Yolanda Cardenas Diaz
A story teller once told me that all stories begin in the middle. As I write this, the middle of my story has 17 years on one side and 47 on the other. For thousands of us Pedro Pan children, the middle of our story falls on the day we left Cuba.
Outside the Havana airport my parents and grandparents hugged me and kissed me as if it would be for the last time. No one could talk. Finally my father said in a broken voice, “Hija, we gave you the best education we could, morally and academically. It should serve you well. Your mother and I trust you to make good use of it.” Then he said angrily between his teeth, “C—o, que por lo menos allá vas a tener libertad para criticar al gobierno sin que te metan presa nada más que por hablar.” (“D—m! At least there you’ll be free to be to criticize the government without being thrown in jail just for talking.”) I begged him to be quiet. He assured me that he would keep his opinions inside a closed mouth. He also said that we would all be together soon. Believing that helped us keep going.
While some of my memories are somewhat blurred, that scene and others are as clear as if preserved in a video archive inside my head.
Dreamily I recall happy memories of growing up with my loving family in Cumanayagua, Cienfuegos, Santiago de Cuba and finally in La Habana. As a child I was aware of problems during the Batista dictatorship, but I also remember that people were supportive of one another and believed that things would change for the better.
In January 1959, when the “rebeldes” descended triumphantly from the mountains, I was transitioning into adolescence. My life was full of fun and excitement –for about a year. Drastic changes came rapidly with the new regime. The collective reaction of Cubans ranged from complete embrace of the revolution, through shock, distress and skepticism to condemnation and rejection. The persons now in charge tolerated nothing but complete embrace of their ideology. Cuban citizens were warned that we had to be with “La Revolución” or suffer the consequences if we opposed anything. The “revolucionarios” constantly shouted, “Al que no le guste –QUE SE VAYA.” (Those who don’t like it –leave.)
Members of my family who had never been actively political began to suffer for disapproving of the revolution’s methods. Would we have to leave Cuba?
Early in 1960 my father, a CPA at a well-known accounting firm, came home very upset from work one day. The firm had been intervened and his boss, an experienced professional, had been replaced by a “mequetrefe,” a nincompoop whose only qualification was having declared himself a communist. Papi told Mami that we needed to get out of Cuba. “For a few months... This madness cannot last very long,” he reasoned.
We prepared to go to Spain, but just before we paid for the ship’s fare Fidel ordered a change of currency, our “surplus” funds were confiscated and we did not have enough money left to travel together. Papi began looking for other ways to leave Cuba.
I had attended Colegio La Luz and had transferred to the Instituto del Vedado for the 1959-60 school term. On my second year there I joined a resistance group organized by older students to protest against two new regime’s mandates: that teachers teach Marxism or face removal from their posts and that upper level students abandon their studies and go to the countryside to “alphabetize” illiterate peasants. It was not true that there was widespread illiteracy in Cuba. The so-called Alphabetization Campaign was clearly a scheme to begin a large-scale indoctrination in the Marxist ideology of the revolutionary leaders.
One day, after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in April of 1961, I arrived at school to find “milicianos” at the door frisking people. I had a large black crayon in my handbag with which I intended to write on the walls protesting the new government decrees. Lucky for me that they did not find it. Inside the school I found a nightmare.
All students were assembling in the central courtyard. The militiamen had arrested several young men who were manacled and lined up on a raised platform. When the doors were bolted shut frenzied speakers began to accuse the boys of being traitors to our country. Many in the crowd began to chant the word “PAREDON” (execution) over and over. I was stunned to see people mindlessly demanding execution for our own fellow students. When later I asked some classmates how they could participate in such savagery, they called me a gusana (worm) and said: "If you don't like it, leave."
My parents were horrified when they heard what had happened.
Then we heard that two of my cousins, 17 and 18, had been apprehended in Cienfuegos for “counterrevolutionary” activities. (They were to spend 18 and 20 years respectively as prisoners of conscience in Castro’s jails.) Two of the manacled boys from that day in my school were executed. One had been the fiancé of a girl I knew. Not too long before they had been joyfully planning their wedding after graduation.
My brother’s Catholic school, run by the Marist Brothers, was also intervened and our parents decided that neither of us would return to school. Instead, we went to visit relatives and to the beach a lot, but it wasn’t all fun. We lived evading the vigilance of the CDR representative (Comités de Defensa de la Revolución) in our building while Papi kept looking for ways to leave Cuba.
My parents heard about the visa waivers for minors to travel to the US and were told to contact the priests at my brother’s school, who were not allowed to teach but were still confined in their quarters. Papi called the residence and asked to speak with one of his former teachers. Someone answered claiming to be Brother X--- and told my father to come to Villa Marista at 7:00 PM –and to bring the family.
We arrived and found the iron gate locked, not a soul in sight. Mami said to Papi, “Esto me da muy mala espina. Vámonos de aquí.” (This looks fishy to me. Let’s get out of here.) He rang the bell anyway. A buzzer disengaged the electrified lock and we went in. As we reached the building our next surprise was to see a “miliciano” open the door. There was no turning back. He ushered us into a small room and we stood there until a small hunchbacked man arrived wearing a crisp miliciano uniform and a black beret on his large head. I never forgot his eyes and the way he looked at us -something cruel and sinister emanated from that strange man.
He greeted us with sarcastic cordiality, inviting us to sit. My father, full of Cuban bravado, demanded to know where Brother X--- was.
“What do you want with Brother X---?” asked the miliciano.
“He’s my former teacher and we came to visit him,” said Papi.
Sinister Eyes laughed. “Could it be that you are here to see about certain visas to leave the country?”
Papi repeated his former statement and there ensued a tense philosophical discussion between him and the miliciano. Mami kept trying to signal Papi to shut his mouth. I was sending him telepathic messages to please stop arguing with that awful man. We were all sweating in fear of what would happen next when Papi began telling one of his corny jokes!
None of us ever remembered how long we were in that room or how we were let go. I think the joke must have worked, in spite of Mami’s exasperation with Papi’s sense of humor. Once outside we all became aware of the bilious taste of fear in our throats. We learned later that Villa Marista became a place of detention and torture for opponents of Fidel’s revolution.
My parents eventually managed to get a visa waiver for my brother and on April 24, 1962, 11 year-old Conrad (a.k.a. Rafe) was on a Pan Am flight to the United States. Our sweet grandmother cried so much that her eyes bled. During the next weeks we all cried as we wondered how Rafe was. I knew how they would feel when I too was gone and I wanted to stay until we could all leave together, but they persuaded me that my brother needed me more.
My own visa waiver arrived and I said good bye to relatives and friends while I waited for the “telegram” notifying me of my departure. I “celebrated” my 17th birthday and two weeks later, on August 4th, 1962, I boarded a Pan Am plane, destination Miami.
Before leaving for the airport at 5 am, my grandmother gave me a bowl of her super nutritious and delicious chicken broth –Para que te dé fortaleza para el viaje. (To fortify you for the journey.) I could barely swallow, but I drank it gratefully. The love my “Bella” put in it has been giving me strength ever since.
The scene at the airport was like a bizarre dream: Everywhere there were people crying, heartbroken, confused, desperate, anxious and terrified...
Right before entering the "pecera" enclosure, I was approached by a pretty young woman holding the hand of a small boy. He was elegantly dressed in suit and tie and looked very frightened. She told me he was her brother and traveling alone, headed for Florida City, and asked if I would I please look after him. She was relieved to hear I was heading for Florida City too, that my own brother was waiting for me there. Juanito became my other little brother that day.
A tumult of emotions drummed in my chest as that plane rose from Cuban soil at noon of that clear day. I stared back at my brightly colorful island until it disappeared from my sight, then I looked down and saw the ocean changing from a deep blue to an unfamiliar light turquoise where the Florida Keys materialized. Over southern Florida I marveled at how many vehicles on the roads were tugging boats. The straight patterns of many canals and their dark water looked gloomily unnatural to me. I perceived a contrast between the vividly green vegetation of Cuba and the darker shades of the foliage below.
In the plane someone yelled “¡A comer jamón!” and people cheered. I couldn’t comprehend how, having just left family and a troubled country behind, people would cheer about eating ham! Many of us were crying quietly.
At the terminal someone from Catholic Services greeted Juanito and me. I remember using English for the first time in a real life situation. We had to wait for the second plane of the day in case more children came, so I stepped out to the waiting area and saw two friends from church. We fell into each other’s arms and sobbed inconsolably.
I think that only Juanito and I were in the van heading for Florida City. The ride on the freeway was exhilarating with its overpass bridges and its speeding cars, but I was missing Cuba’s beauty already.
My arrival at Florida City camp is another scene that replays clearly in my mind:
My brother is perched on the chain link fence and some kids run to open the gate. The van rides in and keeps going for about half a block while Conrad runs alongside, his little face radiant with excitement, yelling “¡Llegó mi hermana! - My sister’s here!” The van stops. I bolt out and we hug each other for a long time, sobbing and grinning.
Remembering that moment still tightens my throat.
Four Sisters of St Phillip Neri welcomed us. They were our guardian angels during our stay in the camp. My first houseparents were Mamí and Papí Espinosa. Three months later Gloria Nodarse and Joaquín Rodriguez-Haded took their place. I am deeply grateful for all of them.
The Russian missile crisis happened two months after my arrival. I remember standing with other children by that chain link fence watching trucks rolling nearby loaded with huge missiles while military planes from the Homestead Air Force Base zoomed above. We were very anxious, sensing that the destruction of Cuba was imminent -and our loved ones were still there! The worst did not happen, but now our families were trapped in the island and we were trapped in Camp Limbo.
No one was prepared for this turn of events, but soon enough life in the camp took on a certain normality. Communication with Cuba was complicated, but it continued. In January we high-school age girls commuted by bus daily to Immaculata Academy in Miami, everyone went to school somewhere.
We studied hard. We all needed distractions from our peculiar predicament, so we also sang, danced, played, and we hiked to a pathetic park to socialize with hordes of bugs and snakes. We were driven occasionally to “El Charquito” –an undefined body of water. We became family with one another.
We wrote letters and waited anxiously for letters from home. We prayed much.
Some kids eventually went to the homes of relatives or friends. Juanito was one of these. He vanished from my life as suddenly as he had entered it –I don't know how he fared.
Many more of us were sent to various destinations all over the US. Each ADIOS was soon followed by another, every one as heart-breaking as the goodbyes in Cuba. We had more letters to write and read, more sorrow, more tempering for our character.
In September of 1963 Conrad and I were part of a group going to foster homes in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He and I stayed at the home of a nice Hispanic family, the Luceros. I loved New Mexico’s western charm, but I yearned for green vistas, abundant waters and for my family.
I graduated from Valley High School in June 1964. That same month our parents left Cuba for Mexico City. A month later they flew to Florida and I rode for three days in a Greyhound bus from Albuquerque to Gainesville, FL, where we were reunited on the day after my 19th birthday. Conrad arrived two months later. He was almost 14 years old and over a foot taller than when our parents had last seen him.
We settled in Gainesville thanks to the kindness of Jewel and Carl King, an American couple who, with their five children, had befriended Conrad and me while we were in Florida City. They had recently moved back to Gainesville, Mr. King’s hometown. They shared their modest home with the four of us for about three months, until our parents found jobs. Our gratitude to them is everlasting.
Three of my beloved grandparents died within four years after I left. My maternal abuelito was able to join us in April of 1969. He died 23 years later at home with my parents.
In 1969 I graduated from the University of Florida, became a US citizen, and married Tony, a Southern Gentleman and fellow Gator. A son and a daughter were born to us in St. Augustine, Florida. We have been in Columbia, South Carolina since 1977. We are now retired. Our children are very fine and interesting adults.
I was a teacher in private and public schools (English and Spanish). I taught English to adult immigrants in night school. (Helping immigrants and refugees has been a constant in my life.)
My parents lived in Gainesville until 2004 and then came to be with us. Death came in October 2007 for Papi at age 85 and for Mami two years later, one week after her 86th birthday. They always missed Cuba, but had a fulfilling life here and never regretted sending us out when they did. We are so grateful for having them all these years!
After high school, my brother moved to Boston, MA, where he still resides and runs his own business.
This is not the end of my story. My children and my husband want to see Cuba someday. Maybe... when the Castros and their wretched revolution have passed on to history I might go with them to look for what is still beautiful and good in the ill-fated island that continues to be my heart’s home.
Cuba me duele todavía.