By: Olivia Hernandez
The reality of growing up in the 1960’s amidst Cuba’s transition from the Batista regime to Fidel Castro’s communist regime is a stark contrast to what we experience as American teenagers today. Along the shore of Varadero beach, my father lived with his parents and two younger siblings. In his younger years, he walked a little over a mile to school every day. The town he lived in was so small that all of the parents knew the teachers by first name. During his niñez, the majority of his free time was spent with his cousins playing makeshift baseball, fishing, and hunting.
When 7th grade came around, my father was sent to a military boarding school. His time there was characterized by sweltering rooms filled with teenage boys sleeping on stacked bunk beds, waking up at 5 am to complete his daily deberes and attending hours of classes that instilled revolutionary values into the minds of the youth. While my father attended the school, the Cuban authorities implemented a rule that all schoolchildren must work in the sugarcane fields for 45 days out of the school year in order to support Cuba’s largely agrarian based economy. To this day, he remembers the large trucks that came to pick him and his classmates up. They would ride along rocky roads for una media hora out to the fields where they would line up the sugarcane in rows and dig them into the ground. “It was like a hell,” he said. Little did he know, things were about to get worse for his family before they got better.
Around the same time, mi abuelo spoke out against the communist revolution, stating that he wanted to leave the country and travel to America for a better life. This caused high familial tension, as most of my father’s extended family identified as revolutionaries. Not only was my grandfather shunned, but he also lost his job. For the next five years of his life, he was taken away to an internment camp and was forced to cut down sugar cane for days on end, an extremely physically demanding task.
Mi abuela also suffered a similar fate. For two years, she was forced to partake in hard manual labor in the sugarcane fields. Because her youngest son Wicho was still young, the government allowed her to travel home every evening to see him. Unfortunately, my grandfather was not as lucky and couldn’t return home more than twice a month. However, my grandparents’ hard work and bravery did not go to waste, for in 1971 they received plane tickets for their family to travel to the United States.
When asked about the day my father found out he was leaving Cuba, he recalled it as the “the happiest day of his life.” In April of 1971, after an upperclassmen walked into my dad’s classroom and told him he was leaving for America, my dad returned home, packed what little he had, and flew to Miami and then to Maryland where some of his cousins lived.
My father began attending high school shortly after his arrival in Silver Spring, Maryland. Here my father got his first job. He worked at a grocery store owned by two Cuban brothers, Hector and Ramón where he unpacked boxes for $10 a day. Slowly, he began to work his way up in the shop, taking on new responsibilities. As he got older, he worked at a country club in Bethesda, and later, he was employed at the Madison Hotel. While working as a bellman there, my father met people like the Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, and other well-known figures. He always tells me that meeting these people encouraged his dream of being able to afford staying a hotel like the Madison one day. After he attended college and got his MBA, he started working at a contracting company where he has been with for the last thirty years. He eventually went on to acquire the title of President of the company and can now afford to stay at places like the Madison. Through hard work, his life has become the epitome of the fulfillment of the American Dream.
My father never stopped working since the day he was first able to apply for a work permit. He constantly reiterates the fact that he loves money; not for the sake of it, but rather because “money gives you freedom.” He often speaks about the things little things we take for granted in the U.S. For example, he talks about how we are blessed to live in a land where we can freely purchase an abundance of products without being limited by a government regulated supply. I will never forget the stories he has told me about how he had to use the sand and the sea water to brush his teeth everyday and the leaves from the tropical trees as toilet paper because the general stores in Cuba did not carry basic necessities like toilet paper, toothbrushes, and toothpaste.
Frankly, it kills me when I see people, my own friends even, refusing to say the pledge of allegiance because they do not identify as American, or they are ashamed of our culture. I am the first to admit that we have deeply rooted problems we need to work through as a country. However, it still saddens me when people ignore the fact that we are all indebted to this country in some way. Some cannot possibly imagine having the opportunities we have in this country. And although we ciudadanos now regard America as home, at some point in our lineage, we were all immigrants.
I know I will forever be grateful for this country, for if it weren’t for the USA, I would not have the wealth of opportunities I have today. I believe in a United States of America that upholds the ideal that every man should have the equal opportunity to succeed and look towards actualizing this vision. I am thankful to this country for providing a place for my father to thrive, and if only for that reason alone, I am proud to call this country mi patria.