Port of Havana
July 4, 1961
We arrived at the Port of Havana sometime before 11 a.m. The ferry boat, the J.R. Parrot, was scheduled to leave at noon. This was the fourth of July, 1961. I had some awareness that this day was Independence Day in the United States. At the moment what mattered most to me was that it was going to be my personal independence day.
My parents and my brother Javier accompanied me to the ship. I think that they might have been allowed to go up the ship deck with me and take a look at the cabin. It was a small cabin, and it had a small number of beds, 8 or perhaps 10. The ferry had been built to transport train cars from Florida to Havana, and vice versa. I believe the ferry also transported automobiles. But now the ferry was being used to transport people out of Cuba. I don’t remember how many passengers were on the ferry that day, but certainly, there were many more than could fit in that cabin space.
One of the crew members told me that since there were so few beds, passengers would have to take turns during the night so that each one would have a chance to rest at least a few hours. Where I would sleep that night was of no concern to me at the time. I had been told that the trip would take 24 hours, since this ferry would arrive at the Port of Palm Beach. My biggest concern was to take a last look at the island as the ship sailed away from the bay of Havana. I rushed to get a good spot on the deck, by the ship’s railing. I waved good bye to my mother and father and to my brother Javier. Long after I could no longer see them, I continued to stare at the Morro Castle, my last view of Havana. The plan was for me to spend about one year in the United States where I could safely attend school and then return after the certain fall of the Castro regime. Nevertheless, I wished to have that image of the bay of Havana seared into my mind and into my heart.
I remember the blue ocean, the blue sky, and the sun. I remember eating dinner that 4th of July in a small dining room that had a long table. I remember eating several slices of white American bread with butter. Although food was not yet rationed in Cuba, the quality of most foods had increasingly deteriorated. So this first meal was a delicious treat. After the meal, I returned to the ship’s deck. I stood by the railing again, this time to watch the sunset at the sea. Twenty four hours at sea was indeed long. Some time after the sun had finally set and the sky and ocean had turned pitch black, my tiredness took the better of me. I relented and finally agreed to take a turn on one of the cabin’s bed and get some hours of rest.
Port of Palm Beach, Florida, United States of America
July 5, 1961
Breakfast was as delicious on the morning of July 5th as dinner had been the day before. I drank white milk for the first time and actually liked it. Cow’s milk in Cuba had never tasted good to me. My mom always prepared our morning “café con leche” with reconstituted condensed milk.
The J.R. Parrot arrived in Palm Beach at noon. Elena Dussaq, a young woman in her twenties, was engaged to my cousin Juan Antonio Muller, a political prisoner in Cuba, and resided in Palm Beach with her family. She came to meet me at the Port of Palm Beach. I hugged and kissed Elenita, as we called her. She bought me a Coca Cola from a vending machine. Coca Cola had always been available in Cuba, except during the last few months. What a treat that was! And it was the biggest Coca Cola bottle that I had seen in my life. I drank it all.
After a short visit at the Dussaq home, one of their relatives drove me in her car all the way to Miami. I think this kind lady’s name was Elena Montero. It was another long trip though I did not have a watch to keep track of the time. I had never seen such wide highways with so many lanes.
We arrived at the home of Graciela and Ectore Reynaldo in N.E. 82nd Street in Miami, close to dinner time. Graciela was my aunt Sarah’s niece. At the time, a total of 14 people lived in their three bedroom house. I think that the main course for dinner that evening was meat loaf. Whatever it was, I savored every bite.
After dinner Graciela and her sister Elena, and her two daughters Georgina and Gracielita invited me for a walk to the nearby shopping center. I agreed. I was completely astonished by the Walgreen’s and the dime store where we went that evening. It was still daylight.
It was on the way back from the shopping center that the significance of all the events of the past three days shook me up from inside. I was hit by a sudden jolt of acute homesickness. I made a Herculean effort to hold my tears. “I can’t go back this time,” I said to myself. It was not long roads that separated me from my parents and brothers. It was the vast ocean that separated me from them. I realized that I could not go back. No one was going to cut their vacation short to take me back. No one would do it because no one could.
I remember that moment as the time when I grew up. In one instant I ceased being Elena the child. I had left my parents and brothers behind. I became Elena, the no longer child. No one noticed.
We continued our walk until we reached Graciela’s house. There, one day after Independence Day, I spent my first night in the United States.
Elena currently resides in Boynton Beach, Florida