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The Day we said Goodbye to Cuba
The knock on the door at midafternoon was polite but firm. Helen, our wonderful live in housekeeper walked over towards the door at my mothers’ nod. “Quien es,” she said with some hesitation. Is the lady of the house to be found, Helen looked at my mother again, and hesitated, again my mother nodded for her to answer and open the door.
Two military soldiers (Batista was still President) were standing at the door, dressed in khaki uniforms, they did not remove their caps but tipped them to my mother and Helen. My mother asked them to please come in and instructed Helen to bring some lemonade, the soldiers immediately thanked my mother and removed their caps. “Señora,” pardon our intrusion, said the senior of the two, but we have orders to search all of the houses in the area for weapons. As you know, he said, we live in very troubled times and we are always interested in the welfare of our citizens.
The soldiers politely sipped their lemonade and asked my mother if they could look around the house, my mother said, of course, very nonchalantly. They looked around the various rooms but did not open any closets or disturb anything, it appeared to be just a general house search. They also walked out on the backyard and looked around an outhouse which was not used but no one had bothered to dismantle. Within a short period of time, the soldiers appeared to be satisfied with their search and returned to the front of the house, they were courteous to my mother and bid their goodbyes.
A few weeks earlier, my father had warned all of us that a house search might take place. The climate was very hot in 1958. I can remember when the regular national magazine was published, La Bohemia, it was filled with dead bodies, primarily men, who were supposed to be against peace and tranquility according to the military and the politicians. These images terrified me to no end. My father had given my sister and me specific instructions not to speak with the soldiers, nor to be friendly, but to be polite enough to say “yo no se” to every question asked if they addressed us individually.
Unbeknownst to the soldiers, I would later learn that my father did have a gun and that he had hidden it in the outhouse. I’m glad my father had always been a very serious, no nonsense man. This training would serve me well.
I was born in Guantanamo, Cuba in 1950. Most people know Guantanamo or ‘Gitmo,’ as the naval base which houses detainees. However, for me as an average Cuban, Guantanamo was my place of birth. I know it as a midsize city with municipalities, schools, hospitals, etc., in essence, a regular metropolis. My father spoke enough English to work for the Naval Base as a mechanic.
During the time we lived in Guantanamo we lived a relatively happy life like most other citizens. Never did we image that our life situation would be completely changed in a given year. Because my parents were sensible, and labor was relatively cheap, we could afford some amenities as Helen, who was our live-in housekeeper, we also lived in very nice rental houses, and would later have a black and white television. Mind you, we were not rich by any stretch of the imagination, being comfortable meant having a decent job and living very modestly. I am not talking about compounds, servants and a stable of Cadillac’s! People in my time lived humbly and shared their amenities with family and friends.
Since my father was a mechanic, he always drove a Cadillac and fixed his own car. My mother was a housewife. She was a wonderful seamstress who made her own clothes. While growing up, we never bought readymade clothes, up until I was in my early teens, my mother made every item my sisters and I wore. She was also an excellent cook.
However, during the period of time between 1950 and 1958, the political climate in the country would start to heat upon again. From my own reading and knowledge of Cuban history, there were many, many periods of unrest and turmoil. By the time 1958 came around, the political climate was affecting us personally.
I can recall any time adults gathered the conversation would always turn to Castro and his rebels. As with any political ideology, there are those who are for the new party and or political change and those who are opposed. Many of our neighbors believed Castro was the best choice. They stayed. They called Batista a dictator and said there was no change in the country that the rich stayed rich and the poor became poorer.
Others did not like the idea of rebels running the country. There was a lot of talk about Socialism, Communism and the like, these uncertain changes would ultimately catapult my father into further action. We left.
As we prepared to leave Cuba, every piece of paper had to be in order; birth certificates, baptismal certificates, marriage certificates, etc., if one did not have a copy, then the municipality had to be visited and a petition would have to be made in person to verify the authenticity of the documentation. I can still remember those government offices milling with people and activity. As I look back, I realize what an incredible feat this was for my parents to undergo.
As the reality of leaving became more certain, we also traveled to various cities and towns to say goodbye to our family. My mother would never see her family again. We did not return to Cuba and it was only in the 1970’s that one of her sisters was able to come here to the US.
As I said earlier, 1958 and the ensuing years were very difficult and violent. People were shot, some were found in ditches, criminals were running rampant. People were talking about the changes that were occurring in hushed voices. You either left the country or lived there very carefully.
I recall on one of our trips to visit family members in Santiago, my father stopped for two men who flagged him down on the open highway. Stopping and picking up strangers was not an uncommon thing to do. But for some reason, my father spoke with these two men and decided not to pick them up.
The next thing I see is one of the men trying to open the back door while my father is pulling out of the shoulder of the road as fast as he could. I am very glad that our doors were locked, I don’t know what kind of exchange took place, but it might not have been such a good thing for us. We made it to our destination which was my paternal grandmother’s house. We stayed there a few days and headed towards Havana. Our final destination in Cuba was Havana because we would be flying out from there. We stayed with one of my mothers’ many sisters and her family.
My father arrived in January of ‘58, having left my mother, sister and me behind (my younger sister would be born here in the US). We followed in April. The day came when we arrived in America where my father would be waiting for us and our new life. As I look back, I did not know what to expect, I just knew that we were coming to a new place.
America would be a wonderful place and I have never been disappointed! Life, of course, brought with it its challenges, adjustments and disappointments but it also brought much joy and hope for my sisters and me to continue to live in freedom. I thank God we are here!