This piece by my cousin, Madelyn, does well to capture the man in his own words, and I am very proud to share it with all of you.
“Papi?” I say softly, sitting on the floor of my grandparents’ apartment. I’ve always loved it here. The comfy couch with its knit blanket. The rocking chair holding my frail grandmother. The green recliner holding my grandfather and his white wisps of hair. The walls filled with adventure. Every shelf holds pictures, books, tapes, paperweights, papers, each telling its own story. I’ve always loved the pictures most. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. There must be a thousand pictures here. How many words is that? One wall has always intrigued me more than all the others. On it hang many pictures. To the right side is the graduation photos. Every graduate from my oldest aunt right down to some of my older cousins. I’ll be up there too someday. Then there’s the left side. The best part of all. That’s where the wedding photos hang.
Today my eyes rest on two pictures in particular. These two stick out from all the others. Both are black and white. The first is of my grandmother, not as I have always known her, but as a beautiful young woman. Her hair is up in a veil, and her dainty hands hold a bouquet. This one is from my Nana and Papi’s wedding. Back in Cuba. Papi once told me that back then a groom was never to be in the wedding pictures, just the bride. The other picture is my favorite of all. It’s the first picture of my grandparents together. They sit beside each other, in the distance. I think I love this one most of all because that was just so long ago. And here we are today.
“Yes, Princess?” Papi’s raspy voice replies. All this time in America and you can still hear the accent in his voice.
“Will you tell me a story? About Cuba?” I ask.
“Well, yes of course. What story would you like to hear? How I met your Nana?”
I let out a small chuckle. “No, Papi, you’ve told me that one before.”
“Have I? Well, how about our wedding day?”
“Papi, I’ve heard that one, too.”
Then Nana looks up from her knitting and chimes in. “Why don’t you tell her how we got here to America.”
“Yeah, tell me that one!” I cheer excitedly.
“Alright, alright. Well, where to begin? As you know, we lived in Havana, Cuba. Your Nana and I. We had four children while we were there, your aunts Beatriz, Gracie, Ines, and Mari. Life was nothing out of the ordinary. I was a defense attorney and I worked for the government. We were Catholic. Of course, 95% of the population claimed to be, but less than 10% were actual practicing Catholics. I was member of Agrupacion Catolica Universitaria, the first private Catholic university in Cuba. I worked there as a professor from 1953 until 1961 when Castro closed the school.
“The country was successful economically during our time there. Many industries thrived. We supplied nearly half of the world’s sugar production. Our tobacco was the best in the world. And did you know the best canned milk came from Cuba? All was well until a school fellow of mine, Fidel Castro, came into power. The government had been under the control of Fulgencio Batista, a war general who staged a coup, with US help, in 1953. Castro had attempted to rebel, but was unsuccessful. He spent some years in Mexico before returning to Cuba. Fidel eventually forced Batista to leave the country on December 31st, 1958.
“Our new leader was not actually a Communist. He was a radical Socialist. The USSR offered him help, though, and Cuba became allied with the Russians. I continued to work for the government under Castro until realizing the Communist connection. An “underground” of anti-Castro people had formed attempting to oust the Communist government. I defended several of its members in court, some of whom were executed. When the Bay of Pigs fiasco occurred, I was arrested and held for a week. The Castro Gestapo had their eyes on me as part of the “underground,” so we decided to leave the country before things could get any worse.
“You often hear immigrant stories of people who had grand illusions of what America would be like. Some said the streets were paved with gold. Or that nothing bad would ever happen to them in America. Our story is not like this. America was not exactly unknown to us. We has honeymooned on the Massachusetts Northshore, and I had visited Miami after my graduation. One thing was for sure, we were not going to America as refugees who planned to one day return to Cuba. No, we were to be immigrants who would start a new life in America. We knew that finding a way to make money and live our life would be hard, but it was well worth the risk to leave Cuba and its failing economy under Castro.
“The actual journey was not so rough, but making preparations was. The plan was to fly out of Cuba to Jamaica. Doing so was an expensive endeavor. Finances were provided by an uncle of your grandmother, Nat Simpkins and his wife Carmen. Carmen, as you may know, was an artist. We have some of her paintings here in the apartment. Years later, when I had made some money, I offered to repay them. Nat said to me ‘What money?’ and insisted that I not worry about it. I will always remember, on September 13th, 1961 we finally were able to leave. One of our relatives and I arrived first at the airport with the luggage and the tickets. Your Nana and the girls followed behind us. They were stopped at the gate since they did not have tickets. I returned to the gate to make sure they were allowed through. As I said before, I was under the nose of Castro and his Gestapo for my actions on the part of the underground. We were picked up and interrogated in the airport. Our luggage was searched, which was very minimal to begin with. Each of us had nothing but a change of clothes. Except your aunt Gracie. She brought with her a doll, Carlos, as well. We pretended that we were only vacationing. A few of our items were confiscated, but we were eventually let go. Then we boarded the plane, the last commercial flight to ever leave Cuba. As the plane took off, I gazed out the window and said ‘take one last look at Cuba,’ for I knew we would never see that beautiful island again. On the plane, Bea complained saying that she wanted a coke, which was to no avail.
“When we arrived in Kingston, Jamaica, we went straight to the US Consulate to request immigrant visas. This was no easy process. It took thirteen days to receive out visas. During those two weeks, we stayed with a kind Jamaican couple on their farm. It was very different living there than in Havana. The girls especially found it hard. They had been used to living in the city. Bea, I remember, would play with the dog. I told her not to since she could get fleas from it. Each morning, we would be woken by a rooster. During the day, I helped in the refugee center at the Bishops office. Many other Cubans were there trying to make it to America, and we aided them in filing paperwork.
“On September 28th, 1961, Gracie’s fourth birthday, we boarded another plane, this one to Miami. The flight landed at 6 o’clock PM. We had made it. I remember always, a friend of mine said to me: ‘Do not move to far away, because we are coming back to Cuba next month!’ What an illusion! He could not have been more wrong. I had no intention of ever returning to Cuba. This new land, America was now home. A fellow member of the Agrupacion University – which moved to America as well – met us at the airport. From there, we were brought to the house of my cousin Henry Giroud. He could not let us lodge with him, since he already had a lot of family staying there. Instead, he took us to a motel. Two cousins of my father who lived in Miami also helped us and fed us. The trip itself had cost our money, and we could afford nothing ourselves. The Father at Agrupacion was able to give me twenty-five dollars, and the resettlement center gave me another twenty-five. It was not much, but it was just enough to pay the motel. After that, there was nothing left. As soon as I had money, I offered to pay back the $50, but they insisted I did not have to. After that, I made sure to support Catholic Charities whole heartedly.
“While at the resettlement center, the director asked me if we were staying in Miami. I told him no, that we would be moving to Buffalo. ‘Why Buffalo?’ he asked, in shock. I explained that Buffalo was where my parents were, as well as my tio Jordi and tia Conchita. On September 30th, we arrived in Buffalo. There we were met by my parents and a close friend, Harry Tiernan. We called him our “fairy godfather” for all his help getting us to America. For a while, Nana and I, along with Mari and Ines lived with Harry and his wife. Bea and Gracie stayed with my parents until I was able to find a job and a place to stay.
“On October 21st, my birthday, believe it or not, I received a call from a man by the name of Dr. Ferdinand di Bartolo. ‘Are you available?’ he asked. He offered me a job working at Bennet High School teaching four classes of Spanish and one of French. I gladly accepted the offer and began to work. Nana did not work, since she was busy eventually raising eight children. Working at Bennet High was a great experience for me. I became President of the Foreign Language Teachers Association, Teacher of the Year, and Chairman of the Building Committee. I was known as “Doc” by everyone in the school from the superintendent right down to the youngest freshman. I will always remember, one year, a girl signed in my yearbook, ‘If I ever need another Daddy, it would be you!”
“While living in Buffalo, my oldest daughter Beatriz started school. She attended Catholic school, which was very different from the private school in Havana. It was hard for her, since she spoke very little English. She had a tough time with the nuns at her Catholic school because they kept insisting that her name ought to be spelt ‘Beatrice.’ The other girls had time to learn English before they had to start school. . The first American girl, Carmen was born in November of 1961, but she passed away from the flu in 1963. It was a lot colder in Buffalo than any of us were used to. Cuba is a tropical island after all. Finances were tough at the beginning. Back then, there was no such thing as food stamps. Instead we got surplus food boxes, which provided canned and processed food. Eventually, money became less of an issue and we were able to eat well again.
“We lived in Buffalo up until 1977. That year, there was a teachers’ strike which I supported and led. In June, I was offered a position as a bilingual editor. I took up the position, and we moved to Orford, New Hampshire. By then, the oldest girls had graduated. Bea was in Cincinnatti teaching, Gracie had received a scholarship for nursing school, and Ines was on her way to California. I worked in Orford until all the kids had graduated. I had become Managing Editor, and Nana worked as my top proofreader. When it was time to retire, we moved back to New York, right here to Chili.
“America has been great for us. I will always remember the times we had back in Cuba. Where I was born. Where I grew up. Where I went to a birthday party and met the girl of my dreams. Where I married her. Where my first children were born. It holds a very special place in my heart, but America is just as important to me. It is home. I will always remember, we all became American citizens on January 5th, 1967. Sometimes people ask me if I wish I could return to Cuba. To those people I say no. I have never even dreamed of going back to Cuba, which is a good memory.”
I can’t help but to smile as my grandfather’s story comes to a close. All my life, I’ve wondered what it would be like to go to Cuba. To explore where my family came from. Now, hearing all this, I realize how, even though Cuba is an important part of my heritage, America is even more important. My family would not be what it was today if my grandparents had not made their journey here all those years ago.
“Thanks Papi,” I say. “That’s a really cool story.”
“I’m glad you liked it,” he replies. “Always remember this one fact, Princess. The history of Cuba cannot be written without mentioning members of our family. My great-great grandfather Perucho Figueredo wrote the Cuban national anthem, and his nephew Fernando Figueredo fought for ten years in attempts to gain independence, which was not won. Many of our ancestors, including my grandfather and namesake, Enrique, were leaders in the fight for freedom. Even I tried to rebel against communism. You should be proud of our heritage.”
At this, I smile even more, because I am proud. Hearing tales of my family’s achievements makes me sure that I too can do something special here in America. I am so grateful to be a part of this family and its legacy. It makes me feel like I am a part of something greater. And in more ways than one, I am. Not only am I part of a great family, but part of a great nation, where new futures can begin. It gives me hope that one day, I too can be something great. Maybe I won’t lead a rebellion against the government, but I could. And even if I don’t, I can make an impact on the world around me.
“Now have I ever told you about the 1965 AFC playoff game against the New England Patriots when Cookie Gilchrist–“
I sit quietly and listen, even though, yes I had heard this story, and no the game was not actually against the Patriots. My eyes drift once again to the walls. I smile at the black and white ones form Cuba, but now I look at the others, too. The wedding photos, the graduation photos. They’re all beautiful. I can’t help but to be glad, because if my grandparents had not decided to come to America, none of that would be here. Their children would not have grown up, gotten married, had kids, become successful. My father would never have met my mother, and I would not exist. What a sad thing that would be. Yes, I still long to learn about Cuba, its history, its food, its culture. But I long just as much to appreciate my life here in America and the opportunities in front of me, thanks to my grandparents. I will always remember the importance of both nations and my family to my life.