18,262 days to be thankful for

Cuban passport

I have two birthdays: the day I was born in Cuba, and the day I went into exile in the United States.  Today was my second birthday.  Today I turned fifty, as an exile, and as an American.
Fifty years ago, my brother Tony and I boarded a KLM propeller plane at Rancho Boyeros airport in Havana. About an hour later we landed in Miami. I got into one van and headed for a camp in Florida City; Tony got into a different van and headed for a camp in Kendall. We were but two of over 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban kids sent to the United States by their parents. At that time I thought we kids were the ones being put through the wringer. Now, fifty years later, I realize that it was our parents who must have wept tears of blood, especially when the loving Castro regime would not allow them to leave and join us here in the United States. God bless them. Mil gracias, mama y papa.
Tony and I were lucky enough to be taken in by two wonderful American Jewish families in Miami. Louis and Norma Chait gave me a warm and loving home in which to adjust to life in this strange, wonderful land. Sidney and Carol Rubin opened their home to Tony, though they already had two teenage children of their own. Even at that time, this snot-nosed malcriado boy knew that he had won the lottery, so to speak, and that he was in a land far more marvelous than he could have ever imagined, among people so kind and generous that they seemed superhuman. Thanks Norma, thanks Lou. Thanks Carol, thanks Sid –though Tony can no longer thank you himself.

My American foster family
My American foster family

Eventually we would end up in a mouse- and roach-infested hellhole a few blocks from the Orange Bowl, in a group home for juvenile delinquents run by a malevolent Cuban couple. Bureaucratic error. We were supposed to be sent to our uncle’s house in Bloomington, Illinois. It was a tough break, but a great experience. Now, thanks to that house, I think I understand Nietzsche. Eventually we ended up with our uncle Amado, his wife Alejandra, and our cousins Marisol and Alejandrita. Mil gracias, tio y tia. Those two years I spent with you in the Corn Belt were among the happiest in my life.

With uncle and cousins, Funks Grove, Illinois, 1963
With uncle and cousins, Funks Grove, Illinois, 1963

Our mom finally arrived in early November 1965, after going through hell to get here. We went to live with her in Chicago. Our dad never did make it out. He died as he was trying to leave in 1976.
Multiply this story 14,000 times. Add all the thousands of kids who left alone, but not through the Pedro Pan airlift. What you have is a remarkable and very pointed lesson in the value of freedom, and the price that some are willing to pay for it.

With mom in Chicago, 1967
With mom in Chicago, 1967

I thank God and my parents every single day for tossing me out of hell and sending me here alone. Only now, fifty years later, do I fully realize the sacrifice they made.

I am so, so lucky.   So much to be thankful for, including the fact that the 1970’s are far behind us.

New Haven, 1976
New Haven, 1976



11 thoughts on “18,262 days to be thankful for

  1. Disco Carlos! (last picture)…Thanks for the post, professor.

    And man, this is the kinda “real-life-family-drama” that Oprah, Ellen Degeneres, Nancy Grace, Katie Couric, etc. etc. etc. –(usually) just eat up! MSM TV producers (usually–and especially nowadays) DROOL over! And POUNCE on this type of stuff! (and from an Ivy League professor, and National Book Award winner, no less!)

    So we look forward to your upcoming appearances!!!

    (WHOOPS! Forgot. You fled Castro–not Pinochet…)


  2. Happy anniversary, profesor. Synchronicity strikes again. Just this afternoon I was speaking with a co-worker about Pedro Pan and the parents who made the terribly difficult decision to ensure the liberty and freedom of their children. I’m certain your parents never second-guessed their amazingly brave decision to make you and your brother free men.

    (I also plugged your books, BTW.)

  3. Dear Carlos, In our daily davening (prayers) in the Jewish faith, we pray everyday, “yetsias mitzraim.” That is, coming out of slavery. Every day, we remind ourselves anew, that this very day, again, we are coming out of slavery. How providential that this anniversary falls both on Passover and Easter this year. Freedom, Liberty, Salvation. Thank you for this article which strengthens yet again the words from Hashem, “yetsias Mitzraim!”

    Happy Easter to you.


  4. Honey, that’s like it’s (now) OK to be gay in Cuba, as long as you’re on board with Mariela Castro and her daddy’s regime. If you’re not, you’d damn better stay in that closet.

  5. Carlos, I share you emotions. I am on my 51st birthday birthday as an exile. I left Cuba on Feb. 1, 1961. You are four days older than I and we were both in the same class at La Salle in 1959-60. My brothers and I arrived in Miami on the Visa Waiver program and our parents followed a month later. I likewise am grateful for the sacrifices made by my parents so that we could evolve in a nation of freedom and choice. I met a Cuban waiter in Scotland last year who had just migrated. When I told him that I left at the age of ten, he remarked how his parents did not have the vision that mine had and in consequence he regretted wasting his entire life living under the Castro dynasty and had nothing to show for it.

  6. Sr. Eire: Left on my own in 1969, 14 years old. Franciscan priest Antonio Camin~as put us up in barracks at San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain, “us” I mean about a hundred minors from Cuba, God bless him, he did not have to do any of that but he did it, don’t hear his name mentioned at all these days, Padre Camin~as begged and pleaded for a roof on our heads and two squares for us a day. My brothers in Cuba were not that lucky or were too young too understand what was coming their way, they got snagged in the so called military age “law” or Cagastro just did not feel like letting any more boys leave alone. By 1971 I was in NYC and by 1972 in the Army, everything I am today I’ve got thru my GI Bill, that is my licenses, my degrees, my career. At age 12, I knew I was not going to make it in that latrine of of a deal down there, I the oldest of four, asked my parents to sign the “Patria Protestad” (I suppose some kind of emancipation decree) for me to leave, with the help of one cousin (now in his 90s) the airline ticket to Spain was paid, I have asked that one cousin many times what it is I owe him for that airline ticket, he always answered “NOTHING!!!”. I’ve never set foot back in Cuba and the way things go probably never will, my parents passed there, my brothers are now men in their 50s, their pictures show men who look older than me, one has a son who just left for Spain, on his own. I have done many thing in life, I have seen most of the World, my three children are productive members of society, two of them are veterans, two already graduated from college and the youngest one will graduate in one year. I have done mostly good things with my life and a few not so good things but if I did one thing perfect in life it was coming to America. One bright and cool day in NY, I was handed a green card at JFK, the door opened to America and with $45.00 in my wallet I was born in this the best nation God ever made. God bless America, again and again, thank the Lord for her.

  7. Honey: As a Vietnam vet I am very sour on the fact that ignorant idiots put a dubious little agitator who never wore the uniform over a man who spent 5 1/2 years of the better part of his life in a nasty commie POW jail, it feels like the last kick in the teeth for us Vietnam vets. Regarless I will do anything for America, thanks and may God bless you.

  8. And you, too. Thank you for your service.
    I remember all the arguments I got into during the Vietnam war because liberals were so ill informed and remain so to this day about that war.
    I am reminded of what Tony Blair pointed out – he said through all the years of the war before our involvement and during, Vietnamese put up with things going on in their war torn country and remained.It was only after the communists took over the whole country that the exodus of many began. But never bring up facts to liberals. They can’t deal with them.

Comments are closed.