In light of the recent death of Fidel Castro, I would like to take a one-time break from wildlife and share an article I wrote several years ago at the request of an old friend of mine who sponsored a family that escaped Cuba in the 1960s. After interviewing the mother of this family, I came to appreciate what some people will go through to obtain freedom.
“From now on you are losing your country. You are becoming a worm. You are going to be a slave of the United States!”
These words echoed in Teresita’s ears as she sat aboard the Pan American Airways DC-7 at Havana’s Jose Marti Airport that August 25, 1962. Speakers in the terminal had blared the warnings throughout her check-in for this flight. Clutching her eight-month old baby, Teri’s eyes misted at the possibility of never again seeing her family. After 24 years, she was fleeing her homeland to join her husband in America in search of freedom.
None of the plane’s passengers planned a vacation; and despite their round-trip tickets, no one planned to return. The door closed, and the pilot announced, “We are ready to depart. Fasten your seatbelts.” Another voice translated it into Spanish for the Cuban passengers. Teri held her baby tightly and ran her fingers through the little one’s long, brown hair. She straightened the white lace on the infant’s pale yellow blouse, then smoothed the ruffle on the matching skirt. Finally, the time has come! she thought.
But another announcement soon followed as the door to the plane opened once again. “We have another delay,” said the stewardess. Two agents stood near her at the top of the stairs as she paged two passengers. A young couple seated behind Teri stood and made their way to the front of the plane. “They have to ask you more questions,” the stewardess told them.
“Come with us,” said one agent.
The young wife burst into tears. “Everything will be okay,” her husband reassured. “God will help us.”
Terror gripped the remaining passengers. Strain etched lines in men’s faces. Women wept. Few talked. Praying silently, Teri longed for the silver rosary she’d been forced to leave behind. She drew her baby close while clutching a doll that she’d been allowed to bring for her child. A hole ripped into the doll’s back had proved its innocence to inspectors who had recognized the doll as a girl’s toy.
But the baby that Teri so fiercely protected – the child dressed and groomed as her daughter – was Teri’s son. Boys, she knew, stood less of a chance of escaping.
Teri decided to leave Cuba after the Bay of Pigs in April, 1961. Her fiancé at that time, Gene, had fought with Castro to free Cuba from its dictator, Batista. Castro had promised a free election, a democratic country with a constitution, and equality for everyone. But after Castro began nationalizing foreign businesses and seizing private property from Cuban owners, Gene wondered what he had fought for.
“When will be the election here?” Gene asked one day, not realizing that Castro already planned to convert Cuba into a Communist country with Russian support. After his inquiry, Gene’s life deteriorated. Authorities began shadowing him, examining his every move. It was time to join other Cuban refugees in America who were preparing to retake their country.
Leaving his future wife, Gene and four other men retrieved a boat hidden at a house near the seashore and launched it one evening, directing it north toward Miami. Not far into their journey, as worsening weather battered the small craft, the boat sank. Two miles from the Cuban shore, the men began swimming, knowing others had died attempting this same journey. Their hopes of survival deteriorated as they struggled through violent swells and shark-infested waters. After swimming a mile, however, the men were helped to shore by a fisherman.
The following day, a patrol boat retrieved a plastic bag found floating on the water. Inside, authorities discovered driver’s licenses and legal documents belonging to Teri’s fiance and his friends. The regime that Gene had fought to empower now imprisoned him for 72 days for attempting escape. When he was released, Gene and Teri married.
Bay of Pigs
After the failed Bay of Pigs effort to oust Castro on April 17, 1961, Castro’s government began attacking religious institutions and private organizations. “I’m a communist,” he announced on May 1, Cuba’s Labor Day. “And I’ll be a communist until I die!” Nuns who taught at the Catholic high school where Teri graduated were given 48 hours to return to their native country of Spain. Doctors, including Teri’s cousin, were imprisoned for fear they would leave the country. Private schools were closed, and citizens like Teri’s husband were jailed to prevent them from interfering with the government’s work. Across the island, people began to realize that hope was lost and surviving persecution and terror implemented by Castro’s militias was nearly impossible.
But leaving Cuba meant abandoning everything – friends, family, possessions, careers – and creating a new life in a different country with a different language. Teri and her middle class family had much to lose. Her father owned a grocery store and lounge. One uncle co-owned the biggest lumber store in her town. Another uncle owned a gas station and car dealership. Together, the family owned several real estate properties.
For Teri, however, leaving Cuba would also mean deserting her career. Teri had graduated from the University of Havana – where Castro had attended – as a pharmacist. Professionals, more than anyone, were denied emigration from Cuba. But increased attacks on the Catholic Church, denial of human rights, and absence of justice convinced Teri and her husband it was time to flee.
“Even if we have to leave everything behind,” Gene told Teri, “we must leave Cuba.”
By now, Teri was pregnant, but she agreed with Gene. “I don’t want my baby to grow up under communists,” she said. “I’m afraid they will do something to us.”
Paperwork prevented Teri and Gene from leaving Cuba before their son was born. The growing number of people requesting waivers to leave Cuba overwhelmed the system. After authorities inventoried their home and its furnishings to be certain everything was in working order and that nothing would leave Cuba with them, Teri and Gene received their waivers. But the government withheld their son’s passport. “You can go anytime,” they told Teri, “but your son is going to stay.”
Leaving without her son was out of the question. Teri stayed behind while Gene left at the beginning of June to find work in the United States. For weeks, Teri trekked to Havana seeking information about the passport. Each time, she dressed her son, Jose, as a girl. “How can you act like he’s a girl?” her mother asked.
“I’ll tell them that his middle initial, M, is for Maria. Jose Maria could be a girl’s name.”
The Church World Service aided Cuban refuges relocating to the United States, and after a few weeks in Miami, Gene called Teri. “Where would you like to go?” he asked. “Chicago or Denver? Call me back.” Teri had heard that Denver was a beautiful city with close-by mountains and opportunity. This was the city she would choose, if only she could obtain a passport for her son.
Finally, the last week of July, Teri was given Jose’s passport. She had few decisions to make about what to take with her when she left Cuba. Although she was allowed to take more clothes for her baby, Teri could only wear one outfit of her own and bring one in a suitcase. She could choose to take either her wedding ring or her engagement ring – not both. For the one pair of earrings she was permitted, she wore the pearls given her by her parents for her fifteenth birthday.
Arriving at the airport August 25, 1962, Teri’s family accompanied her. Only her sister remained home, too overwhelmed with emotion for a final farewell. Teri carried her son in a blue baby carrier. As she passed one check point, authorities confiscated the carrier, leaving Teri to hold her baby in her arms. They also took her pen inscribed with the University of Havana logo. But they didn’t notice the diamond earrings she’d attached into a flower design on a baby blanket her mother had sewn for Jose.
Teri entered a room by herself where a woman checked her papers. “How old is the baby?” the woman asked. “How many children do you have?” After Teri answered, the woman searched Teri’s winter coat for hidden articles. Teri was relieved not to be asked to remove her clothes, as others had been. Finally, the woman handed Teri her passport.
“What about my baby’s passport?” Teri asked.
“I don’t have it.” The woman left the room, but before long she returned with the passport.
Relieved, Teri proceeded to the next official. “What is the purpose of this trip?” the agent asked.
“I go to Spain to visit my family,” Teri answered, showing her round-trip ticket that she was required to purchase.
“What is your occupation?”
Teri didn’t hesitate. Her departure could hinge on this answer. “I am just a housewife,” she said. Never again would she be able to proclaim herself a pharmacist.
“I need to check your luggage.” The agent rummaged through the lining in Teri’s suitcase. When she finished, she reached toward Teri. “I need to check the doll, too.”
As she had prepared to leave Cuba, Teri had approached a seamstress in her town to ask her to make a doll to take to the daughter of the couple hosting Gene in Denver. But the dressmaker said she had no material because it was now hard to find.
“Don’t worry,” Teri had told her. “My mama has an old dress.” With material from the dress, the seamstress had fashioned a doll in the image of a Cuban dancer.
Now Teri hesitated handing it over. “Can I take it?” she asked the agent.
“Yes. But first we have to inspect it.” Showing no compassion, the agent picked up a pair of scissors and ripped open the back of the doll, examined the stuffing, then handed it back to Teri without patching the hole. She paid little attention to the baby in the ruffled outfit in Teri’s arms.
Finally, the time to say goodbye to her family had arrived. Teri turned to her aunt and uncle, her mother and father. Tears streamed down her mother’s face. Blinking back emotions too strong to control, her father wrapped his arms around his daughter. “I hope we can see you again,” he whispered. Teri kissed and hugged her family members one last time before walking alone down the concourse with Jose in her arms to board the airplane.
Now, as the door closed once again after the young couple was removed, the remaining passengers were silent. Teri continued to pray as the engines revved and the plane pushed back from the gate to begin its taxi toward the runway. She took one last look at her homeland that faded as the Pan American Airways DC-7 lifted from the ground and soared over the water.
“Welcome aboard,” the pilot announced at last. “Sorry about the delay. But now we are flying over international waters.”
The entire cabin burst into applause. Tears of joy and sorrow flowed throughout the cabin. Passengers knew they were not going to return. They knew they might never again see their friends and family or their homeland. But they looked forward to one day becoming citizens of the United States. Whatever lay ahead would now be in their own hands.
The pilot made this clear when he declared, “Now you can say that you are really free!”
Afterward: Teresita joined her husband in Denver where she still lives today. Her parents and sister were able to escape Cuba six years later, abandoning all their belongings to begin a new life.
“People talk about freedom and human rights,” says Teri. “You know for sure what they mean when you have lost them. It’s hard to believe that people sometimes don’t know how grateful they have to be to this country. Nothing is perfect, but the United States is the best place to live!”