Coming from a family of Cuban immigrants, I’ve grown up hearing countless stories from my family members escaping Cuba during Fidel Castro’s dictatorship—usually from my dad, but from others as well. I reached out to my aunt—my dad’s younger sister named Lourdes Oti—who was a baby when she left the country with my dad, José, and her other older brother, Carlos. Before asking her about it, I had never actually heard her version of the story. Because she was too young to remember leaving Cuba and coming to the United States, the following is her version of the story, which she has interpreted and accumulated from other older family members telling the story from their perspectives.
“When we left Cuba, we did it in stages. The communist system was already settling into the general public, and it had built in informants in the neighborhoods and even within families. You had to be very careful who you shared your plans with. You never knew who was a communist.
Part of not letting people know was staging your exit from the island, so it would seem that entire families were not leaving. As the revolution advanced, the government was clamping down on professionals leaving the country. They did not want any doctors, lawyers, dentists leaving the island—professionals would be needed under the new regime. Especially because Dad was one of the top surgeons on the island, we would have to be careful that everything appeared normal, as if we were staying.
Many families sent their children out of the country with a Catholic organization program called Pedro Pan (Peter Pan). It was an option for people to ensure that their children could at least live in the United States, in a free country. Parents would have to put their children on a plane, where they would be met at the airport by priests who would take them to a church, where they would be claimed by family members already living in Miami. Jose and Carlos [my dad and uncle, her two brothers] had their visas for travel, and were enrolled in this program. Abuela, Abuelo [her parents] and I were left behind in Cuba. The next step was to apply for visas for Abuela and myself. I was a newborn, so there would be no Peter Pan program for me. Abuelo knew someone in the government, and they processed the visas for only Abuela and I. My brothers left, and as you can imagine, it was traumatic for everyone to be separated. A week before Abuela and I were scheduled to leave, Abuelo applied for a Visa, stating that he needed to travel to Jamaica because of family emergency. He left, leaving Abuela and I behind. Now the family was good and scattered.
It’s important to mention that when you left, you left only with the clothes on your back and a box of Cuban cigars you could sell at the airport. They didn’t want you leaving with American money or jewelry you could sell. They really wanted to make sure you couldn’t afford to stay in another country, that you would return with no money. Abuela, who was a master seamstress, made a dress hiding all sorts of valuables in it. In the large covered buttons, which were fashionable at the time, she hid folded $100 bills. In the hem of her dress, there was more money, across the yoke of the dress, a string of pearls that were a family heirloom. She removed the soles from her platform heels, scooping out the thick sole, and hiding her wedding ring and some other jewelry. The day of our exit, I was running a fever, but there was no changing flights or days. An uncle drove us to the airport. Mom went inside to sort out all of the paperwork, leaving me with my uncle. While she was there, the military started pushing people back from the airport, saying only those with visas had a right to be in the airport. My mother would lose track of me and my uncle. When she came out to collect me, my uncle was not where she had left him. Mom broke down and started crying, one thing led to another, she said her baby was missing and some militants looked for me. When they found me, they wanted to arrest my uncle for kidnapping. Once that was sorted, we got on the flight and arrived in Miami to reunite the family and start a new adventure, in a new country, with a new language.”