Leaving Cuba in 1961

By Sandra Martin
Special to the Palisades News

On Friday evening, Nov. 25, I checked Facebook: glaring in the screen was the announcement that Fidel Castro had died. I called my sister and gave her the news. She was delighted and screamed, “Qué bueno, great!”

I didn’t feel great. I didn’t feel happiness, either. I felt sadness not for Fidel, but for the Cuban people, my family, and me. Yet I understand why the Cubans in Miami celebrated his death. Their lives were also changed forever.

In 1959, when Castro and his followers took power, Cuba was happy. The hated dictator Fulgencio Batista had fled the island; and there was hope that Cuba would embark on the road to democracy. But soon we knew that wasn’t to be.

Sandra Martin with her students Lili Ramos and Jonathan Flores in a Palisades High School classroom. Photo: Bart Bartholomew

Sandra Martin with her students Lili Ramos and Jonathan Flores in a Palisades High School classroom. Photo: Bart Bartholomew

Castro began to eliminate the opposition through firing squads and jailing. Trials that resembled Roman circuses filled the TV screen. The accused had no opportunity to defend themselves. The moment they were jailed, their fate was sealed. Private property was confiscated, including my father’s grocery stores. Nothing had changed: in fact the political situation was even worse. People were afraid of their neighbors or family members who sympathized with the Castro government because Castro sympathizers were encouraged to inform on those who didn’t agree with the new government.

My mother wanted to leave the island, but my father was adamant. He believed the U.S. government would not allow a Communist government 90 miles off its shores.

And then the Bay of Pigs happened. The invasion of Cuba by U.S.-supported Cuban exiles was a failure, and my father’s hope for eliminating the Castro government was shattered. My parents decided we had to leave because life in Cuba was unbearable.

A member of the secret police had been assigned to follow my father every time he stepped out of the house, waiting for him to do anything that could be constituted anti-Castro to drag him to jail. He became a prisoner in our own home, leaving the house only to visit his mother and accompany my mother home from work.

CALIFORNIA, UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 1962: People watching President John F. Kennedy's TV announcement of Cuban blockade during the missile crisis in a department store. (Photo by Ralph Crane/Life Magazine/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

CALIFORNIA, UNITED STATES – OCTOBER 1962: People watching President John F. Kennedy’s TV announcement of Cuban blockade during the missile crisis in a department store. (Photo by Ralph Crane/Life Magazine/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

We applied for visas as a family unit and wrote to our relatives in California to please send the money to buy one-way tickets to the U.S for the entire family. The visas came in September 1961, except that they were visas for the children only.

Unbeknown  to us, the visa waivers issued for the three kids were part of a program called Operation Peter Pan that between December of 1960 and October of 1962 air-lifted over 14,000 children to the United States. There were rumors in the island that parental rights were going to be taken away and children under 17 would be sent to government schools or to the Soviet Union to be educated.

Frantic parents tried to save their children from growing up under Communism by contacting people in Miami to help them get their children out of Cuba. Once in the U.S., the children stayed with family, went to foster care or orphanages.

On a breezy December 15, 1961 afternoon, when I was 12, I boarded a Pan Am flight to Miami with my 17-year-old sister and my 9-year-old brother. When the plane took off, suddenly everyone began to cry. We were leaving our loved ones, our place of birth, our culture and everything that was dear to us. The three of us didn’t know when or if we were ever going to see our parents again. That day my life changed forever.

We were processed at the Refugee Center in Miami, where we were given a plane ticket to Los Angeles and $10 in case of an emergency. My passport was stamped “parole.” I was a person without a country, a refugee in a strange land that didn’t look like the American TV programs I watched in Cuba.

Christmas 1961 was the saddest of my life. Although my aunt and cousins did everything possible to make it a happy one, the pain of being separated from my parents made it overwhelmingly sad.

I started school in the U.S. in January 1962 and for the first time in my life I felt stupid in the classroom because I didn’t understand the teacher or the work I had to do. Little by little I managed to learn English and succeeded in school and eventually graduated from UCLA and became a Spanish teacher.

We were the lucky Peter Pan kids; we stayed with our aunt and cousins until our parents left Cuba in April 1962. Others were not so fortunate. About 3,000 of the Peter Pan kids never saw their parents again. My parents left everything behind and were only allowed to bring three changes of clothes and no money. They didn’t speak English and had to start again. They never regretted coming to the U.S.

I’m glad they sent me to this country that opened its arms to us, even though it was heartbreaking to be separated from my parents. I’ve had opportunities in this country that I would have never had in Cuba. Most of all I’ve been able to live in freedom.

Today, Cuba is the place to see and be seen: the colorful 1950s cars, the beautiful white-sand beaches with turquoise water, the people smiling, singing, dancing in the streets. That is the Cuba the tourists see.

The real Cuba, the one of the Cubans who toil day to day, is a harsh place where people lack the most basic things, where food is scarce because it has been diverted to the hotels and restaurants catering to the tourists who come from all over the world, where medical care for the average Cuban is substandard, and although there’s education for all, not everyone can attend a university or choose the career they want to study.

I still have family in Cuba, aging aunts and uncles that I barely remember, cousins that I’ve never met but who communicate with me via social media and email. They struggle to live day to day and, thanks to the money that those of us who live in the U.S. send, they are able to buy the basic things they need in order to survive.

Is Fidel Castro’s death going to change Cuba? I don’t know, but I hope that changes take place that will help the Cuban people so they can live with dignity and freedom.

As for me, I’m still processing Castro’s death; I guess, because I’m grieving once again what I lost.

(The author, a teacher at Palisades High School since 1995, is the co-faculty sponsor of the Human Rights Watch Student Task Force chapter.)

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