Cuban immigrants share precious family heirlooms to show history of Cuban exiles
by Janey Fugate
Julia Adán Pelegrín, 71, opened a black suitcase full of faded elegant shirts.
Those shirts, she explained, belonged to her father, Emilio Adán Silva, when he was a Supreme Court justice in Cuba, and they represented his life before he and 12 other justices signed a letter denouncing Fidel Castro’s government.
Eight years later, his family moved to Miami.
Those shirts, Pelegrín says, represent the sacrifice her father made for his family and express the pride she feels.
“These are not only memories but items of everyday use when Cuba existed as a nation,” Adán said. “[These shirts] were on the streets of Havana. They lived there.”
Such feelings of pride and nostalgia prevailed Saturday in the lobby of the Freedom Tower, when dozens of Cubans gathered to donate or lend objects of historic interest that document their exile experience.
More than 300 items — passports, documents, photos, clothes — will be part of an exhibit that will open at the tower in September.
The inauguration of the exhibit is a key step in the preservation of Cuban history, said Alina Interián, host of the event and executive director of Miami Dade College cultural affairs.
“We want to pay tribute to the people to whom this tower means so much,” said Interián, who also was processed at the Freedom Tower when she arrived from Cuba.
Between 1962 and 1974, Cuban refugees were processed at the tower, known as “The Refuge.” It was added to the United States National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 2008.
The exhibit, titled “The Exile Experience: Journey to Freedom,” is a collaboration between Miami Dade College and the Miami Herald Media Company. Its objective is to document, preserve and share the history of the difficulties the exiled Cuban community went through since Fidel Castro’s rise to power.
The facility has deserved a project like this for some time, said Luisa Meruelo, 93, who worked for the tower’s immigration service for nine years.
“I was always wondering why no one had done something about the refugees here,” Meruelo said. “This is a long story, a beautiful story.”
The exhibit is a way to thank the nation that gave them refuge during that turbulent time, she said.
“We have to thank the people of the United States for being so generous to us at a very difficult time,” she said.
Now, the museum can show items like the first coins earned in this country, the tie that an immigrant was wearing when he arrived, a wedding gown and the tiny dress of a 3-year-old. To the people who wore them, these items are intimately associated with the difficult experience of having to abandon their native country.
One of those people was Mercy Advocat, who arrived in 1962 with her brother in the Pedro Pan Operation. That exodus took place between 1960 and 1962 and brought more than 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children to the United States.
“The last thing our parents told us before leaving was that my brother and I should never be separated,” Advocat said.
“We then boarded the plane and, when we landed, the first thing they did was separate us — the girls from the boys.”
Advocat and her brother eventually were sent to the same foster home in Albuquerque, N.M., and they ended doing what their parents had told them. After two years, they were reunited with their mother in New York.
The black-and-white photos Advocat brought to the tower show her mother’s tears when she reunited with her children. She is lending those photos and a doll brought from Cuba — some of her most precious keepsakes — to the museum. She is not ready to part with them yet.
“I’m not so old to have to donate them,” she said.
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Irma de la C Gimart Alvarez
Irma de la C's Story
I was ten years old and for the first time leaving my family. I travelled with my brother Luis who was eleven years old. We had become a slight problem at home because we were very aware of our situation as gusanos and had no problem expressing our young opinions often putting our parents and family in harms way. Our leaving was a blessing in many ways. Our mother stayed behind I can't remember now how many miles away from the airport on the Carretera Central as that idiot/animal castro had just decided both parents could not see their children off, another form of mental torture. My dad Esteban continued the trip with us and when the glass doors of the pecera closed between us I began to cry as I realized that was the point of no return. I could see the despair in my father's eyes as he watched me and could do nothing, not knowing what exactly was going on with me. My brother was strong but still a kid and he and I approached our suitcase search with an attitude from the start. My dear mother had snuck more clothes than the alloted amount, towels and such and one by one they took anything they thought was not acceptable, asking me here and there what I prefered, like I could pick in the state I was in. I recall that I wanted to bring with me a dress a wonderful friend ours had hand embroidered for me, it didn't even fit me anymore but I loved it, I had been very close to her and she had passed away. That was one of the items they took and later on my mom told me that she saw it hanging in one of those communist shops for sale. It was one of a kind. Boarding the plane was to say the least traumatic enough without all the other heartbreak they knew so well how to inflict. My brother tried to talk them into letting me keep it and they threatened him to throw him back to my dad. To this day I cannot believe that these people that were treating us like criminals had once not too long ago been our neighbors, so to speak. Today when I teach my students about Hitler and his atrocities I can tell them that the behavior of the men that did his dirty work does not surprise me because of what I experienced. After we boarded the plane a nice lady from our town that my father knew sat with us, she was also leaving our island home for Fla. I guess at some point I calmed down, my brother urged me to look out the window and view Cuba from above. I have always felt that I don't want to go back, at all. What I remember of Cuba he will never take away from me, he has distroyed it and the people with him don't want to acknowledge it or are too afraid to see it. Nothing he ever started he finished, NOTHING, WHAT A WASTE OF A HUMAN LIFE, I GUESS THE DEVIL HAS HIS