Emerson College student and Miami native Sophia Pargas writes about her grandmother’s journey to freedom, a story most of us who are children of Cuban exiles share in one way or another.
‘The Longest Day in Havana’
As ten-year-old Mercedes Jacobs sat in the Havana airport in 1962, the wait was long and her clothes were heavy. Already classified as an adult, she was only allowed three dresses on her journey to Miami, Florida; the rest would be confiscated by the new Communist government, along with her house and most of her family’s personal belongings. In defiance of the system, her mother had sewn extra dresses within the fabric of Mercedes’ clothing, disguising them as petticoats. When her family arrived in Miami, they went immediately to a Woolworth’s department store to buy shirts and shorts to replace the dresses—just the first in many ways that the United States culture would prove to be different from that of Cuba.
Mercedes’ younger sister, Alina, only three-years old at the time, has faint memories of that long and exhausting day. She remembers being “confined” in an airport and waiting for hours to get out—one of her three prominent memories of her fleeting time in the country. Though both sisters were young when they left their home and have different recollections of the transition, years’ worth of telling the tale has formed a collective memory. The sisters came to know the day they left Cuba through one another’s eyes, cherishing each other’s remembrances as their own.
“The longest day in Havana,” as my grandmother, Mercedes, so simply put it.
Even now, over 60 years later, the day has seemingly yet to end. Since Castro came into power and remnants of Cuba became lost to its people, there has been a never ending stream of Cubans escaping the island in any way they can. This past year alone, almost 250,000 Cubans have legally made their way into Miami. Even more overwhelmingly, thousands more are unaccounted for, fleeing their homes on rafts, makeshift boats, and stolen cargo ships—risking their lives to seek asylum, a testament to the conditions they continue to endure.
Though it has been decades since my grandmother left, the sentiment remains the same: Cuba is beginning to feel less and less like home to its people. It is a country seemingly frozen in time, an island isolated from the rest of the world. To most, the events of modern Cuba are merely up for political debate, with occasional headlines on tourism or migrations impeding mainstream media. To Cubans, however, both those who remain and those who fled, every second that passes without change is another bit of history that slips through the cracks of time. Until the day Cuban people feel safe and at peace with the state of their home, its citizens will continue to flee, their roots dying as they do.
Mercedes and Alina, their parents and brother, Ari, however, were among the “lucky” ones—abandoning their home did not consist of a harrowing trek on a homemade raft, but rather an agonizing thirty minute flight from Havana.
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