Four local Cuban-Americans shared their experiences of being forced to leave their home country because of the Castro revolution at the Jenks Center on the evening of October 13. The panel, sponsored by Winchester Reads, complemented this year’s book selection Learning To Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy by Carlos Eire.
Unlike Carlos Eire who was part of the Pedro Pan airlift and came to the U.S. at the age of 11 with just his brother, the panelists came with their families. Like Eire, however, they all faced the challenges common to most refugees and immigrants: learning English, adjusting to a new climate, a different culture, new foods, and, for parents/adults, the task of finding jobs—even low-paying work far from their trained fields.
Like Eire, the panelists began to have feelings of dual identities—as Cubans, and as they adjusted to their new country, as Americans.
Lou Alvarez, retired Winchester High School Spanish teacher, spoke about her experiences as a young child having to leave Cuba when, after Castro’s takeover, her father’s dentistry practice was ransacked due to his refusal to become dentist to Castro’s soldiers fighting in the countryside. She fondly recounted stories of her grandfather hosting all the employees of his department store for Sunday dinner and her grandmother preparing Sunday meals for the priests. She described the horror of having to hide from bombs as debris fell into the courtyard. Her family was able to come to Miami with the help of an American friend with connections at the U. S. consulate. She spoke about the difficulties of adjusting to a new country, language, and culture. When she first arrived in the U.S. with her parents she would have been in 6th grade, but was put into 4th as she knew no English. She spoke of the loss of her large extended family who all fled to different countries.
Maria Nicholson described her experiences as a little girl, having to leave suddenly when her father’s business and the family home were seized. The family first returned to their home country, Spain, and Maria was sent to live with relatives she didn’t know in the rural countryside. When her parents were unable to find work in Madrid, they came to the Boston area. Here she hated going to school and being made fun of because she didn’t speak English, and the food she ate was different from her classmates’. Her parents joined a Cuban church in a different town where she made friends with other Cuban children and where she could be comfortable with her Cuban identity. She talked about how she felt Cuban when with her family and church friends, and American the rest of the time. By the time she got to college, she had abandoned the part of her that was Cuban to embrace her American identity more fully.
Luis Domenech left Cuba with his family at age 7. He talked at about the difficulties his parents endured having to start their lives over. They moved to New Hampshire and felt very isolated as a minority group. Education was very important so when his parents asked where they should move to find the best educational opportunities, they were told to go to Boston. Domenesch first returned to Cuba to bring his father’s ashes back to his home country. Since 2010 he has returned almost yearly, bringing simple necessities such as clothes and toiletries to help his family. He urged members of the audience who might travel to Cuba to stay with local people and buy food in local shops, as a way of supporting Cuban people vs. the government. He feels that any opposition to the government is being swiftly squelched.
Dr. Yamil Khouri provided a brief summary of the history of Cuba with the help of a DVD that touched on important events, battles, and figures. He had strong opinions about the deleterious effects of the Communist regime. He told of having been a political prisoner for 14 years during which time he was forced to serve, with no drugs, and instruments he had to make himself, as the only doctor to hundreds of prisoners.
Alvarez, Domenesch, Khouri, and Nicholson all embrace their dual identities after many years in this country. They treasure their memories of pre-Castro Cuba and are proud to be Americans.
Photos courtesy of Melodie Wing, WinCAM