are recent immigrants from Cuba, all three graduated from Braddock Senior High School this week near the top of their class, and all three earned full scholarships to college. Santiago didn’t arrive at Braddock until 11th grade, but made straight “A’s” anyway.
"I didn't know how to speak the language so I had to adjust," Santiago said, in a massive understatement.
Santiago was only in school for five months, still learning English, when he passed his FSA exams. From there, he went straight into mainstream, AP classes.
"To do what he has done in two years is not just a great sight, it's humbling to see kids do that," said Manuel Garcia, Braddock's principal and himself a Cuban immigrant.
Santiago led Braddock’s chess club to a second place finish at the national scholastic chess tournament , but that wasn’t enough for him. He wanted to give the game back to the next generation, so he turned the chess club into a mentoring group, organizing chess tutoring sessions for the little kids at the elementary school around the corner.
"They didn't know how to play or move the pieces but little by little we started and at the end they knew how to play and how to think."
Santiago thinks deeply about his future, and about the past he left behind. He’s grateful to be in the United States.
"I have the possibility here of choosing my own school, my own classes, and the career path I want to take," Santiago said.
Even though they’ve cleared similar obstacles, his friends from Cuba see Santiago as a shining example of what is possible.
"If someone like him can do it starting from zero here, people born in this country, if they don't do it it's because they didn't try hard enough," said Carlos Garcia, who will be attending Emory University on scholarship.
Santiago certainly tried hard, in the classroom and everywhere else, and it paid off for him and for his classmates.
"He's a very competitive guy, and I'm a very competitive guy, too, so we have pushed each other to overcome many challenges," said Alberto Machin, who is going to Rice University on scholarship next fall.
Speaking of challenges, next on the list for Santiago is becoming a mechanical engineer. He’ll begin his studies in the Honors College of Miami-Dade College.