Profiles of courage and survival

What began as a relaxing retirement-type project, to digitize stashes of family photos and documents and convert them into an online photo book, has instead turned into a replaying of the hard times my family went through after the political whirlwind of 1959 and the subsequent installation of the Communist dictatorship in Cuba that survives to this day.

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. 

My mom occasionally would grow impatient and send me telegrams nudging me to write more often, in the style of a complaining Jewish mother. For his part, my dad, who was a commercial artist in his younger days, sent me a prototype of a business card proclaiming I was a “Cuban born Chemist and Engineer.” In his own way—he was not much of a talker—he was encouraging me to finish high school and go on to college. Though a very intelligent guy and insatiable reader, my dad was the only one in his family who never finished high school.

Mother’s complaint: Why don’t you write?

The family business in Santa Clara, Cuba was a small printing shop and stationery store that employed probably no more than a dozen people. Older Cuban exiles in Florida often boast—prompted by nostalgia or garden-variety Latin gas-baggery—about the fabulous family wealth and vast land holdings they left behind. I tell American friends that Cuba would have to be the size of Brazil to contain all the imaginary plantations and cattle ranches exiles prattle about.

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

When I visited Cuba in 1998 I found that the building still stands but all the printing presses and other equipment had been hauled out years ago to make room for a warehouse for foodstuffs. The family home, a very modest affair that would have fit nicely in Chicago’s bungalow row except for the architecture, also was in ruins except for the wrought iron rocking chairs still in the patio, mute witnesses to the total destruction of my family’s life in Cuba.

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.

The list also includes some requisite documents from the Department of Urban Reform, I suspect certifying that the family home and all its contents had been duly surrendered to the government.

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. 

For starters, my parents’ acrimonious divorce had been finalized before they left for Spain, something no one had mentioned to me.

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:


13 thoughts on “Profiles of courage and survival

  1. Thank you for sharing this. We all forget too soon the hardships our parents/grandparents suffered coming to a new country. I look forward to reading the next segment. BTW, my husbands parents though from Puerto Rico also had the same type of menial jobs in NY city when they came to the mainland in the 50's!


  2. I have no words but to say that I'm so touched that you shared with me and others your life which puts a human face on each person who struggles to find and live the “American dream” whether they want to or not. Thank you is inadequate.


  3. Anonymous

    I am also a first generation American. My paternal grandmother brought my dad and his three siblings to the U.S. in 1914. Most do not realize the struggle immigrants face to provide an opportunity of a better life for their children. I also lived in numerous foster homes when my parents split up. Thanks for sharing your family's story.


  4. Thank you so much for providing insight into the plight of Cuban exiles. I recently visited Cuba and was saddened by the sight of faded prosperity in the beautiful buildings. Your story could also be the story of the Vietnamese immigrants who have gone through similar hardships.


  5. Anonymous

    Thank you so much for writing your story. I had no idea this went on. Your story brings to light a different side to immigration. You are a very good writer.Joan


  6. Anonymous

    my brother was first to leave at 16, so he wouldn't have to go into castro's army. we followed a year later as he was able to sponsor us. there was so much sadness and despair, hard work, courage-the plight of most immigrants. our parents worked so hard to give us the things we needed. my dad was a gardener most of his life, in cuba and the states, so we were not among those who left their riches behind. once in the states, i remember him washing cars, picking tomatoes, workin g long hours in a facotry, whatever he could do to make a living and support his family. what we did leave behind however, was family, as do all immigrants. my sister, who is 12 1/2 years older than i am, was already married with 2 children when we left in sept. 1962. for some reason, her husbad did not want to leave, so once the cuban missile crisis took place, they were stuck there for over 5 years. our story had a happy ending when we were all reunited in rochester, n.y. thank you for reminding me of how lucky i am to be an american citizen, and how grateful i will always be to my parents for getting us out of that hellhole. your story really moved me al. que Dios te bendiga.teresa en nagoya


  7. Immigrant struggles in the U.S., or anywhere in the world for that matter, seem to be a case of “the more things change the more they stay the same.” Thanks for your comments.


  8. During my two visits to Cuba I arrived as a curious, even somewhat favorably disposed visitor, eager to discover the great achievements of the revolution, but what I found both times was a country in total stagnation, with no clear future, just trying to survive. It was sad.


  9. Damn, your story and mine are almost identical. When I tell people that I started working at 14 washing windows at the public library and from there moved “up” to painter, dishwasher, busboy, taxi driver and who knows what else, they don't believe me it was all true and it helped me get through high school and college. How are you doing in Japan? Haven't received any bulletins


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