Flights to Freedom

Imagine getting a knock on your door this morning. You open the door, and a military official tells you that you have only a few hours to pack all of your clothes and important documents before heading to the airport to catch a flight to a new life.

Pretty daunting, right? That describes the story of many Cubans who left the island prison in a rush, often leaving relatives behind.

The Miami Herald has a nice story today on the passengers of the first freedom flight on December 1st, 1965.

Whatever became of people on the first Freedom Flight?

Over 40 years later, Cuban migrants remember the first Freedom Flights.


The first flight to a new life in America began with only a few hours’ notice. Seventy-five frightened Cubans hurriedly left behind everything — their homes, their careers, their way of life.

Some of them even left some of their children behind in Cuba.

They landed in Miami on Dec. 1, 1965, as pioneers in a U.S. sponsored airlift — dubbed the Freedom Flights — that would eventually bring 260,000 Cubans to the United States over seven years.

Some new refugees resettled in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and elsewhere, but many eventually returned to Miami.

More than 40 years later, The Miami Herald set out to find out what became of those who traveled on that very first flight to freedom.

The newspaper traced 32 people listed on the first flight’s original manifest, which was recently donated to the Historical Museum of Southern Florida.

Here are some of their stories:


Winning a seat on the first freedom flight marked a rebirth for Antero Marrero.

”I became a free man again the day I left Cuba,” said Marrero, who made the trip with his wife, Esther, and two daughters, 3 and 13.

His luck changed, too. Five years after arriving, he won a company raffle that helped him purchase his first home.

”At no moment has it crossed my mind that I didn’t take the right step in leaving Cuba that day,” said Marrero, who is now 83. He is widowed, and living with his youngest daughter, Esperanza ”Hope” Barnes, 44, in southwest Miami-Dade.

Family members vividly remember how Cuban militiamen came to their home the day before the flight.

”This officer swiped glue on a sticker he was going to use to seal our front door and told us we had until right before it dried to get everything we wanted out of our home,” said Marrero’s eldest daughter, Esther Garrandes, now 53, and a Miami-Dade Public Schools employee.

The man whistled while he waited.

”My wife started throwing the clothes out the front door to grab later,” said the elder Marrero, a high school teacher who had already spirited his eldest son, Tony, to New York.

As her parents gathered up their life, Esther rushed to say goodbye to her best friend who lived a block away. ”We hugged and cried in the street,” she said.

Before she knew it, their home was sealed and the family stood outside. Esther’s mother had left her purse inside — stuffed with passports and legal papers.

Esther became a cat burglar. “I had to jump from a neighbor’s balcony into ours and get inside our apartment through a back door. I ran in, grabbed my mother’s purse and ran off without getting caught.”

The family quickly resettled to New York.

The family was joined by six other relatives. At one point, 14 people shared a one-bedroom apartment. Then in 1967, Marrero’s son visited relatives in Miami, applied for a job at a bank and was hired. The entire Marrero family moved down with him.

Antero landed a job at a Hialeah shoe factory. At an office raffle in 1970, he won a new Chevrolet Impala, sold it for $3,500 and used the money for a downpayment on a house in Opa-locka. The price: $10,500.

”I did the right thing leaving Cuba,” Antero Marrero said.


For Antonia Chapelin Villanueva, the day she learned her future would move to the United States is frozen in time. Her family almost missed the flight.

Like the other passengers, they had been been given just a few hours’ notice to pack and get to a staging point, a mansion outside Havana called El Laguito. By the time they arrived at 7 a.m, the others were on buses headed to Varadero Airport for the flight to Miami.

Irritated Cuban officials told the Chapelins: “Forget it, you missed the flight.”

Fellow Cubans on the bus started yelling at the soldiers to allow them to board. The soldiers relented.

”I remember feeling so strange on the plane,” she said. “It was so sudden. I was sad to leave, but I wanted to leave. My mother was very afraid.”

In Miami, the Chapelins spent one night at the Refugee House, a building at Opa-locka Airport, a stop-over for the refugees in transit.

”My first impression of Miami: what a beautiful city,” Antonia Chapelin said.

So they returned. Her mother, now 92, and younger brother, 54, also made their way back to Miami.

Life was hard at first for her, her mother Matilde, and younger brother Lazaro, who were resettled in Chicago with her older brother, who had left Cuba years earlier.

”I was nostalgic and angry a lot,” said Antonia, now 58, of Hialeah, who is a nanny for the children of a Miami-Dade doctor.

Then, she fell in love with a Cuban friend of her brother and married six months after arriving in Chicago. The couple had two kids. They moved to Miami in 1972, where her husband retired from his construction job.

”I have no complaints,” she said.


Her coveted seat on the first flight out of Cuba was a double-edged sword for Eloina Gonzalez.

She was to be reunited with her husband who had already gone to New York, but her heart was breaking. She was leaving behind her 15-year-old son with relatives because the Cuban government prohibited males eligible for the military — those 15 and older — from leaving. ”It was the hardest thing I ever did,” she said. ”When that plane took off, I was crying. When it landed, I was still crying,” said Gonzalez, 77, who retired in 1996 from a New York plastic bag factory and moved to Homestead.

It would be 11 years before Gonzalez and her son were reunited. ”By then, he was 26, married and had two kids,” she said. “I missed all that.”

Today, her life revolves around her 16 grandchildren and six great-grand children.

”It was hard leaving Cuba, but I’m glad I got my family out. I’m very thankful to the United States,” she said.


The Tabares family was one of the few allowed to settle in Miami with sponsoring relatives. But they moved months later to California, where Norma, Fernando and their son, George, still remain.

”We had the opportunity to raise our children in a free country and accomplished all we wanted in life with hard work,” said Norma Tabares in an e-mail from California.

Tabares, now 68, describes her life today as ”comfortable.” She recently retired from Verizon. Her husband, 79, is a retired engineer.

The Tabares family left Cuba much the same way as the others on Flight #1: in a mad rush.

”We felt a sense of happiness because we would finally be reunited with our family in the U.S. and the immense sadness of knowing that we were leaving our homeland for good.” She added: “We were very lucky to be on that flight and we thank God everyday for the opportunity this great country gave us. God bless America.”


José Anorga, then 27, felt fortunate he did not have to resettle to a cold climate like many other Cubans on that first flight. He was resettled in Broward County, which then had few Cubans.

Anorga arrived that day with his pregnant wife, Rebeca, 19, and their baby daughter.

Rebeca Anorga’s sister, Maria, was also supposed to be on that flight. But she gave up her seat at the last minute because she, too, was pregnant and feared losing the baby.

The couple moved in with Anorga’s brother, a well-known religious leader in Miami — the Rev. Martin Anorga of the First Spanish Presbyterian Church. The couple stayed with José’s brother for a month before setting out on their own.

José first landed a job at a furniture company in downtown Miami as delivery driver.

Slowly, the Anorgas carved out a better life. The couple eventually purchased a home — for $11,000 — in Hollywood, where they have lived for 35 years.

3 thoughts on “Flights to Freedom”

  1. Does anyone know about Operation Pedro Pan?
    Try reading Carlos Eire’s wonderful memoir “Waiting for Snow in Havana”

  2. Wonderful stories indeed. Thank God we did not have to go through what these people did. One of my best friends from childhood was a Pedro Pan kid. He was going to share his experiences via blogging. Wish he would, but suspect he’s got a full plate right now. That was extremely hard – for parents to have to send their children away into an uncertain future. But one thing they were sure of: their children would grow up in freedom, free from the tender mercies of an anti-family, actually, anti-human degenerate.

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