"The experience of being an exile marks you forever - it is part of
who you are, no matter where you go and what you do...."

 

The Exile Identity is a narrative piece developed in the spring of 2015. It is the story of the Cuban exiles who came to the United States as refugees on the Freedom Flights and Peter Pan programs in the 1960’s and 1970’s through the lens of one family: my mother, her sister, and their parents.

The narrative transitions as it tells two stories: the story of my mother and her family who were able to escape Castro’s regime and live prosperous lives in the United States, albeit as exiles, and the story of their extended family who did not leave Cuba and continue to live under Castro’s regime. The piece examines the differences between an exile and an immigrant to consider
how an identity as a Cuban-American can manifest.

 

There is always a point in a life in which a person can mark a certain point in time as the “thing” that changed everything. This arbitrary “thing” varies: it may be marriage or meeting “the one,” getting the job, the death of a close family member. For an exile, that critical shift is always when they left their home to come to a new place. The experience of being an exile marks you forever. It is part of who you are, no matter where you go and what you do.

My mother, Carmen Caridad Aguilar, and her family came to the United States from her home of Bayamo, Cuba when she was nine years old. My grandparents, Miguel and Carmen Aguilar, were lucky enough to get tickets to the United States through the Freedom Flights program lottery, or Los vuelos de la libertad. The Freedom Flights program was run by the United States government from 1965 to 1973, bringing over 300,000 Cuban refugees to new homes in the United States. In order to get on the plane, however, each person had to turn over everything that they owned to the Cuban government. My family, like many others, was allowed to bring only one suitcase each.

Eva Hoffman once swore: “Nostalgia is a source of
poetry and a form of fidelity.”

In order to understand the Cuban-American identity, it is important to understand that Cuban-Americans see themselves as exiles, not immigrants. The term “immigrant” denotes the notion of people who come to a country in search of economic opportunities. Cubans, on the other hand, have this ideology because they were, in a sense, driven out and impelled to leave by a government and by a political system. The advent of Castro’s regime left no space for them - no space for their political ambitions, no space for their economic ambitions.

My mother’s grandparents on her father’s side, Angel and Lola Aguilar. Angel was the one who convinced Miguel, my grandfather, to leave Cuba with his family. Angel and Lola followed Miguel to the United States, several years later.

Among the sharpest memories that my mother has of leaving her childhood home in Cuba is of waiting in the airport. It was 1971. She, her sister, and their parents sat there: distraught, excited, scared, and separated from the country and life they were leaving behind. “It was sad,” my mother says. “My father’s name was misspelled by the American government and we were terrified that if he got on the plane with the bad spelling they would send us back. He reported that the name was wrong, and we had to wait a couple of weeks to leave Havana.” Rubbing the spot on her arm, she mentions, “I still have a welt from the vaccines.”

Like many Cuban-Americans, my mother now looks at President Obama’s announcement in December 2014 that the United States will seek to re-establish a diplomatic and economic relationship with Cuba with nuanced feelings. For the most part, many exiles are overjoyed - there is finally an opportunity to return to their home. Some are skeptical, still part of a generation that continues to hear the voices of their mothers and fathers, who believed Fidel Castro robbed them of their futures in Cuba and that he and his brother, Raul Castro, should be punished until their regime collapses.

My mother’s grandfather Domingo Rodriguez, shortly after he came to Cuba from Spain to work building the railroads in the early 1920’s.

An early photography of my grandmother’s family. Martha is pictured in the first row on the right, holding the doll. Her younger sister Juana is in the front row with the bow on her head.

The return to one’s homeland is a complex experience. The flight from Miami to Havana is short, only 90 miles. Not even an hour. Havana, Cuba, and its people have been just minutes away all these years. For some, this is a difficult fact to reconcile. This feeling of apprehension is magnified when family and loved ones still live on the island under the regime, and have done so for all these years. My mother, I believe, has been putting off her return home for so many years exactly for this reason.

In the first years following the revolution and Fidel Castro’s seizure of power from Fulgencio Batista, 14,000 children left Cuba for the United States under the patronage of Operation Pedro Pan (Peter Pan) and the Catholic Welfare Bureau. They were sometimes relocated with relatives, but were often placed in foster homes. Many of the Peter Pan kids, as they would come to be known, would be joined by their parents later. Some were not. They would grow up to become professors, lawyers, doctors, business leaders, politicians, or teachers, as in my cousin’s case.

"I never wanted to forget that I was Cuban. I always had this desire to learn more about Cuba, because I wanted to know what I had missed and what happened
to the people who stayed.”

 My mother blowing out the candles on her 7th birthday cake in Cuba, surrounded by the majority of her family that stayed behind in Cuba. My grandmother can be seen on the right side, in a polka dot dress.

Lilliam Oliva Collman, my mother’s cousin on her father’s side, left Cuba nine years before my mother’s family in 1962, shortly after the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the subsequent cementation of Castro’s grip over the island. She and her sister fled alone through Operation Pedro Pan and were placed with a family in Yonkers, New York for about a year before their parents joined them. “Leaving Cuba as a 10-year-old,” she says, “and having parents that were very proud of being Cuban and alway talking about Cuban history made me yearn for Cuba. I never wanted to forget that I was Cuban. I always had this desire to learn more about Cuba, because I wanted to know what I had missed and what happened to the people who stayed.”

My mother, Carmen, during her last year in Cuba around age 8 with two friends in a park near her house. “My father used to sit on the bench and would watch me ride my bike,” she remembers.

In her memoir, “Cuba: A Dream in Perspective,” Lilliam looks back on her final days in Cuba. One of her clearest memories is of an outing with her father in search of a watch. “I remember we had no choice but to buy a Russian watch, much to my father’s disgust,” she writes.  “He resented the increasing presence of the Soviet Union on Cuban land. I now had a Russian watch to keep track of time in the United States.” 

When Lilliam returned to Cuba with her mother in October 2000 after a 38-year absence, she encountered a woman who was unwilling to believe that, they too, were Cuban. In her memoirs, she writes, “I thought: We are a certain strain of Cuban. Like you, we’ve struggled and aged. Yonkers, New York was different. But we too went up creaky, wooden stairs with our groceries from the A&P. Our neighbors were from Germany and the Ukraine. Our hallways smelled of cabbage. I didn’t know you lived here when I was growing up in Marianao. Maybe you moved in after 1959, after Castro’s march into Havana. But now you are here and we are here.”

My mother and her father in 1970 during their last trip to the beach in Havana. It was the last time that they went to the beach in Cuba.

The entire Aguilar family at a public pool in Yonkers, New York about one year after coming to the United States. “We used to go to that pool and picnic and swim,” she explained, when I asked her about the context of the photograph.

Cuba is the only country to where the U.S. government restricts the travel of its own citizens. But licensed cultural and educational tours have allowed record numbers of Americans to go. Nearly 100,000 visited in 2012, more than double the number five years before, according to Cuban tourism statistics. In addition, Cubans count expatriate visitors separately. More than 400,000 people born in Cuba visited in 2012, most from the United States. 

No one knows how many are Pedro Pans or from the Freedom Flights - there is no count for these numbers. These kinds of exiles blend in with the larger community of visiting Cuban Americans, all in search of lost time. Taxi drivers, waiters and tour guides often tell of prosperous, yet slightly familiar-looking, strangers in the evening of their lives asking questions in serviceable Spanish with a wide-eyed shyness. Visitors often hold faded photographs or scraps of addresses and ask directions to a house, a school, a storefront, a graveyard. 

A childhood photo of my mother at around 3 years old.

My own mother has yet to return. She reads the newspaper articles with excitement and curiosity, speaks with American neighbors who have visited on vacation, and renewed her Cuban passport. Still, she holds back on purchasing a plane ticket. As I have grown older, some of her stories have been lost to the years while the few that remain become more vivid in their detail and nostalgia. From time to time, though, I wonder if my mother’s selective memory is just a means of survival. My mother’s affection for Cuba is the pure love of an exile to homeland, but it is unique in that it has evaded the complexities and embitterment of time. She has struggled for years to accept why herself and her family were lucky and able enough to leave before it was too late. At least ostensibly, this is how it seems.

“On my mother’s side, no one left,” my mother explains, speaking of my grandmother’s side of the family. “Her side of the family did not choose at all to leave, and I believe that is because my father's side of the family was far more educated. My mother was educated, she was a teacher, but her mother wasn't educated and her father worked on the railroad. My father's side  was much better off, and certainly my grandfather was the most educated. We never would have left if it weren’t for him.”

My grandmother, Martha, has returned to Cuba twice to visit her family, which remains in nearly all of its entirety on the island. My grandfather was never able to do so prior to his death in 1995. 

“Some people stayed because they didn’t have a choice,” my mother explains. “My aunt Sonya and her family were unable to get visas because her husband had been in the Batista government. Her oldest son Mario, was of military age in Cuba, so his life was in danger so they didn’t have a real choice. The dad left with the youngest son, and then my aunt stayed with the daughter because they couldn’t get visas out. That family was completely destroyed.”

"The experience of being an exile marks you
forever - it is part of who you are, no matter
where you go and what you do..."

My mother and her sister Vivian in 1969. Vivian was several months old, and my mother was around seven.

My mother and her sister, Vivian (two years old at the time that they fled), had lived under Fidel Castro’s regime for all of their lives, yet knew there was no future for them in their home. “I understood everything that was going on as a child would,” my mother explains. “I remember not getting any of the awards at school, even though I won them, because we weren’t members of the communist party.”

“I think that the most important part of the story about our family is that my grandfather, Angel, was a brilliant man,” she continues. “He was the mayor of our town, Bayamo, and he was a self-taught lawyer. He immediately knew where where Castro was going, and he told my father, ‘We have to leave, we all have to leave.’” 

“He said to my father, ‘I understand that you don’t want to leave, but you have to think of them [my sister and I]. They have no future here, there is no future here in this country.’ So if it wasn’t for him, my father probably would have stayed.” As she speaks, her eyes wander off. I wonder what she is thinking about - about a life that could have been, what was, and what is for so many members of our family still living in Bayamo and Havana.

Dictators often live in a self-proclaimed bubble. They broadcast the belief that they are beloved by their people, feared by their enemies, and, above all, indispensable to society. That bubble burst for Fidel and Raul Castro in April: the first independent, nation-wide survey was conducted in Cuba in more than half a century in 2015. The poll presented a portrait of life in Cuba
unfiltered by government propaganda and the perspectives of those who visited the island. 

Three out of four Cubans live in fear, too afraid to freely express their ideas in public discourse. Nearly half of those polled said that they had a negative opinion about Raul Castro, and half had a negative opinion about Fidel Castro. 79% of Cubans wanted better jobs and opportunities, access to the Internet (only 16% currently have reliable access), and the ability to leave the island. The poll spotlights what people actually think of the Castro dictatorship from within, and reveals that the country is bursting at the seams. The survey shows that people are hungry for total and radical change, and almost all are disillusioned with the regime.

My mother on her 1st birthday at home in Bayamo. 

 Miguel Aguilar, my grandfather pictured with his parents, Angel and Lola in Cuba in the early 1950’s.

Almost everyone on the island has a family member, or at least knows someone, who left and were able to settle in the United States - usually in Miami, New York, or Texas. Cuba is divided into two groups. The first is a small elite deeply connected to the government who have access to hard currency and foreign goods, while the rest of the population lives in dire poverty and suffers from shortages of very basic goods like soap and cooking oil. The regime’s touted “free” health care is very low quality, and forces patients to purchase their own medicine, iodine, and even bedsheets - most of which are only available on the black market. 

A newspaper article from Bayamo, Cuba detailing the graduation of my aunt, Vivian, from SUNY Stony Brook Medial School in 1996. The article was featured in a section of the newspaper entitled, “Successful People from Bayamo.” I can be seen in the photograph in her arms, or “su sobrinita.”

Cuba does have an incredible education system that is 100% subsidized by the government, meaning that Cuban students at all levels can attend school for free. According to a 2014 report by the World Bank, Cuba has the best education system in Latin America and the Caribbean and is the only country on the continent to have a high-level teaching faculty. The CIA lists 99.8% of the population as literate.

However, despite the fact that excellent, free education abounds, the opportunities to match are scarce. It is more common than rare to find surgeons who are working as taxi drivers, university professors as waiters in cafes, or unemployed physicists as bartenders. My mother’s cousin, Ana Julia Urquaiga Rodriguez, is lucky enough to hold a job as a professor at the University of Havana, but her salary is about $25 US dollars a month. Her husband, also a professor, makes the same salary.

Of course, this story is not unique - the tale of a highly educated population with little opportunity or incentive has been heard many times over, with only the locale shifting. Rarely, however, does such a struggling and dilapidated country share so many close ties with one of the most prosperous countries in the world. Many families in Cuba are split: some living in relative poverty under Castro’s dictatorship, while their cousins, aunts, and even siblings live comfortable and thriving lives in the United States or Europe. They are only separated by a small sliver of sea, no more than 90 miles across. 

What kind of identity does this diaspora, this split, create? “I see myself as Cuban-American,” says my mother, Carmen. “as an American with Cuban and Spanish roots. I didn’t grow up with a ton of other Cubans around me, we grew up in a regular low-middle-class American neighborhood.” For those who remember their lives in Cuba, according to Jorge Garcia in his book Identity, Memory, and Diaspora, the exile from Cuba represents a central memory and a break with the continuity that they knew as children. 

For those like my mother, who were old enough to understand that they were leaving home, maybe forever, their understanding of exile became an aspect of their experience that separated them from their peers. Those who were very young or infants, like my aunt, Vivian, grew up in a culture of family exile which they shared through circumstance. As these children matured, association, not memory, formed their identity as exiles.

“I used to count how many years in the
United States versus Cuba,” my mother notes.
“Then I realized that I was more American than Cuban.”

The exiled children and adolescents of different ages became exiles of multiple identities bound to their culture through birth and ancestry, while becoming adults in an American culture that become progressively familiar as they further absorbed it.

We all romanticize the past to some extent - mixing fact with fiction under nostalgia’s spell. When your life becomes embedded in nostalgia and what used to be, a rose-colored reality is all that you know. As I dig through the family photos that my grandmother was able to hide in the lining of her suitcase, I picture the details of a life that my mother had before this one: vending machine toys under a bunk bed pillow upon first coming to the United States, riding a favorite bicycle for the last time, and watching Sesame Street in an unfamiliar language.

You wouldn’t know what my mother’s first language was or where she came from based off a simple conversation with her. She is on a triathlon team, volunteers for the town, and paints in her free time - your typical driven American woman. I am curious how her identity will transition and develop after our coming visit to Cuba and over the years.

Our past lives will inevitably become greater portions of our reality as we get older - the opportunities lost, the opportunities gained, loved ones found and others left behind.

The second generation, in the United States. Celebrating my second birthday with my grandmother, Martha in July 1995 in New York City.

My mother on her second birthday, in Cuba.