For those who fled Cuba, a struggle to understand
Alan Gomez, USA TODAY 12:36 p.m. EDT August 20, 2015
MIAMI – After returning over the weekend from Cuba, where I saw the
American flag fly atop the U.S. Embassy in Havana for the first time in
54 years, I handed my mother a little gift.
U.S. officials at the flag-raising ceremony gave out small pins with the
American and Cuban flags crossing in unison. A tiny trinket, but one I
thought she'd appreciate since she fled that communist country in 1965
and has never returned. My mother, neither quiet nor shy, looked down at
the pin in her palm for a few moments, closed her hand and walked away
without saying a word.
She wasn't angry or depressed. She wasn't exuberant, either. Instead,
her reaction embodied what I've seen as a conflicted response from the
older Cuban-American community in this country as it grapples with a
world that's changing so quickly around it.
"It felt weird," she said after I pressed her. "I love both of those
flags, but seeing that left me confused."
A majority of Cuban-Americans now feel that President Obama's decision
to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba is a positive step that
will help the Cuban people and more effectively end the communist grip
on the island. Poll after poll shows this change in that community, once
unified in the stance that choking off the Castro regime was the only
way to end their rule.
But amidst all the talk of Americans flocking to the island, seeking out
business deals, classic American cars, rum and cigars, it's been so easy
to forget the feelings of all those people who fled Cuba so long ago.
For them, their American experience was supposed to be brief. As they
rushed to the U.S. in the 1960s, they considered themselves exiles who
would get by in Miami, or other pockets of the country, for just a
little while until Fidel Castro was taken out and they could return home.
Stripped of their possessions and their titles back home, they worked
menial jobs like every other wave of immigrants in this country's
history. My grandfather, an engineer in Cuba, worked as a security guard
at a school bus depot. My grandmother, who had never worked a day in her
life in Cuba, worked in a hotel by the Miami airport. My father, 16 and
alone when he left Cuba, washed dishes in a Miami Beach hotel. And my
mother, who was on track to become a professional piano player in Cuba,
worked at a wig factory to save up enough money to buy a new piano in Miami.
That temporary arrangement slowly became permanent. Cubans settled into
the U.S. and started buying homes, sending their children to American
schools and becoming U.S. citizens. My parents met and got married. They
had kids. The kids started going to college and having kids of their own.
All the while, Castro endured. Months became years, years became
decades, and still, they remained in limbo, their hearts stuck somewhere
between America and Cuba. That lack of finality led so many of them to
adopt what Cuban-American poet Richard Blanco described as the
"emotional backbone" of the economic embargo on Cuba. It was easier for
them to focus their emotions on the Cuban government, he argued, than
completely close the door on their homeland and deal with the emotional
"It's easier to be angry than to cry," he told me in Havana last week as
he prepared to recite a poem at the flag-raising ceremony.
As time wore on, my family refused to go back. They weren't trying to
make a political point; they simply couldn't bring themselves to make
the trip. They didn't want to meet the people who were living in their
old homes. They didn't want to experience the economic ruin that had
descended on the vibrant memories of their youth.
So much time passed that they started dying. My grandfather died before
he could return to his home. Both my grandmothers died before they could
return. My father never made it back either.
That history helps explain why to them, seeing President Obama shaking
the hand of Cuban President Raúl Castro, of Secretary of State John
Kerry welcoming our new friends in Cuba, remains so difficult to digest.
Some have accepted the new strategy and hope it works out. Others have not.
For my mother, it's still too early in the process to decide. Part of
her is hopeful that the new opening will help everyday Cubans better
their lives. Part of her still can't stomach the idea of doing business
with the same Cuban government that took so much from her.
But now, as she approaches the 50-year anniversary of her one-way flight
from Havana to Miami, at least one thing is becoming clearer. I asked
her if all the changes would lead her to reconsider and finally make the
trip back home.
She replied: "I think I'm ready."
Gomez is a Miami-based correspondent for USA TODAY.
Source: Voices: Coming to terms with the new U.S.-Cuba relationship -