El Exilio, as the Cuban exile community is referred to in Spanish, is a term often used to describe all the different generations of Cubans that have fled communist Cuba. From the first exiles that arrived in America during the first decade of the communist revolution, to those who now embark on harrowing journeys on homemade rafts across the shark-infested Florida straits, the term is used to describe all Cubans seeking an escape from an oppressive dictatorship and freedom in America.
The phrase “El Exilio” has become an all encompassing term that groups together all the generations of Cuban exiles as one monolithic group. The reality, however, is that each wave of Cuban exiles that left Cuba is unique, and though they all share a common quest for freedom, the experience of each group differs from the previous one.
As in the past, there were many members of this first generation of exiles at Cuba Nostalgia 2010, but for reasons I cannot understand or explain, their significance and their particular experiences struck me like never before. Perhaps the fact that I am older now has caused me to view life from a different perspective, or maybe it was seeing the toll the decades have taken on this generation. It is also possible that the realization they will not be with us for much longer played a part. Whatever the reasons may be, however, this past weekend I observed something important and extraordinary that has forever changed my life.
More than fifty years have passed since these exiles began arriving in America, and it seems as if each and every one of those years is etched upon their faces. Their elderly backs carry the weight of a half-century filled with the pain of banishment, though none of them will ever complain of that burden. Some of them this past weekend were so frail they needed walkers or wheelchairs to get around the convention halls, yet each one of them carried their heads high.
The sights and sounds they experienced brought both smiles to their faces and tears to their eyes—an odd but understandable reaction when a warm memory is combined with the dark and lonely feeling of loss. Like the memory of a loved one that has passed away, their pleasant recollections of the Cuba they left behind will always be tempered by the reality that all that remains is that memory. Their Cuba is gone forever, never to return, and the only thing they can offer their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren is their stories and their memories.
This first generation of Cuban exiles is the one that blazed the trail for the others to follow. They are the ones that arrived here in the US with nothing but the clothes on their backs and the determination to live in freedom. Few had any family or friends in America, and those that did soon realized those family members and friends were struggling just as hard to adjust and survive. They did not know the language, and they had no idea where they were going to sleep that night or if they could ever find a job to provide for their families. Yet they forged ahead, undaunted by the challenges of arriving in a country where you have no one to offer assistance.
Doctors became janitors, lawyers became landscapers, and businessmen became busboys. To them it had nothing to do with prestige or pride, and everything to do with freedom; the freedom to think and the freedom to speak one’s mind. Their values dictated that it was better to be a janitor who was free, than a doctor who was enslaved. It was a virtue they tried to instill in their children, and they did so not only with their words, but with their deeds as well.
This is the generation that built Miami with its sweat, its blood, and most of all, its tears. Their bodies carry the scars of decades toiling in construction sites and restaurant kitchens, saving pennies and nickels to provide a better life for their children. In their hands you can see both toughness and benevolence from the years of labor to provide their children with a life filled with promise and freedom—a life that a bearded dictator ninety miles away would have never allowed if they had remained in Cuba. Through their perseverance and passion to be free, this generation managed to make things a little bit easier for their children, and also for the generations of exiles that arrived after them.
Next year’s Cuba Nostalgia will no doubt have less of these members of El Exilio walking through its halls; there is no amount of love, compassion, or perseverance that can keep the inevitable from happening. But their stories and their memory will remain with us, in our hearts and in our souls, just as the memory of Cuba has remained with them for so many years. This generation paid a heavy price to provide us with freedom, and to teach us that although we may not live in Cuba, Cuba can live in us.
Our responsibility will be a much easier burden than the one they had to carry. We do not have to leave everything behind and start anew in another country. They did the hard and unbearable work for us, and all we need to do now is pass their memory on to our own children.