It was a celestial scheme of sorts. In 1961, Ernest Hemingway, one of the most influential American writers of the 20th century, commits suicide; John F. Kennedy is sworn in as president of the United States, and the future president, Barack Obama, is born in Hawaii. One way or another, these events, one of them in a symbolic manner, marked the past, the present (at that time), and the future of Cuba and its relationship with the United States. As well, that year, with the help of the United States, the historic and frustrated Bay of Pigs invasion would take place. In Cuba, I was six years old. Two years had passed since Fidel Castro and his government had been established in Havana, and my family was already suffering the consequences of this regime whose objectives did not adapt to our interests. Or perhaps my family did not adapt to the objectives of the new regime. Whichever it was, life in Cuba for my family was beginning to be a fastidious and intolerable experience. That last year in Cuba, marked my life by depriving us of many rights and living painful experiences, none of which made much sense.
We lived in the small town of Santiago de Las Vegas not far from Havana. We were a close knit family with many family members living close by, including my grandparents from both sides of the family. My paternal grandparents had emigrated from the Canary Islands around the first decade of the 20th century. On my mother's side, unlike my dad's side of the family, they had very profound Cuban roots and an unshakeable nationalistic sentiment. The two families were opposite poles. Just like the paternal side of the family was quite composed, the maternal side of the family was much livelier, typical of the personality that characterizes many Cubans. The town of Santiago de Las Vegas witnessed many generations of our family be born, grow up, and die. It was a town where few secrets were kept and political tendencies were not an exception.
To complicate matters, one of my great aunts from my mother's side was married to a former officer and security detail member of the already deposed and exiled, Fulgencio Batista, a condition that would place us under the microscope. This family link and our political inclinations turned us into the target of attacks. In April 1961, fateful month of the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban military forces were on a high level of alert as a result of the clandestine military exercises, which threatened to destabilize Castro's regime. One morning, someone knocked on the door. Once the door was opened, they came in like "dogs roaming through their house", sporting their olive green uniforms and long beards. I ran and told my mother, "The barbudos are here." To our surprise the bearded ones, people we knew from the town, came to search our house and informed us they were coming for my mother. My father, infuriated, told them they would also have to take him. The charges brought upon my mother included sewing armbands for the opposition and too many people constantly going in and out of our house, a situation which raised suspicion. My parents were young with many cousins, and they visited frequently. As far as the armbands, my mother didn't even know how to sew. In any event, my mother's last name was enough for them to consider her a person of interest. Without much ado, in the company of my father, the bearded ones took my mother. In the early hours of the evening, Mother was taken from a military post in Santiago de Las Vegas to another military post in Rancho Boyeros, not far from the airport in Havana. Eventually, with the help of a military friend, in the early hours of dawn of the following day, Mother was able to gain her freedom.
It wasn't until years later when I learned the details of that unsettling morning when Mother was taken away, a frightening experience that turned out to be crucial in my parents' decision to abandon Cuba.
The typical loudness of our voices in family conversations became low-pitched. Even my cousins' visits diminished somewhat. My father looked nervous every time someone knocked on the door, and little by little another family member would leave - never to come back.
Besides the scarcity of basic necessities, individuals whose ideas were contentious against the new Cuban government endured public humiliations, jail, or even the firing squad. Of course, the firing squad and jail were for adults, but even being a child didn't exempt me from the negative repercussions of a transformed society. On a sunny afternoon, I was playing in the front part of the house when these boys, a few years older than me, from the neighborhood ran passed the house and screamed at me, "batistiano, esbirro".
My parents, with great difficulty, began gathering the necessary documents for our departure to embark on a trip that, at the moment, we didn't know would be a journey of no return. By 1962, we received a visa waiver with the help of Florida Senator, George Smathers. At the airport in Havana, dragging their heart and soul on the ground but with their heads up high, my parents walked resolutely with my sisters and me, holding our hands, making the necessary lines, and answering the questions posed by the officials checking our documents, confirming everything was in order. Finally, we boarded a Pan Am flight bound for Miami. During my adolescence, my parents in their wistful moments would tell me they had left with the hope of soon returning to their beloved Cuba. Such hope never materialized and that day in July was forever etched in their hearts.
Years later, the ominous telegrams would bring us the news of the old grandparents who were left behind - as one by one, they passed away.