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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Juan Luis Puig Rodriguez
Juan Luis's Story
I have blocked out a few days/months of my childhood (my childhood ended July 23. 1961), specifically our stay at "Kendall" (Kendall Hospital was a county hospital and an institution for wayward & exceptional children.) Reading some of the anecdotes from other kids (now adults) has brought back some really painful memories.
I remember my anguish after spending long hours in the “pecera” looking at our parents through the glass partition before boarding the plane. I clearly remember my sister, Haydee, and I making a pledge not to fight and argue with each other anymore, since we only had each other for support; while sitting on the plane waiting to take off.
The oppressive July & August 1961 heat and of course no A/C, the two white buildings facing each other, one for the girls and one for the boys. In between the buildings sandy dirt grounds with a total absence of grass, dirt that would crawl into your shoes & socks, maybe that is the reason for my having beautiful lawns in my homes as an adult.
I truly do not remember where I slept (I know it was a bunk bed),where I went to bathroom or showered (maybe I did not shower, very possible). I do remember that we only had 2 changes of clothing since our luggage took 3 months to arrive from the "wonderful island paradise". Who washed my clothing? Did we wash our own clothing? Did I wear the same outfit for several days?, I assume I did, perhaps that explains why I must have multiple sets ( meaning at least 12 to 15 sets) of clean underwear, socks, etc. at all times. Why do I go to the cleaners twice a week? I must have a plentiful supply of dry cleaned or laundered clothing at all times.
Remember the group crying and sobbing during the night, sort of like a scene out of a Dicken's orphanage. Also remember a glaring TV set (there were only 3 TV channels back then, so no multiple cable choices), with game shows on. Of course did not understand a word of what was being said. How many days was I there before moving to Camp Matecumbe? A mystery to me!!
Camp Matecumbe?? Lots of undesirable critters, plenty of snakes (corals, rattlers big & pygmies) big silver dollar size spiders. You always had to check your bunk for uninvited guests, at night during your sleep "things' would fall on you from the rafters or crawl in bed with you.
We had an Olympic size pool, that was the nice part, however we only had open air cold water showers next to the pool (the usual "shower before you enter the pool" type), you had to shower with your bathing suit on, and when Fall & Winter came, it was not pleasant!!
The food at Matecumbe was an improvement, I guess that after throwing away loads of "liver steaks" they learned their lesson and discontinued the usual prison fare. I survived on bologna & cheese white bread sandwiches with mustard and "early potato chips", quite different from today's chips. To this date, I always put potato chips in my sandwiches. I also ate lots of oatmeal raisin cookie bars, these were the best and since oatmeal raisin cookies were not a Cuban staple, most of the boys would not touch them, there were plenty of them left uneaten and I made sure that they were not wasted.