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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Fabiola M Hernandez Castro
Fabiola M's Story
I was born in Cardenas where I went to Las Escolapias. In 1961, all private schools were closed by the communist. To continue in the public school system, I was supposed to be indoctrinated by the communist and sent to the farmlands on government missions with the Conrado Benitez Brigades. I have two younger sisters and a younger brother. However, my parents decided to send me away, by myself, on April 4, 1962. I was terrified, but relatives (aunts & cousins) I had in Miami & West Palm Beach were supposed to pick me up at the Miami Airport. The agreement was that I was to stay with them until my family came. What a surprise! The relatives NEVER showed up at the airport. George Guarch (El Abuelo) drove me to Florida City where I stayed with the Rodriguez-Walling family. Mr. Guarch and the Rodriguez-Walling were extremely nice to me, like family, but not quite the same. I missed my parents since this was the first time in my life that I slept away from them. In June 1962, I was sent with another 15 girls to a reformatory, Our Lady of Victory, San Antonio, TX. I called my family and all I was told was that San Antonio was a nice place to be and that I should visit The Alamo. It was HORRIBLE at the reformatory. Two months later Father Ramon O'Farrill, who was at that time assigned to a church in San Antonio, took us out of that place. Father O'Farrill had been forced to leave Cuba aboard the ship Covadonga along with most of the priests in Cuba. I went to a foster home for about two months. It wasn't nice at the foster home either, so I was sent to the Incarnate Word College (IWC), a Catholic school, where I lived like a queen with Pedro Pans Maria Elena Alvarez, Avelina Marrero Fiandor, and Andrea Araño Marti. We went through the Cuban Missile Crisis at IWC. I was then sure I'd never see my family again. Good things very seldom last long. When the school year was over and since I was getting close to 19 years old, I was sent to Villa Maria where I lived for a few months with a large group of Pedro Pan sisters. I returned to Miami in 1964. My parents came in the Freedom Flights almost four years later, December 24,1965. It was the greatest Christmas of them all. By then I was married and living with my husband in Miami. It should be noted that during the almost two years I was in San Antonio, I only received one very short note from my Miami/WPB relatives. In spite of all the loneliness, tears, prayers and hardships, I am glad my parents sent me away in the Pedro Pan program. Could anyone imagine what it would have been like staying in Cuba all these years?