My world changed on a perfectly beautiful spring morning in March of 1962. A whole year of paperwork and preparations had culminated into this, a Friday morning, at the age of 15. Instead of preparing to go out to have fun with my friends, I was now preparing to leave my family and enchanting country, the once beautiful Cuba. My mother assured me “It’s only temporary, not that far away; you’ll come back in a few months at most, even by Christmas.”
But the truth was that the future in my country had become bleak and repressive with the shift to a Communist government under Fidel Castro. There was no personal freedom, no freedom of expression, and Catholic schools and churches were closed. Families lost everything after the currency was changed, their lifetime savings suddenly worth nothing, their businesses confiscated, and their homes now government property. Parents feared that they would lose the most natural right of all, the right to parent their children. Children, like the land, industries, stores and housing, would become the property of the state. If that happened, parents would lose legal custody of their children.
Young boys would be placed in Castro’s militia, and young girls would be sent across the country as teachers in an educational system now used to disseminate Communist propaganda. The new truth was that leaving was the only way to avoid being lost within a brutally oppressive system where I had no opportunities to become a productive individual through my own efforts and hard work.
Over 14,000 of us would make this journey, later dubbed “Operation Pedro Pan,” the largest mass exodus of children in the western hemisphere. I left Cuba with a suitcase containing 3 sets of clothes, all we were allowed to take. My mother’s loving advice and wisdom would have to carry me as I prepared myself for life in my new country. All bets were off, the pages were blank, and I would be the scriber of my own story.
Upon arriving, we were housed in camps throughout Miami, but we were eventually placed in foster homes, orphanages, and group homes all around the country. I was relocated, with 22 other Cuban boys, to a group home in Delaware run by priests. While our basic needs were taken care of at the home, no one could fill the huge holes in our hearts and souls. Our desperate loneliness forged a brotherhood among all of us boys. Fate brought us together and we shared the same pain. Brothers in the same nightmare, we held a strong bond, one that was born from our common need for survival.
Funds from the program that carried us through the first couple of years eventually ran out and for the first time I had to figure out how I would live completely on my own. My mother passed away unexpectedly in Cuba during my last year of high school, and the Cuban situation had not improved since the Missile Crisis when the U.S. agreed not to ever interfere with Cuba. So I was here to stay. I found an apartment, which I lived in while I finished high school and then college. I secured a job at a hospital in Wilmington, Delaware, working in the kitchen, mopping floors, cleaning bathrooms, and whatever else was needed to pay my rent and save for college. During summers I worked construction where I was able to make a little more money to save.
During the ensuing years, everything my parents explained to me about the United States was true, particularly the almost endless opportunity and America’s humanity and willingness to embrace us who had no freedom in our own country. The American Dream was there and, through hard work and the generosity of others, it was attainable. Throughout the years, many individuals who recognized my struggles and vision would facilitate a path that ultimately helped me climb the next rung to a better future. The dream of returning to Cuba had completely changed to the reality of staying focused on building a better tomorrow for myself in the U.S. These mentors provided me with job opportunities, completion of a Catholic high school education, moral encouragement, and various other supports when I ran into bumps along the road. I have never forgotten these individuals for their kindness and compassion.
Each passing year would get better. After graduating high school, I went on to the University of Delaware to major in education. The United States exemplified the concept where hard work was rewarded, and my goal was to provide a service that would allow me to help others attain dreams too. It wasn’t as important for me to work to become wealthy as it was to give back in some way to America. I became a teacher soon after finishing college, and continued to spend most of my career in the field of Education.
As a child exile, I was fortunate to have had a strong family beginning in my life, one that taught me to always prove myself and not give up. I knew I had to work through the hard times and keep going, realizing it was just a price to pay to attain the American dream.
Adversity is what keeps you alive when you think it’s going to kill you. Adversity can make a big difference in your life; it’s what will make you strive harder to get a better job, a job that will make a big difference in your life, make things better for you next year. Adversity can be your friend, a double-edged sword; it’s what’s going to keep you hungry to make you work that much harder to succeed. God knows I had enough adversity in my young life in this country to last an eternity. I still can’t shake the grip of adversity, it still happens to this day, but it keeps me motivated to ride above it and succeed. Adversity motivates you to reinvent yourself, and one should not be afraid of it.
Our parents made the ultimate selfless sacrifice to give us life again, freedom from a communist regime, by sending us away. This huge sacrifice our parents made, I would realize later when I became a parent myself, had been in fact, more difficult for them than it was for us children. I don’t regret the decision they made to send me to the US. Conversely, no other country would have opened its arms to us the way America did. America allowed me to continue what my parents had hoped for me, to carry myself with honor and confidence, work hard, become successful and, finally, give back to others.