A Valentine’s Day Like No Other

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Author’s note: This was first published 2/14/10. It is still my reality, that of millions of Cubans and others around the world who’ve suffered the same fate as I throughout our imperfect history.
Cuban refugees arriving in crowded boats durin...
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Forty one years ago today I became an exile.

I left Cuba on a day like today as a fourteen-year-old with my seventeen-year-old sister, traveling through Spain to get to the promised land: Southern California. This is where our cousins — the ones that sent for us — had settled. An American friend of theirs from church had donated the money to pay for my airfare. My cousins had paid for my sister’s.

In Spain we stayed with friends that were making the same trip but who were ahead of us by a couple of months. My parents were to join us later in Los Angeles, if everything worked out. It was not until years later that I was able to comprehend how big an if that had been.

All four of us — Mom, Dad, Sis and me — had applied, and had been waiting for, a U. S. visa since the early sixties. Right from the time that my parents realized that the Revolution was not going the way it had been promised. They saw the sharp turn left towards totalitarianism of those that were supposed to bring democracy back to Cuba. They joined the half of the family that wanted nothing to do with the Socialist agenda. As the exit papers dragged on, they began to worry that if I turned 15, the trip would never happen. Compulsory military service began at 15 and lasted until the age of 25. The possibility of another decade under Castro was unbearable for my parents. The specter of my serving in the communist military, unthinkable.

They were willing to send us ahead even if it meant that there was a possibility, even a remote one — as I’m sure they managed to convince themselves it was — that we could never see each other again. I heard it so often: better to be apart but with the opportunity for us children to live freely, that I began to believe in the reasonableness of it myself.

It was a sacrifice that many families in Cuba contemplated and accepted — and probably still do — as worthy of making. Many made it, but for some it didn’t work out. Another horrendous consequence of the imposition of paradise by a group on their country folk.

For us, it did. We were reunited within a year and lived for a while in Englewood, California, before traveling east to settle for good.

—-

Must Cubans believed that exile would be a shorter stay than it turned out to be. Some of us that have grown up here, who have married and raised children and who have also lost someone close to us since, have learned to live with the memories of a lifetime ago and the new ones we’ve created for ourselves each day here. Melancholy has given way to acceptance and from that appreciation and even optimism have sprung. Life has been good to us.

There’s no way to tell how long the trip will be or how many turns or ups and downs the road might have, but I am learning to keep my eyes open and I am enjoying the ride.

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