I have two birthdays: the day I was born in Cuba, and the day I went into exile in the United States. Today was my second birthday. Today I turned fifty, as an exile, and as an American.
Fifty years ago, my brother Tony and I boarded a KLM propeller plane at Rancho Boyeros airport in Havana. About an hour later we landed in Miami. I got into one van and headed for a camp in Florida City; Tony got into a different van and headed for a camp in Kendall. We were but two of over 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban kids sent to the United States by their parents. At that time I thought we kids were the ones being put through the wringer. Now, fifty years later, I realize that it was our parents who must have wept tears of blood, especially when the loving Castro regime would not allow them to leave and join us here in the United States. God bless them. Mil gracias, mama y papa.
Tony and I were lucky enough to be taken in by two wonderful American Jewish families in Miami. Louis and Norma Chait gave me a warm and loving home in which to adjust to life in this strange, wonderful land. Sidney and Carol Rubin opened their home to Tony, though they already had two teenage children of their own. Even at that time, this snot-nosed malcriado boy knew that he had won the lottery, so to speak, and that he was in a land far more marvelous than he could have ever imagined, among people so kind and generous that they seemed superhuman. Thanks Norma, thanks Lou. Thanks Carol, thanks Sid –though Tony can no longer thank you himself.
Eventually we would end up in a mouse- and roach-infested hellhole a few blocks from the Orange Bowl, in a group home for juvenile delinquents run by a malevolent Cuban couple. Bureaucratic error. We were supposed to be sent to our uncle’s house in Bloomington, Illinois. It was a tough break, but a great experience. Now, thanks to that house, I think I understand Nietzsche. Eventually we ended up with our uncle Amado, his wife Alejandra, and our cousins Marisol and Alejandrita. Mil gracias, tio y tia. Those two years I spent with you in the Corn Belt were among the happiest in my life.
Our mom finally arrived in early November 1965, after going through hell to get here. We went to live with her in Chicago. Our dad never did make it out. He died as he was trying to leave in 1976.
Multiply this story 14,000 times. Add all the thousands of kids who left alone, but not through the Pedro Pan airlift. What you have is a remarkable and very pointed lesson in the value of freedom, and the price that some are willing to pay for it.
I thank God and my parents every single day for tossing me out of hell and sending me here alone. Only now, fifty years later, do I fully realize the sacrifice they made.
I am so, so lucky. So much to be thankful for, including the fact that the 1970’s are far behind us.