April 3, 2012 -- There are no photos of that day. No one in my family took pictures on the morning I left my native Cuba. But those images never will leave me. Immigrants never forget the day we begin our new lives in the United States.
It becomes almost like a second birthday, a cherished holiday, a day to travel back in time and remember the reasons we became Americans.
For me, that day came a half-century ago — April 7, 1962. Yes, this Saturday is my 50th American birthday, and I still can picture it as clearly as yesterday.
I was 11 years old and unable to speak a word of English. But when another planeload of Cuban refugees arrived in Miami, I was scared and excited to be one of them. Neil Armstrong had not landed on the moon yet, but as I disembarked from a Pan Am flight from Havana, I felt like an astronaut landing on a new planet.
No one remembers the day of his birth, but the day of our American rebirth — ah! — that's usually one we recall and rejoice.
Our reasons for immigrating to this country may be all different. Many came as political refugees, fleeing from wars, repressive regimes or even "ethnic cleansing." Some were seeking the freedom to practice a religion or maintain their cultural values. Others crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally, seeking economic survival or a way to send money back to their loved ones.
These photos were taken in Miami, a few days after we arrived from Cuba in 1962.
But on the anniversary of the day we arrived, regardless of whether it was joyful or traumatic, most of us take a few moments to appreciate the privilege of living in the greatest country in the world.
I'm one of them. This is the day when I dig out my family roots.
On Saturday, as I do every year, I will let my mind flash back to 1962 and pay tribute to the day when my parents were wise enough to bring me to this country and free me from a ruthless communist dictatorship.
With all due respect to the Fourth of July, April 7 is my very personal Independence Day, my day to say, "God bless America." And every day of the year, there are American immigrants recalling the day they arrived and taking similar journeys back in time — all with different anecdotes, of course, but all with similar sentiments, all celebrating some sort of American rebirth.
Just as other Americans use their birthday or New Year's Day to take account of their lives, immigrants also have their own special day to look inside their souls. But unlike the case with others, for immigrants this is a day to ponder the direction our lives might have taken if we had stayed in our homelands. We wonder how things might have been different. We try to picture the person we would have become.
And though some immigrants have reason to wonder whether things could have been better if they never had come here, an overwhelming majority of them know they made the right choice.
For me, the choice remains very easy. Cuba still is a communist dictatorship. I have no doubt that my life there would have been miserable — and perhaps even shorter or spent in prison.
And even if things were to change in Cuba or any other country, even if the conditions that drove us away no longer existed, for most immigrants going back to live in our homelands would be as difficult as it was to leave them.
Once we grow roots in U.S. soil, once we find good jobs, marry Americans or have American children who can't even speak our native language, going home is not an option.
In fact, when immigrants go home just for a visit, they often find they no longer can relate to the people they left behind. When they are told they have become "too Americanized" and treated like foreigners in their own land, that's when they come back even more convinced that the day they arrived in this country is a personal holiday.
"Home is a nice place to visit," they tell me. "But I wouldn't want to live there." At least that's what I hear from many immigrants who go home frequently.
I wouldn't really know how that feels, because ever since that fateful April 7, 1962, I never have returned to Cuba.
Mind you, there is nothing I want more than to walk on the streets of Havana. Having spent most of my life in this country and planted many cherished and unbreakable American roots, I would return to Cuba only as a tourist, of course.
But I won't do it — not yet, not until Cuba is free. I owe it to the two people who gave me my freedom when they took me on my first plane ride April 7, 1962.
On my own Independence Day this Saturday, I'll be looking up to the sky, thinking of my flight from Havana and thanking my deceased parents for giving me my American life. I do it every year. To find out more about Miguel Perez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.