Traveling Back in Time
(Published in The Record of Hackensack, NJ. on April 7, 1993)
It was one of those days that remain framed like a picture inside one's mind. I was 11 years old, unable to speak the English language, and I felt like an astronaut landing on a new planet.
On a day like today, 31 years ago, another planeload of Cuban refugees arrived in Miami, and I was excited to be one of them.
Every April 7, my mind flashes back to 1962. I take a few moments to relive the events of the day my parents were allowed to leave Cuba, and to reexamine the circumstances that led them to take me out of my homeland, to begin life again in a strange new world. This is the day I dig out my roots.
It's like a second birthday, not just for me but for many. To most immigrants, the day we arrived in the United States is a cherished holiday. But it's also a time to look inside one's soul and search for the reasons our lives took such drastic turns on the date of those anniversaries.
We may be political refugees, fleeing from a repressive regime. Or we may be undocumented workers, seeking economic survival and crossing the U.S.-Mexico border under the cover of darkness. We may be running from war or “ethnic cleansing” in desperate efforts to save our lives. We may be looking for the freedom to practice a religion or maintain our cultural values.
Our reasons for being here may be all different, but on the anniversary of our arrival, we all have something in common: We can't stop our minds from taking a trip back in time. For me, the trip is to La Salud, a small country town in Cuba's Havana Province, where even as a boy I could see the social and political transformation that was turning my country into a totalitarian, Communist society.
It started on New Year's Day 1959, another unforgettable date framed in the minds of all Cubans. The revolution had triumphed, ending the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, and the bearded rebels came marching into the cities, celebrating the end to the bloody strife that had claimed thousands of lives. For a brief period, most Cubans thought they were beginning a new era of freedom and prosperity.
But for many, the joy of peace was short-lived. Under the new regime, the fear of persecution again became common, and thus began a new exodus, resulting in the separation of thousands of families.
More than a million Cubans fled their homeland, many of whom settled in North Jersey. Within months after Fidel Castro took power, our hopes and aspirations would be torn apart, our homes would be left behind, and our loved ones would be scattered all over the world. Some families were split not by distance, but by political ideologies.
In my own family, the first to leave Cuba was my older brother. He was only 17 years old, but he went to Miami via Jamaica so that he could obtain U.S. visas for the rest of us. He washed dishes at a Miami Beach hotel until he could support and legally claim my parents and his little brother Miguelito – that's me.
Miguelito had always wanted to be a journalist, to follow the footsteps of an uncle who was a reporter in Havana. But when I came here, unable to speak English, journalism seemed like an impossible dream. In those days, even some teachers tried to discourage me. They said I'd be better off choosing a career that didn't require me to master my “second language.”
I don't blame them. At first, my pronunciation left many people wondering what language my lips were trying to conquer. “Gary Cooper is an actor,” I kept repeating in broken English, “Judy Garland is an actress.” Learning Ingles became the biggest challenge of my youth.
Other memorable times may fade with the years, but on this 31st anniversary of my flight to freedom, Miguelito feels like Don Quixote conquering his quest, by writing a column for this newspaper.