Paulina Susana Gómez Domínguez
Paulina Susana's Story
These are my memories and perhaps they differ somewhat from my brother’s, José Miguel Gómez. Although we travelled together, memories are what one remembers and they are full of personal emotions. Thus, they may differ from person to person.
I started kindergarten at three years old at Colegio Lestonnac. In 1960-1961, I was in my second year of bachillerato (IB high school). Among the new students in our class was the daughter of Captain Ayala of the Castro regime. She bullied a lot of the other girls in the class who had been talking about leaving the country and where they wanted to go in the United States. One day, I could not put up with her bullying any more. I grabbed her by the shirt and told her that I was going to beat her up unless she stopped. The nun called my parents right away and recommended that I be transferred to another school. I then started attending Columbus Academy. Dad used to take me to school and pick me up. I assume he was trying to keep up with whatever trouble I was getting myself into since apparently I had a “Don Quijote” complex. At Columbus, the conversation among students was the same. Shortly after I started attending, someone plastered anti-Castro propaganda all over the school. My schoolmates asked me if I had done it since in class, I stood up and told the history teacher to focus on what we were to supposed to learn in order to pass the Instituto de Vedado’s test. (She was trying to indoctrinate us.)
The next day, Dad picked me up in the middle of the school day. In the car he told me that I was leaving for the United States that afternoon and that Mr. James Baker would meet us at the Miami Airport upon arrival. (Lestonnac and the Ruston Academy, where Mr. Baker had been the principal, were close by). I had overheard conversations at a friend’s house that Mr. Baker had been helping with the paperwork of children travelling alone to the United States. We went home and left as a family for Rancho Boyeros Airport with $5 in the heel of each of Joe’s shoes. We went to the cafeteria to eat something. There like a fool and spoiled child, I started badmouthing the Castro regime not thinking of the harm I could bring upon my family. My oldest brother was beside himself. Needless to say, my father took me out of the cafeteria without finishing my food and we went to the “pecera” (Fishbowl room – glass enclosed room). Only passengers were allowed in this room. Don’t ask me how, but Dad managed to go in with my mother to stay with us till we boarded.
The flight was delayed. I was then called to have my suitcase searched. It only had clothes and an Ancient Greek Mythology book in English. The milicianos took it and I blew up. I loved that book and could not understand why they were keeping it since it had no value to them. Again, Dad to the rescue. This time the miliciano’s reaction scared me to death. We returned to la pecera and I did not utter another word.
After boarding but before takeoff, José started to badmouth the Castro government. I was shocked because I did not know that he was aware of what was going on. With his beautiful and mischievous blue eyes he ranted full of enthusiasm or perhaps it was fear. There were only two other children in the plane.
The KLM flight landed in Miami at night on March 15, 1961. I remember how the gate and a tunnel had a dim light and there was hardly anyone around. Very different from today. It was sooo scary. So Joe and I walked holding hands for dear life. A tall man was coming towards us but we could not see his face. Finally, I recognized Mr. Baker. What a relief!
The other two children on the plane must have been picked up by relatives. Mr. Baker took Joe and I in his car to Kendall Children’s Home. It was dark and it looked like we were crossing a jungle. The area had not been built up at all. When we got to Kendall, Mr. and Mrs. Pruna and the Ursuline Academy nuns from Cuba were waiting for us (I always thought it was the nuns from the Merici Academy.) Joe and I were quickly separated. This was very hard for both and especially for Joe.
In the morning, the other girls gave me a warm welcome. Among them I recognized Lourdes Galán from El Reparto Náutico where we used to live. I don’t remember whether that day or the day after, the girls decided to have a pillow fight. It was fun and relieved the tension but, of course, we were punished. The nuns kept us busy all the time with English classes, chores in the dining hall.
Every time I saw my brother, his eyes would fill with tears and he would ask me when we were getting out of there. I can’t erase that memory. I wanted to cry, too, but did not dare utter a tear. If I did, I would not be able to stop and it would not be good for either one of us. The first weekend, Dr. Abay came to pick us up. We had such a good and happy time with them. Their daughter, Alicita, and I had been schoolmates since we were three. We are still friends. Their son, also named José Miguel, and my brother had also gone to kindergarten together.
The second weekend, I went to the Shelton’s and José back to the Abay’s. A few days later, Mr. Pruna told me that we had two scholarships at two different schools, one in Virginia and the other in Ohio. Mom and Dad were calling every day. Dad said they were not sure we would see them again and did not want us to be separated. He told me to turn the scholarships down and he would let me know what to do later. Dr. Abay became our legal guardian. They had a small garden apartment with two bedrooms. They had left everything behind. Joe went to live with them. I went to the home of Eduardo and María Elena Beltrán. One of their daughters, María Amalia, was also a good friend in Cuba. We have lost contact and I hope someday we can reconnect. The Beltrans had three daughters and a son. They had also welcomed a university student, friend of their son. Both families were very loving to Joe and I. They treated us like one of their children. We will always be grateful for their kindness.
The Bay of Pigs took place and I lost hope in getting together with my family. Three or four months later, the economic situation was getting more difficult. My parents, not knowing when they would be able to leave Cuba, decided that we should not be a burden to the Abay and Beltrán families and asked that we go to New Jersey to two uncles. To us they were strangers. That was one of the hardest parts of exile. Finally, Mom and my sister, Adriana, arrived in November 1961. Dad was able to leave Cuba with the Freedom Flights December 1965. Many years later, we were reunited with our older brother Julio.
In New Jersey, Mom started to work right away at a factory sewing garments. My sister at another business keypunching. We rented a small attic apartment above a two-family house. We cleaned it even with a spatula. There we lived happily under the circumstances. We all tried to earn some money and gave it to our mother to meet the bills. She was an excellent cook and could work miracles making a meal after some leftover. Of course, there were always black beans.
Today, more than 50 years later, my brother José Miguel and I are very grateful to our parents for having sent us to the United States with the Pedro Pan Program. We are parents and grandparents and are amazed at the courage of our parents. José lives in Florida with his family. I have been in the Washington D.C. area since 1970. Both had a good education and professional success. He at Ford and New Holland. I was able to fulfill my “Don Quijote” complex. I worked at the United Nations as a bilingual secretary in the Secretary General’s Office. Then I moved to Washington and worked at Eastern Air Lines, the Carter White House where I was the only Cuban at the time, and then at the AFL-CIO. The last 15 years of my tenure at the AFL-CIO I had the privilege of serving the community as Assistant Director of Civil Rights and fulfilling my “Don Quijote” dream.