(Published in The Record of Hackensack, NJ. on March 11, 2002)
I've seen it happen a thousand times, but still my eyes betray me. I can't control it. Watching those emotional family reunions -- those tears of joy and strong embraces -- always gives me away.
Journalists are not supposed to get personally involved. We're supposed to be cold, objective, and detached. But tell that to my watery eyes: When they see relatives who have been separated by distance, immigration laws, or political ideologies -- tears fall on my notepad.
It happened again Saturday, as I watched the reunion of the Lopez family of Cliffside Park at Kennedy Airport and at a West New York restaurant.
Four of them -- Luis Lopez, 47; his wife, Mireya, 43; their 6-year-old daughter, Vanessa; and his 69-year-old mother, Aida -- had been held in Cuba against their will after going there to visit relatives for a week.
Cuban authorities had confiscated their travel documents and told Lopez that he was under investigation for allegedly helping to smuggle out his younger brother, Rolando, and his wife and daughter, who slipped out of Cuba on Feb. 21 using bogus papers. Rolando had purchased the papers for $4,000 -- apparently saved from money that Luis had been sending him.
But the two brothers had practically crossed each other in transit. When Luis went to Cuba on Feb. 23, he didn't know that two days earlier, Rolando and his family had arrived in Miami and were being held incommunicado by immigration authorities.
Saturday, their roles were reversed. It was the newly arrived Rolando welcoming his brother, Luis, who has lived in the United States for 14 years.
“Welcome to freedom!” Luis said to Rolando, as they hugged and kissed each other.
“And you, too!” Rolando responded.
Some journalists held back the tears. But I thought of my own Cuban family, and my eyes betrayed me again.
And it kept happening Saturday night at the restaurant, where the huge Lopez family kept hugging and kissing each other every time a new relative arrived.
It was such a moving celebration of freedom that words on paper cannot do it justice.
“Coming back is like being born again,” Luis said.
“And it's beautiful to see that so many people love you.”
He vowed not to return to Cuba as long as it is ruled by a dictatorial regime. He said Cuban-Americans are taking a risk when they visit Cuba.
“They wanted to blame me because my brother found a way to get out of Cuba,” Luis said. “I had nothing to do with it, just like thousands of other Cubans who send money to their relatives. We don't know how they will choose to spend it. But if they choose to use it to get out of Cuba, can we really blame them?”
Friends and relatives told Lopez he made a gutsy decision when he sought publicity to get out of his predicament. It could have backfired.
But he said he gambled on seeking media attention because he knows the Fidel Castro regime cannot afford to lose the revenue it receives from Cuban-American tourists.
It worked. His travel documents were returned, and he was allowed to leave Cuba without an explanation.
“I will tell Cubans here not to abandon their families, to send them some money, because family is the greatest thing we have,” Luis said. “But I will tell them to stay away from that hellish agony the Cuban people have to endure.”
There were few dry eyes, and I couldn't help myself. When people cry and laugh at the same time, my eyes betray me.