I knew the outlines of my family's tale, their having to leave the island and abandon the things they owned and loved, such as the family home and my father's collection of classical music LPs. But the documents, scraps of paper and other memorabilia I uncovered just last week has helped me fill some of the holes in their heartrending story and appreciate the pain they must have gone through.
Indeed, in their own unheralded way my mom and dad emerge as courageous or at least indomitable people who would not bow to a hurricane of adversities.
My mother collected most of the memorabilia I found. It's almost as if she feared people would not believe our family's tale of survival so she'd better save some of the evidence. But some of the scraps I must have saved myself even though I don't remember doing so. Did I instinctively stash away those items as mementos of a family I might never see again?
I left Cuba alone in February 1962, sent into exile by my parents who feared what would become of their only child under a Communist regime. The middle class in Cuba was rattled by daily rumors that all children, particularly the boys, would be forcibly sent to the Soviet Union (not true); or subjected to Communist indoctrination (certainly true) or conscripted into the Cuban army for service in Africa or God-knows-where (partially true).
As I read about the tragedy of Central American parents today sending their children to the U.S. to escape the poverty and criminal mayhem at home, it reminds me of the terror my parents must have felt. Just yesterday, Stew and I ran into a young Honduran family that included a young child and a baby, all filthy and malnourished, begging for coins at the parking lot of Luna de Queso, a local deli. The father said they hoped to reach the U.S. soon. These folks looked as desperate as my parents must have felt.
And just like some of the Central American kids arriving alone in the U.S. I spent three long months at a refugee camp in Florida while the authorities decided what to do with me. My initial destination turned out to be a maternal uncle whom I had never met and who lived in fourth-floor walk-up in the Upper West Side of Manhattan with his wife, daughter and a fat, un-housebroken mutt named Cachucha. It turned out to be an infelicitous interim arrangement when it became clear that my parents would not be coming to the U.S. to claim me any time soon.
To this day I wonder what my parents were thinking to send their only child, who had just turned fourteen, to a strange and huge country like the U.S., with no definite address or destination except an assurances that some charitable organization would pick him up at the Miami airport. Did they figure that the Castro regime would fall in a matter of months and the family would be happily reunited in Cuba? Or that they would follow me out of the island shortly if the initial ideal scenario didn't pan out? That there simply were no good alternatives?
Neither one of the first two options materialized. The Missile Crisis in October 1962 led the Cuban government to shut down the daily flights out of Cuba, while the commitment by the U.S. not to invade Cuba in exchange for the removal of the offending Soviet missiles cemented the political status quo in the island.
In effect we were stuck, me attending junior high school in New York and my parents in Cuba trying to find a way to get out of there. That impasse took three years to resolve when my parents flew to Spain and then to New York in 1965.
After my uncle notified my parents he was no longer willing to house me, I bounced through two other foster homes in Long Island. Included in the latest cache of documents I uncovered are carbons of long letters my mother wrote to two of my favorite teachers at Joan of Arc Jr. High School on the Upper West Side, essentially pleading with them to look after me. I remember both of the teachers fondly—Veronica Mazzarro and Geraldine Schiff—two extraordinarily kind human beings who did indeed informally adopt me, a frightened teenager trying to learn English.
|Dreams of a father: A mock-up of a business card|
for his Cuban-born son.
|Mother's complaint: Why don't you write?|
In the cache of scraps collected by my mother I found a couple of business cards for my dad's small business as well as an ominous-looking and barely legible official document, in onion-skin blue paper, detailing the inspection of his business prior to its confiscation by the government. My dad was in his mid-fifties and the business he and my grandfather had taken twenty or so years to build was taken away by no other authority than the florid signature of a mid-level bureaucrat. All gone overnight.
|My dad's last business card|
My parents' exit for Madrid was equally disgraceful, a final spit on the face by the Communist government as they left the island. I found a small printed note advising travelers how much they were allowed to take with them into permanent exile, mind you, not a weekend jaunt to Bermuda. Three each: shirts, pairs of socks, underwear, handkerchiefs and ties. One hat. A tube of toothpaste and a bar of soap per family, both manufactured in Cuba. A razor, but NOT ELECTRIC. A wristwatch and a wedding ring valued at no more than $60 pesos. Anything exceeding these limits was confiscated on the spot and probably pocketed by the airport inspectors.
|Final insult: What you were allowed to |
take into exile.
I knew my parents spent a few winter months in Madrid awaiting their visas to come to the U.S. but didn't realize the penury of their lives at the time until I discovered a ticket for what seems to have been a soup kitchen issued by a welfare agency of the Spanish government. Looking at this innocent piece of paper I remember that my proud mother had once confided—but only briefly, as I suspect she was humiliated by the experience—that sometimes they went hungry and cold during their sojourn in Spain, where they wore heavy winter coats donated by some charity.
Their arrival in New York was not a happy end to the family story, though considerably happier than it would have been if we had stayed in Cuba. During my two visits to Cuba, and talks there with relatives and classmates at the Catholic school I attended who had stayed behind, "There but for the grace of God go I" became one of my most cherished mottoes. There would be plenty more hardship for our family in the U.S., but nothing like what I witnessed in Cuba.
|My mom's meal ticket in Madrid.|
In his typically cryptic fashion my dad advised me that he and my mother would be arriving in the same Iberia flight from Madrid "together but separate." My mom's furious dreams of reconciliation, of a second wind for their marriage in a new country, went nowhere. I went to live with my mother, and dad with his new wife who arrived shortly.
For a while my dad and I worked weekends washing dishes in the basement of Carl Hoppl's Restaurant, a huge establishment on Sunrise Highway in Valley Stream, Long Island, that had wondrous mechanized conveyor belts on which we placed the dirty plates that cascaded from upstairs all night. The shift ended by the hosing and scrubbing down of the floor and other surfaces by the then all-Cuban crew. Some things in the U.S. labor market don't change much: Hispanics still preside over menial restaurant jobs except now they are mostly Mexican and Central American.
Eventually my dad found a job at a small printing shop in nearby Lynbrook, where he stayed until retirement to Miami on Social Security. His employer offered no retirement.
My mom found a job as a "nurse's aide," a wishful repackaging of the title "orderly", at a nursing home run by Nassau Count, helping out with the washing and daily care of bed-ridden residents. Despite her lowly position and meager pay—a precipitous come-down from her previous career as a school teacher—she considered herself fortunate to have a secure government job and became an outspoken member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Above all, she never seems to have lost her self-esteem or drive to survive. In this trove of family memorabilia I found small business cards advertising her services as a Spanish teacher ($3 an hour) and a dress-maker: