Fifty-two Years Not A Slave

Cuban passport

Fifty-two years ago today I ceased to be a slave and began a new life as a free human being.

On the sixth of April, 1962, my brother Tony and I boarded a KLM flight in Havana and escaped from the Castro Kingdom.  We left our entire family behind.  And we would never see most of them ever again.

I call this anniversary my second birthday, and in many ways it tops the day I came into this world.

On every April 6 I thank my parents, now long gone.  Their decision — which I now realize was a monstrously painful sacrifice — enabled me to escape from hell.

Carlos 1st Xmas

Cuba was hell.  It’s still hell.  And like the hell in the Bible, its fires seem unquenchable.

I was only 11 years old.  My brother Tony was 14.  We spent an eternity in the “pecera”, the glass-walled torture chamber at Rancho Boyeros airport in Havana, where those who were departing were strip-searched and made to wait for hours within sight of their loved ones left behind.  We could see each other, but couldn’t talk through the thick glass.

There were a lot of us kids in that pecera that April 6, around a dozen or so.  Our parents were on the other side of the glass.  We were all very brave.  I don’t remember anyone crying.

We all knew we might never see our parents again.

In my case, that’s what happened: Tony and I never saw our father again.  And, needless to say, he never saw us again either.   We said our final goodbyes with hand signals, like deaf-mutes.

I have met my alter ego many times, especially when I go to Miami: some Cuban man my age who didn’t get to leave in 1962, and then had to spend many years in prison.  I know that’s where I would have ended up.  I couldn’t keep my mouth shut.  The injustices and the soul-crushing nonsense of the so-called Revolution drove me insane, even at the age of 9, 10, 11.  My mother would later confess to me that she had to send us away because my brother and I had bad cases of “lengua larga”, which roughly translates in English as “loose tongue.”

Shouting insults at the Pioneers who walked past our house in Havana was only the tip of the iceberg: “uno, dos, tres, cuatro, comiendo mierda y gastando zapatos.”  We said even worse things in public. Years later, in Chicago, my mom would say that hearing my brother and I chant that counter-slogan to the Pioneers is what convinced her to send us away.

I’m always eleven years old on my second birthday.  I will always be eleven in my mind and heart,  no matter how long I live.   I will always be Cuban, too, in addition to being an American.  And I will always thank God for the good fortune of having parents who placed my future above their own wants and needs.

Talk about tough love: theirs was the toughest, and also the wisest and sweetest.


10 thoughts on “Fifty-two Years Not A Slave”

  1. Far too many Cubans paid far too high a price for the “revolution,” and those responsible for it are at least contemptible, certainly insofar as they remained unrepentant and unregenerate. There will never be anything close to real justice, let alone restitution–not in this world, at any rate. And no, those who have not experienced such a trauma themselves cannot really understand or appreciate what it entails or the scars it leaves. Thus, we not only have to bear the damage but deal with those who make light of it and expect us to forget it and move on, and even “reconcile” with the victimizers. Perhaps the worst are those Cubanoids who should know better, or well enough to keep their mouths shut out of respect, but go ahead and pour salt on the wound in pursuit of their own interests, as if there hadn’t been enough disgrace and defilement already. The whole thing has been a very nasty, ugly business, and it still is.

  2. Happy Birthday to the most resilient, articulate and literate 11-year old it’s been my pleasure to know, and one that has made the world a better place,
    One of the things I most marvel at is how the most hellish experiences in this world (for example the Nazi concentration camps or the Castrogonia you escaped) are a sort of crucible that at the same time that they painfully suck the life and spirit from so many, and leave so many survivors bitter shells- also temper and ennoble some chosen souls (e.g. Victor Frankl) to emerge as beacons of humanity that inspire and uplift those they touch. I am glad and thankful that you are one of those chosen souls.

  3. Carlos, You are four days older than I and we share the same memories of the destruction of our families and our homeland. I recall the Pioneers militarizing our neighborhood playground. Here is a photo of our Fourth Grade class at La Salle del Vedado.
    You wore glasses and I was standing on the same row, second from left. I have no one else to share these memories with and wonder what became of our classmates. I left Cuba a year before you did and will always be grateful to my parents, especially my mother, who made the decision to go into exile “for a year or two” for her children’s sake. Then John Kennedy made the dastardly secret understanding with Khrushchev to end the Missile Crisis and allowed a Soviet combat brigade to permanently remain on the island, in violation of the Monroe Doctrine. Alea Jacta Est.

  4. Rembert: Thanks for the compliment, hermano, you’re an exemplar too…. Unfortunately, many Castronoids have accused me of being bitter…well, actually, they accuse all of us exiles of being bitter and selfish.

    Tony: Nice photo! I didn’t realize I was the only “cuatro ojos” in the class. Maybe that’s why the guy standing behind me picked on me so much (all the way to the right, top row). He was a real cabron and hijo de &^%$#@!… Made my life miserable. My dad had to ask the teacher to move my desk away from his. Wonder who he was and what became of him? As for our country being sold down the tubes: I was in Boston last week and got to correct a few Bostonians who were praising JFK. I think I made some life-long enemies in the process, but the truth needs to be told.

  5. Carlos,
    Felice dia libre! I realize how lucky my brother and I were we left April 21st. Fifteen days after you on Pan Am, we had our parents!

  6. Carlos, your new enemies wouldn’t have been worth having as friends. It’s amazing that there are still JFK groupies around by now, but then again, there are still Nosferatu groupies.

  7. Outstanding piece of writing. I sometimes have to remind myself that, despite a lifetime of reading about Communism and totalitarianism more broadly, in certain respects I simply don’t know what it’s like. I haven’t lived it, and thank goodness for that.

    Saying goodbye, forever, to your father via hand signals? So that’s what it is all about, huh? Hey, Spielberg and Belafonte and Danny Glover, you guys taking this stuff down?

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