In 1962 I left my once very well to do Cuban family and came to America seeking refuge. I came here with a couple of changes of clothing and a book called Imitation of Christ by Thomas A. Kempis, a gift from my grandmother. “Keep your eyes on Him. He who sought refuge in Egypt as a helpless child.”
I have no memory of my first four days in exile. I came down the airplane steps into oblivion. A new birth canal courtesy of KLM airlines. Try as I might all I can glimpse are benches, the sound of children playing, and a chain link fence. Homestead. One of the camps set up in Miami to receive the Cuban children.
Unlike many other children I didn’t stay in Homestead long. I went to stay with a Cuban family as their foster child in a one bedroom apartment in what later became Little Havana. Five of us lived there. Our maids’ quarters in Havana were roomier. The Refugee Center helped us with food like peanut butter and powdered milk. After the Russian spam I’d become used to in Havana, peanut butter milkshakes tasted like ambrosia.
My mind was filled with new pictures of abundance. The grocery store was like an enchanted forest. So many different brands of everything! My first purchase was a pack of gum. I kept two pieces for myself and mailed the rest back home. Time to pay it forward. And I bought my first Hershey Bar in years. Life was full of firsts: first McDonald’s, first retail store, first trip to Miami Beach, first day in school in my new country. Some things seemed strange to me, like people stopping at a stop sign when nobody was watching, how softly people spoke and how little they touched one another. The simplicity of the churches and the carefree attitude of people.
Two of my friends from Cuba found out I had arrived and came to visit. Olga Mari and Rosa María were girls I loved. We had shared many good times at the country club when we were becoming young women and together we had learned to flirt and dance with boys. I was excited to see familiar faces until I noticed their new car and their beautiful clothes so out of place in my new neighborhood. After we kissed hello they became distant, sticking to each other like glue. At first sight we had understood our differences and all three of us self consciously talked for a short time right by their car. They never set foot in the little apartment, and we never made plans to see each other again. I learned that refugees were less than, even in the eyes of their own people. Despite my insecurities I shrugged off the experience. In the end all that mattered was my freedom.
Recently I experienced a sweet reunion with a friend after a fifty year absence. I rode the train from Portland to Seattle and took a cab to the hotel where we would meet. My cab driver was a beautiful young man, a refugee from Nigeria. Despite the fact that I had waited fifty years to see my friend, I took some time to talk to him about his country, about his dreams for himself, his hopes, his impressions of his new country. I find I like to see how we look to the new immigrants. Their lens captures nuances that I now miss.
I learned he wanted to be a writer but couldn’t write in English yet, so he was recording his impressions in his native language and attending a junior college at night to learn to read and write in English. He showed me his tattered notebook full of writing I could not understand. He was grateful, thirsty for knowledge, and yearning for acceptance. He thanked me profusely for my time. He told me his father was an important man at home and he felt people here didn’t see anything but a “lowly cab driver”. But he said he didn’t care. He made a sweeping gesture with his hand and said: “But I am free! Nothing else is so important!”
I still have my Imitation of Christ. It is a precious gift from my grandmother. But her greatest gift, her best, was supporting my parents in their decision to send me here. Freedom. Nothing else is so important!