Miami’s Freedom Tower: ‘We passed through there …’

Elio and Oilda Denis during their early years together. Circa late 1950s, early 1960s.
Elio and Oilda Denis during their early years together. Circa late 1950s, early 1960s. Courtesy of Richard Denis

It wasn’t until six years after my father died that I found his Cuban passport tucked neatly into my mother’s, as if he had prepared a time capsule that would emerge at just the right time.

His photo jumped at me: For the first time, I noticed that his jet black hair, dark bushy eyebrows, aquiline nose and pencil-thin mustache made him appear as if he’d stepped out of a mid-20th-century swashbuckler epic.

I was born in the United States, the child of these Cuban parents who had to leave everything behind. A current exhibition at the Miami Dade College Museum of Art + Design, The Exile Experience: A Journey to Freedom, a salute to Miami’s Cuban-exile community. It’s about hundreds of thousands of Cubans, including my parents, Elio and Oilda Denis, who have both passed away.

I have loaned their Cuban passports to be displayed at the Freedom Tower in honor of the sacrifice they made more than 50 years ago. The story of how they left Cuba is one I and my older sister, Sonia, heard many times.

The day was Nov. 30, 1961. My father told us he woke up in an apartment in his neighborhood of El Cerro in Havana and later found himself outside inconceivably banging his head against the apartment structure’s wall. He did not want to leave.

My father’s love for Cuba was like that of a child for a dysfunctional parent who, in spite of his flaws, loves his child deeply and does the best he can. My father loved Cuba, in spite of its tortured history, and yet knew he had to get out.

My mother, whose passport photo conveyed a seriousness that belied her innate and unwavering sense of optimism, woke up that same day in 1961, eight months pregnant. Her blood pressure was soaring. She had woken with a premonition that if she and my father did not manage to leave that day, life in Cuba would be dangerous for them.

Decades later, I found a well-preserved photo of a Pan American aircraft and passengers disembarking inside her passport. In the middle of the picture was the small but visible figure of a very pregnant woman. That was my mother with my older sister.

My parents were certainly not prepared for the mobs of screaming crowds that greeted and hounded them at the airport in Havana with the catcalls of “Gusanos fuera!” (Get out, worms!) and “Patria o muerte,” (My county or death) That’s the treatment fellow Cubans who still believed in the promise of Fidel Castro’s revolution gave those who were leaving.

My parents waited in line to enter La Pecera, the fishbowl-like enclosure at the airport where they would have to clear whatever meager belongings were allowed in each person’s one suitcase, then board their flight to Miami. My mother bristled when she felt something hit her belly and noticed a glob of saliva oozing down her navy blue blouse. One look at the bespectacled teenage girl and the rage in her eyes convinced my terrified mother that this had been the person who had spat on her.

My parents had secured their flight just in time. Another week, and another set of circumstances could have arisen to complicate, and even delay or cancel their planned exit. For one thing, my sister was due in a couple of weeks at most, and with the traumatic experiences being endured on an almost daily basis, could arrive even sooner. A premature birth would indefinitely postpone my mother’s exile. A whole new set of exit papers and then a passport would have to be acquired — things not easily given in a climate where the “revolution” was in no rush to help out those so desperate to abandon it.

And so it was with a heart-wrenching gasp that my mother responded to the Revolutionary militiaman who informed her that she did not possess the correct clearance papers to leave Cuba. Even though my father was cleared, at that horrible moment in any couple’s life, he said he would not abandon my mother and vowed that they would get the correct papers soon and would leave together. He wasn’t going anywhere without his wife, he said.

The guard kept asking my father if he was going or staying. My father refused, instead he turned to my mother, picked up her suitcase and turned to leave the airport. And then the baby kicked, and that’s when my mother felt ready.

“You … go!” she yelled to my father. Guards watched as my mother pushed my father. ”You’re the one who has to go!”

She pressed her hands against my father’s white cotton shirt and with the might of a woman determined, shoved him past the thick glass door and into the confines of La Pecera. The guard swung into action, grabbed my mother’s suitcase from my father’s hand and shut the door.

And there they were: my father was on the inside of La Pecera and my mother on the outside.

He tried to tell her that he loved her and that there was no way he was leaving her to have his child on her own. But she heard none of his words.

La Pecera served its purpose for the Revolution that day, and my mother could not make out my desperate father’s words through the glass. She just stared at him. There was no telling when she could join him if he left, and even though my father’s eyes pleaded with her, my mother turned her back to face uncertainty and left his tears to roll their way down the thick, clear glass.

My mother was fortunate enough to join my father in Miami 17 days later, arriving on a Pan American flight after having somehow come up with the “correct paperwork” to leave Cuba. The photo of her getting off the plane in Miami was taken by my father, from the waiting area.

The stressful experience had sent my mother’s blood pressure skyrocketing.

Just days later, she went into premature labor. My older sister was born, a full-fledged American citizen.

Like many other exiles, my parents’ visits to the Freedom Tower during those early days left an indelible imprint on their psyche.

I remember the wistfulness in their eyes as sometimes we would drive into downtown Miami and pass the tower would come into view.

Nosotros pasamos por ahi. We passed through there …” my mother would say, as my father nodded.

And they would pause together and stare at the tower. No matter how far away it was from our car, I knew that whatever it was that they were imagining seemed immediate and close to their hearts.

Richard Denis is working on a Master of Arts in Latin American Studies at the University of Florida. He lives in Gainesville.

▪ Click here to read a review of the The Exile Experience: A Journey to Freedom.

To read a review of MDC Museum of Modern Art + Design’s The Exile Experience: A Journey to Freedom exhibition, turn to Page 1M in Sunday’s Miami Herald Tropical Life section.