Fabiola Santiago

For this Cuban refugee, loving the USA began with news of Apollo 11’s moon landing

Celebrating Apollo 11’s 50th anniversary

Fifty years ago, Neil Armstrong made history books with his words: “That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
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Fifty years ago, Neil Armstrong made history books with his words: “That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

As I drive through miles of quiet Florida wilderness on a recent Sunday morning to reach NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, the only thing on my mind is beating the tourist rush to this geek-out fest of rockets, shuttles and space heroes.

I’m not thinking of Apollo 11 — and the moon landing 50 years ago.

I’m not thinking of my own life-changing flight in 1969.

I’m beginning a grand tour of Florida with my 10-year-old grandson, Devereaux, and all I have in mind is his education and making new memories. Planets, stars, the moon — travel and exploration — have been a running theme between my first-born grandchild and me since I gave him his first telescope at age 5.

“The sky calls to us,” Carl Sagan wrote.

I didn’t know just how profoundly so.

The writer’s words greet us at the entrance to the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibition. At a cost of $100 million, it’s the most affecting experience in the visitor complex. We start our tour here and work backward against the tourist flow.

A tour group is led past the International Space Station mural at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. NASA says the complex is fully funded by visitor dollars only. Fabiola Santiago Fabiola Santiago

Clever, I think, but I’m not prepared for the full-on emotional impact of the dramatic reveal of Atlantis, the mammoth shuttle that has been to space and back 33 times. This isn’t a replica but the real thing, displayed in all of its grandeur horizontally, the orbiter’s cargo door wide open for all to see what it’s like inside.

On any ordinary day, Kennedy Space Center staff will tell you, people shed tears here when they come upon this close-up view of the historical icon of space flight.

For me, emotions run deeper than awe.

No, I’m not prepared for the feast of memories the experience of visiting the Kennedy Space Center when the country is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s moon landing will pry out of me.

The overpowering sight of Atlantis evokes emotion, but it’s Apollo that set my imagination on fire when I was the same age as my grandson and my life was about to change forever.

As Dev runs from one interactive flight simulator to another, I find myself telling a stranger all choked up: “When I was a little girl…”

It is as if I had been waiting all my life to tell this story.

Summer of ‘69

In the summer of 1969, all my family talked about — behind closed doors — was our impending departure to Miami on a Freedom Flight, los vuelos de la libertad.

We had waited four years for a brother-to-brother family reunification visa and permission to leave Cuba to materialize. My father was paying the price of choosing exile instead of compliance with the Communist regime with forced labor. He worked from dawn to dusk for no pay in agricultural fields far from family. Often at night, I heard my mother crying.

I didn’t want to leave Cuba, nor my friends, my cousins, my aunts and uncles, and my dear abuela. I kept mostly a brave face on the outside, but I was a sad, frightened girl on the inside — until two things happened: My mother promised that she would buy me a pair of white knee-high go-go boots in the United States. And then came the news that the Americans landed on the moon.

Walked on the moon.

Planted an American flag on the moon!

Despite the blackout on Cuban television and radio, all of Cuba was glued to Voice of America on short-wave radio following the landing — and, for a while, the conversation changed in my family.

What I remember most vividly is my grandmother Ramona telling me that traveling to the moon was impossible. The landing wasn’t true. The crafty Americans had filmed it all in Hollywood!

But my teacher-mother assured me it had happened.

And I did know something about space. I had a German Shepherd named Laica after the first dog in space — the Russian Laika, sent to orbit the earth on Sputnik-2 in 1957 to study the effects of space flight on living creatures. It was a cruel death sentence for Laika, who died when the spacecraft overheated, but I didn’t know this then.

With the Americans walking on the moon, my imagination had been unleashed.

Living in a country capable of reaching the heavens filled my child’s mind with possibility. I started warming up to the idea of coming to the United States, and I opened my heart to this country without yet seeing it.

For this would-be Cuban refugee, loving the USA began with news of Apollo 11’s moon landing. It couldn’t be so bad to live in the place, La Florida, from where the lunar mission was launched, could it?

This is a double anniversary for me.

The Americans landed on the moon on July 20.

I left Cuba on a Pan American World Airways flight out of Varadero Airport on October 7 — my first flight, my first window seat, my first encounter with Sagan’s sky.

Cuban refugees onboard the first Freedom Flight arrive at Miami International Airport on Dec. 1, 1965, to a sea of relatives and reporters awaiting the historic flight. The Historical Museum of Southern Florida

We didn’t get to see the moon landing in Cuba, a Soviet satellite by then. The Cold War was on. Censorship ruled the day.

“I followed the landing on the Voice of America on a shortwave radio hiding in a closet all night,” a journalist friend who was then in his 30s tells me. “It appeared the next day as a two-line item of a news roundup on the last page of Granma. The font was so small that you almost had to use a magnifying glass to read it.”

The images I remember — and treasure — of seeing the landing on black-and-white television must belong to early exile news replays.

Later in life, on a visit to Washington, D.C., with my husband, parents, and children, I would see the Apollo 11 command module “Columbia” — the living quarters for astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins — on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

From left, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin A. Aldrin pose for a 1969 Apollo II crew portrait. NASA AP

The module was the only part of the spacecraft to return to Earth.

The other two — the Service Module, which contained the propulsion system and consumables, and the Lunar Module, nicknamed “Eagle,” used by Armstrong and Aldrin to descend to the moon surface and return to the spacecraft — were left to crash into the moon or burn in space.

But we will remember forever Armstrong’s words to NASA’s Mission Control in Houston: “The Eagle has landed.”

And the image of his footprint on the moon and his pronouncement: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Stirring memories

My grandson, who is as giddy as I am, thanks me for bringing him here every time we leave a new exhibit: Journey to Mars. Heroes & Legends. It’s sweet — and it gets me out of my head. I need to stay in the present to explain the poignant Challenger memorial and the tribute as well to other astronaut casualties the nation seldom remembers.

But shortly after our KSC visit, we’re strolling through the Frost Museum of Science in Miami when we run into an off-shoot of the same NASA anniversary exhibit “Apollo 50: Next Giant Leap.”

Unlike the experience at the vast KSC grounds on Merritt Island — where a bus tour takes us to the Apollo/Saturn V Center to learn so much more about all the Apollo missions — this remembrance is compact.

But it hits all the right notes for me — particularly a display of 19th- and 20th-century literary works chronicling the fascination with the moon that includes the title “The Girl in the Moon” by Thea Von Harbou, first published in 1928.

What I would’ve given to have read this when I was a girl!

The message is clear: Imagination triggers innovation. Science and the resolve of the human spirit sent Apollo on the moon, but popular culture — books, movies, toys! — imagined it long before it was reality.

Can we land farther out in space again?

No doubt.

While I’m fixated on the moon, my grandson is all about Mars — and the discovery of other planets.

Once again, I’m taking too many photos of Apollo memorabilia and reading texts as if I were trying to make mine something precious but still elusive.

A woman as enthralled as I am with lunar trivia puts me on the right track to what I’ve been seeking all this time — meaning — when she tells her companion: “My parents never got tired of telling me how they could never forget the day I took my first step. It was the day Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. One giant leap for mankind — and for me!”

And, for me and my family, too, I wanted to tell her.

For us, 1969 is the demarcation point of our lives, the before and after of the giant leap into an exile that everyone thought temporary but would become a permanent state of being, a second skin, a second home — and with time, the only skin, the only home.

The Americans’ walk on the moon represented infinite possibility, strength that comes from seeking knowledge, persistent hard work — and an abundance of hope.

For immigrants like me, these attributes were — and still are today — the essence of the America we love.

Sometimes these days, it can be hard to find her.

But Apollo 11 has brought her back to me in a moment of universal kinship.

As for the white go-go boots, it took years, but mami finally came through.

Award-winning columnist Fabiola Santiago has been writing about all things Miami since 1980, when the Mariel boatlift became her first front-page story. A Cuban refugee child of the Freedom Flights, she’s also the author of essays, short fiction, and the novel “Reclaiming Paris.”