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My Friend from Cuba

Updated on September 10, 2014

My Friend Isabel

My Friend Isabel on the right
My Friend Isabel on the right | Source
Isabel as a young child in Cuba
Isabel as a young child in Cuba | Source
Isabel with her piano.  I had one just like it.
Isabel with her piano. I had one just like it. | Source


According to the Customs and Border protection, there has been an increase of nearly 500 percent from the previous year for what they call, "family units." In response, the Obama administration is overhauling it's detention system and stepping up operations at two new federal detention centers.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, "The move is part of the administration’s effort to quash rumors in Central America that families who make it across the Rio Grande can stay."

Even more unsettling are the children coming to America without their parents or another adult. According to NBC News, "Unaccompanied immigrant teens and children are routed to a network of shelters run by non-profit and religious groups and overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services pending immigration court hearings."

So another country, lets just say - oh Canada, has decided to allow families with minor children, or even just minors free access to their country. How bad are things where I live that I ship my kid off to live somewhere else? A place I've never been, a place where maybe I can't go with my child, a place I really don't know anything about other than what others have told me.


Human Rights?

¹Castro has defended his government's record on human rights, stating that the state must limit the freedoms of individuals in order to protect the rights of the collective populace, such as the right to employment, education, and health care.

¹ Coltman 2003. p. 247. via Wikipedia

I've been privileged to work with and befriend some of those who have made it to America from Cuba, and I'm fascinated to hear their stories.

I have one friend who left Cuba to go to Mexico, and then, very bravely just, "crossed the border." His wife was a doctor in Cuba, she's now a nurse here in the states. When I asked him what Cuba was like, he refused to elaborate. Instead he just said, "It was awful."

Another co-worker told me that while waiting for approval for a visa to visit his wife's family in Russia, the Cuban government let him know that they were watching his twin boys. They said they knew the route the boys traveled to school. "I knew then that I had to get out." After three years in Russia, he and his family came to the United States.

Isabel's family

Click thumbnail to view full-size
CousinsIsabel's father and her brother
Cousins | Source
Isabel's father and her brother
Isabel's father and her brother | Source

1970, The Year My Friend Left Cuba

In 1970 my friend Isabel and her family left Cuba. Obviously, they could not get a visa to come directly to the United States, so they went to Spain.

After spending three years in Spain, at the age of 8, Isabel traveled by herself to the United States on a student visa. She was to be met by an Uncle the family knew from Cuba, but at such a young age she did not remember him and she did not speak any English.

Her brother and her parents joined her a week later.

I can't imagine how terrified I'd be to cross the ocean by myself at 8 years old. To not know the person who would greet me and to start school without knowing the language would take a lot of courage.

Isabel's father

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Isabel's father in the black shirt kneeling with his familyIsabel's mother and father
Isabel's father in the black shirt kneeling with his family
Isabel's father in the black shirt kneeling with his family | Source
Isabel's mother and father
Isabel's mother and father | Source

Before Night Falls

Before Night Falls
Before Night Falls

Starring Javier Bardem. True story of Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas, who eventually came to the United States by way of the Mariel Boatlift.


Her Father's Trip Back to Cuba

After ten years in the states, Isabel's father left to go back to Cuba to visit family.

It just so happens that while he was there, the Mariel boat lift was starting.

Isabel described the fear both she and her mother felt not knowing if her father would make it back. Especially considering her mother was pregnant. She remembers her mother saying if he didn't come back, she didn't know what she would do.

Castro had opened the border at Mariel marina, with the condition that someone had to accompany them to the states. This caused a mad dash of boats rushing to Cuba to retrieve loved ones.

Castro did not communicated to President Carter that some of these people had been prisoners and some were mentally ill. The Mariel boat lift was criticized for bringing back criminals and "escoria."

Isabel's father went to Cuba to visit family, with no intention of bringing anyone back. Despite the uncertainty and chaos, he did make it back to the United States safely, by himself.

Isabel's Family

Isabel's mother holding her brother
Isabel's mother holding her brother | Source

Visiting Present Day Cuba

Although it was 10 years before her father made his first visit to Cuba, it was 30 years before Isabel made the trip back.

When her family travels to Cuba, they pack very little for themselves, instead bringing much needed items to their extended family. Isabel's uncle works in the fields, so the family packs boots and pants for him and others.

They also pack 1st aid items, aspirin, over the counter analgesics, and stomach medications. Other articles of clothing such as hats, shoes, socks and underwear, memory sticks and chocolate are also brought for the family.

Customs in Cuba charges a fee for luggage weighing over 66 lbs.

As Isabel says, "Things with customs in Cuba change all the time. It’s never the same. I've been charged up to $250 because I was over (I don’t remember how much but I want to say about 20 lbs.)

At one time If you were a woman and they opened your luggage and found men's clothing they would charge you extra. Even If you explained they were for your relatives. They've eased up on that. My mom was charged extra for having two kids shirts.

Another time I wasn't charged anything but wasn't overweight and other times I've been charged up to $120. even though I was a few pounds under."

High Demand to Play on the Smart Phone

Isabel's uncle, and niece
Isabel's uncle, and niece | Source


They charge separately for electronics. So the family also must take enough cash for these unexpected fees.

Some people have old gaming systems, such as a Nintendo. But a smart phone, with all the bells and whistles and games is a novelty. Time to play on Isabel's phone is always in high demand.

Not Just Family

Isabel's extended family, although in great need of the items they bring, are quite generous when they arrive.

She related the story of another family whose daughter was helped by her family. Since then, they must always know when Isabel's family visits, and says, "Save a day for us!"

She said that when they visit these friends, they put out quite the spread.

Isabel choked up as she described how her father has concern for future trips as he gets older.

She waffles about going back. "It's hard, you never know what to expect," and yet she says she will go again.

Waiting for a Ride

Waiting for a ride
Waiting for a ride | Source
When there's no car, they walk
When there's no car, they walk | Source

Getting Around

Transportation is as sparse as a new car in Cuba, with many people waiting on the side of the road for a vehicle with enough room to give them a ride. Isabel has family in Havana and in Santa Clara. The airport is relatively close to Havana but Santa Clara is four hours away.

"When we visit, everybody knows somebody who owns a car and we pay them to drive us around…but its also illegal to transport “tourists” without a special license so if we get stopped we have to say the driver is family."

For those that don't have cars?

"They walk a lot or they hail a private car which are the old American cars you see on the street. Most of those cars are fitted for extra passengers and they run on petroleum or sometimes natural gas which is very dangerous if you’re in an accident."

Modified Cars

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Just like pictures of my family, and probably countless families, standing by the car.
Just like pictures of my family, and probably countless families, standing by the car.
Just like pictures of my family, and probably countless families, standing by the car. | Source

And Horses

Isabel's Uncle
Isabel's Uncle | Source

The only picture inside the hospital

The Hospital in Cuba

While Isabel was visiting, her cousin was scheduled for a C Section. The family went to visit her cousin and the new baby in the hospital.

Upon their arrival, being the shutterbug that she is, Isabel started taking pictures. But she was immediately told to stop. Hospital staffed clucked and shook their head. She has just the one picture of her family in the room at the hospital.

According to Isabel, "The hospital was horrible. It was dirty. Windows were broken. Some sections of the hospital where shuttered off and the bathrooms had no running water.

There were six patients per room - very tight quarters and no air conditioning of course. I had heard it was like that but it was incredible to experience it."

She said the mattresses were old, stained with blood and other bodily fluids so patients bring their own sheets to the hospital.

Patients must also bring their own water for a hospital stay. This is not just for drinking, it's used to flush the toilets, if they're not backed up.

The patient's family also brings food, as this is not something that is provided by the hospital.

Oxen are used to till the soil

Click thumbnail to view full-size

Where's the Beef?

You’re not allowed to kill cows for meat even if they are yours. You can only slaughter beef if you have a license, which is impossible to get." Isabel said.

So it's rare to find beef at the market, and if you do the prices are steep. The main staple is pork.

Guilty Before Proven Innocent

Isabel related a story of an uncle who owned two oxen. He used them to till the soil to plant crops.

Sadly, in the dead of night they were slaughtered. The only evidence was the skeletal bones as the thieves killed, bled and butchered the beef. They took everything, including brains and internal organs. Absolutely nothing left but the bones.

So since her uncle feared being charged with slaughtering the animals himself, he called the police to report it.

When they arrived, one of the police was a long time friend of the uncle. But because he could not be prove that it was a trespasser that came onto his property to slaughter and take the beef, he was given a citation.

Pig Roast in America

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Pig Roast and the Chicharron

Here in the states, Isabel's family has a long standing tradition of roasting a pig. Her father takes the helm by first picking out a live pig. Isabel says, "My dad is picky, it has to be a female."

Then he has it slaughtered and brings it home. He seasons it overnight with salt and sour orange only.

The next day it's cooked for about 8 hours on a homemade grill made by her father. When it’s almost done he flips it with the skin side towards the fire. He makes a “mojito” with more sour orange and garlic and sprinkles it on the top or the meat side. He then sparks up the fire and toasts the skin so that it is crunchy. He has be to careful not to burn it. This is done in about 2 minutes and just before taking it out to eat.

According to Isabel, this is one of the best parts of the pig, and everyone gathers around for the "chicharron."

Pig Roast in Cuba

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preparing meat
preparing meat
preparing meat | Source

Cooking Outdoors

Click thumbnail to view full-size
This kitchen is not located inside the house, but rather in a separate room.   The wooden structure has bricks which are heated by fire.   Meat is often smoked,.  Notice the black ceiling.Preparing food for the animalsPreparing food for the animals
This kitchen is not located inside the house, but rather in a separate room.   The wooden structure has bricks which are heated by fire.   Meat is often smoked,.  Notice the black ceiling.
This kitchen is not located inside the house, but rather in a separate room. The wooden structure has bricks which are heated by fire. Meat is often smoked,. Notice the black ceiling. | Source
Preparing food for the animals
Preparing food for the animals | Source
Preparing food for the animals
Preparing food for the animals | Source

My Grandparents, 1937

My Grandpa Red Ambrosio, whose family immigrated from Italy, and my grandmother before they were married.
My Grandpa Red Ambrosio, whose family immigrated from Italy, and my grandmother before they were married. | Source


Do you know anyone who has immigrated from Cuba?

See results

Am I an Immigrant?

No. But my grandfather's family immigrated from Italy. My mother and her family grew up in North Denver and according to her they were discriminated against for being a WOP or a Dago.

My grandfather spoke Italian and much like my friend Isabel's family, my childhood was steeped in cultural tradition.

It's hard to put into words the feeling I have when looking at Isabel's pictures. Her family tells a story. From a different culture, and yet we are so similar as human beings. I would look at a picture and think, "This could be my Uncle Jack, or just like my grandpa in front of his truck." They show the passing of time, of children, laughter and happy family gatherings. The pictures don't show the struggles, but you know they are there.

The United States is a great country. Really awesome if you think about the mere idea of opportunity as opposed to oppression. How can we blame anyone for wanting to come here.


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    • Hankscita profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Florida

      Thank you btrbell! I have been so impressed with Isabel's story, I felt I just had to write about it. I'll share you comment with her as well.

    • btrbell profile image

      Randi Benlulu 

      4 years ago from Mesa, AZ

      This was truly an eye-opener! As much as I thought I knew about the conditions in Cuba, I didn't v realize how bad it is. I was officially struck by the hospital visit. Thank you, and Isabel fur enlightening us!

    • Hankscita profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Florida

      Thank you for reading, and for your comments. I will share them with my friend.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 

      4 years ago from SW England

      A fascinating story of your friend and of you too.

      Immigration has always been around; we let in rather too many here in Britain (or rather we let in those who don't deserve it) because we are such a small island. However, we benefit greatly from those who work hard and are glad they have a better life.

      I knew Cuba had many restrictions but your examples are eye-openers!

      Thanks for giving us a great insight into your friend's background.

    • Hankscita profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Florida

      Thank you for reading Billybuc! I'm always honored when you read one of my Hubs, and I worked long and hard on this one. I gave her right of first refusal, and went through a few edits.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you for sharing this. Writing is a wonderful way for us all to bridge gaps between cultures.


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