Fidel is dead …
It comes as no surprise that Cubans in many places are celebrating the death of a dictator who’s abuses towards his own people and the world, are not forgotten.
I have a specific experience of the Cuban people, having grown up in Miami in the 1970’s. I was just a small boy in elementary school, when the Mariel Boat lifts began. Hundreds of thousands of people, in my lifetime, made the treacherous journey across the Florida straits, to land on the shores of Florida, attempting to escape Fidel’s grip.
Generations, three generations, in fact, and their children today, in Florida have been waiting for this day to come to pass. You cannot imagine, well, maybe you can, thousands of Cubans on rafts, in boats, and on anything that would float, on the water, trying to flee communism into freedom.
Today, we have seen Syrian and other refugees fleeing conflict regions trying to find safety and peace. Those numbers are much higher. But back in the days, the 1970’s through the 2000’s, the numbers of people fleeing the Communist Island were comparable.
It came to pass, during those days, as Cubans were coming to Miami, specifically, that Miami went through a serious accommodation phase. I did not know the specifics of what was going on, suffice to say, we all watched, daily, people coming to our shores.
It went that when we moved to South Miami, and I began second grade, certain changes came to our educational curriculum. Families had a choice to make. Their kids could stay in English studies, and not begin accommodations, OR kids could join in cultural education and learn Spanish as a second language and adopt the cultural shift.
My brother stayed in the English system. I did not.
Over the rest of my life, Spanish was an integral part of my education. I know that it took more than a decade to totally immerse in the language. And Spanish education remained throughout my college and Seminary years.
Every day we studied our English subjects, and we had Spanish lessons, in a separate portable classroom. As I grew up, and moved from elementary school, into Junior High, Spanish was becoming a requirement. By educational standards, every student HAD to have Spanish as a second language, it was a required element in your studies.
By the time I reached High School, every student had to have Spanish in order to Graduate from High School, and to further get a job in the city. Miami became a melting pot of Cuban, Caribbean, and other Spanish nations. The Cuban culture and its people brought to us a way of life.
A way of life that I loved and adored.
While Cuban’s were fleeing Communism, they had found life and freedom in Miami, but it was NOT an easy life. Citizenship was something refugees wanted the most. And the United States did not make that effort very easy.
But we all did what we could to guarantee the people who came to us, had everything that they might need, to the best of our abilities. My father was a WHITE Card Carrying American, who could not be bothered to be kind and/or accommodating.
I disagreed with him every step of the way.
Over the years, Little Havana was built in Miami proper. A very fertile and prosperous community came to life. And I have to tell you that Miami, as a cultural hub, was the best place to grow up.
I lived in two places at the same time. Spanish IS my second language, even now that I live in Montreal. When I moved here, I found that Spanish was spoken in many places here and my ears were attuned to the language. Over the past decade and some, my French is getting better.
The difference of living in Miami and being immersed in Spanish was different for me, moving to Montreal and living in a French province. When you are not immersed, (read: using French all the time, all day long) immersion is a slow process.
Growing up in Miami, being immersed in the second language, every day, in school, in the community, at work, and in life, you learned much harder and it was much easier.
When I reached Seminary studies I was attending church in Spanish. And let me tell you, that was one of the brightest times in my life. If you were going to be employed in Miami, you must have had Spanish as a second language. Every other day was the second language. Every day we studied Spanish, and we had chapel, readings and mass in Spanish.
Many years later, when I got sick, and returned to Miami for treatment, it came to pass that the community I walked back into was entirely Spanish. For years and years, the people who cared for me, helped me survive and treat me, were all Spanish.
It was the best healthcare system I had ever seen, at that time.
For all my years, growing up in Miami, I learned what it meant to be Cuban. I learned what it meant to be proud of who you were. I would not be the man I am today without all of that cultural experience under my belt. Growing up in a cultural melting pot was absolutely a positive experience for me.
The Cuban people were connected to their homeland and the relatives they left behind on the island. The movement of monies back and forth were problematic. And travel to the Cuban Island was forbidden.
I knew how to get Americans to Cuba, outside the rules.
I was a travel agent in high school and college. And we used to have hand written airline tickets, before automation came on line. I had several travelers come to me to ask me to get them to the island. One could not travel from Miami to Cuba, directly. You had to make the trip Indirectly.
With hand written tickets, that was very easy. In order to get to Cuba, you had to use a second port of entry. Which meant, you could fly from Miami to somewhere else, local, on one ticket. Then fly from point B to Cuba on a second ticket, just as long as Cuba and the United States were not ticketed together. The same way on the return trip.
Problem solved …
There was a Cuban travel agency that was located right near our office, where I used to translate and process Cuban documentation to get Cubans to the island I did that work gladly until their office was fire bombed and destroyed.
Where there was a need, we went out of our ways, to find a solution, even if it flouted the legal system. I guess there was a thrill in being subversive.
The United States has not made it easy for Cuban’s who still come to the U.S. today. All with the Wet Foot / Dry Foot policy, which stated that if you made it to Florida and landed on solid ground without being caught, you could stay, and usually they would end up in a refugee camp, before they were processed into Miami. In the other case, if you got caught at sea, on the way, you would be sent back and repatriated back to Cuba.
That ninety mile stretch of ocean is treacherous, especially during hurricane season.
The Cuban people have been waiting for this day to come. And we are all glad for it.
With tensions between the U.S. and Cuba thawing, we hope that President Elect Trump does the right thing where the Cuban people and the island are concerned.
We cannot move backwards, we have worked too hard to be dialed back.
VIVA CUBA LIBRE !!!