Saturday, August 05, 2006

Dejando A Cuba, No Mas Libre

As promised, Part One of the guest post from mi Cubana:


My family in Cuba was easily what would be considered upper middle class. We had a large home in the province of Matanzas, east of Havana, and employed domestics -- cooks, maids, people who did the laundry. My father, Israel, was a pharmacist and then a manager in a chemical plant which produced rayon. My mother Nilda was a teacher before she married my father and became a full-time housewife after the birth of my older brother Johnny in 1947. Johnny was my half-brother; my mother divorced his father and married my dad in 1957. I was born in 1960, twenty months after Fidel Castro overthrew the regime of Fulgencio Batista.

My family was horrified at the prospect of a communist Cuba. The thought of the schools, hospitals, businesses large and small being taken over by the state, with free speech not only stifled but clamped down, with boys conscripted at age 14, all was a terrifying thing to them. My maternal grandfather, Luis Felipe Lizazo, was a journalist and political activist; he ran for office in the years prior to La Revolucion challenging the party of Batista (as a capitalist, of course). He was also the highest degree Freemason and head of his lodge. After Fidel came to power he was almost immediately imprisoned for counter-revolutionary activity. So was the man who later married my mother's sister in the US -- my uncle Luis -- and my mother's cousin Elsa, who was detained for several days in very unsanitary conditions with a large group of other women.

The Cuban political prisons were as bad as anything you have heard. Once my grandfather got nothing to eat for a month but mashed pumpkin. There were mock executions, where a prisoner would be taken out of his cell and even fired at, but not upon. My grandfather was in and out of Castro's El Principe until he passed away in 1967.

The last straw for my parents came in 1961, when my brother was approaching his fourteenth birthday, and at that time boys of his age were taken from their family to military training camps. A large army was of course needed to continue La Revolucion. My father felt things in Cuba were only getting worse, and my mother was adamant that Castro would not get her son.

My dad concocted an elaborate ruse in order to escape; many professionals at the time were leaving the country while on vacation, and he believed he was under surveillance, so he took his vacation without traveling anywhere. A few weeks later, he reported to his plant supervisor that his father had suffered a heart attack, and he had to take time off to go see him in a neighboring province. They packed less than what you might take on a weekend trip -- a few clothes, some extra cloth diapers for me -- and left their home unlocked and all their money in the bank, and instead went to the airport in Havana.

My family's paperwork -- Papi applied for a passport long before Castro ceased processing them -- had initially been held up because my dad's name matched that of an avowed Communist, and that naturally meant he would be unable to qualify for political asylum in America. That matter had taken weeks to clear up, long before he took his vacation and arranged the "illness". But the most harrowing part of the journey came at the Havana airport: our flight to Jamaica was delayed for unexplained reasons for several hours. My father told me years later that those hours waiting were the most agonizing of his life. Had he been discovered he would have been thrown in jail, probably for the rest of his days. All of the trappings of wealth he had acquired were lost anyway, but the thought of his wife and son and infant daughter serving a Castro regime in destitution while he languished in prison was more than he could bear.

Finally we were all able to depart without incident, and my family, together with my aunt Delia, spent a few weeks in Jamaica getting the assistance of a Jewish organization to come to the United States. We arrived in New York in October of 1961.

My dad took a job in a pharmacy, but because his licensing was delayed, he performed janitorial work until he could be certified. My mother and aunt spent their first winter in the States with unsuitable overcoats, and they told me that as they trudged through the snow carrying groceries home, it was so cold that they cried.

Next: Bicho malo nunca muere

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