Fifty-two years ago today I ceased to be a slave and began a new life as a free human being.
On the sixth of April, 1962, my brother Tony and I boarded a KLM flight in Havana and escaped from the Castro Kingdom. We left our entire family behind. And we would never see most of them ever again.
I call this anniversary my second birthday, and in many ways it tops the day I came into this world.
On every April 6 I thank my parents, now long gone. Their decision — which I now realize was a monstrously painful sacrifice — enabled me to escape from hell.
Cuba was hell. It’s still hell. And like the hell in the Bible, its fires seem unquenchable.
I was only 11 years old. My brother Tony was 14. We spent an eternity in the “pecera”, the glass-walled torture chamber at Rancho Boyeros airport in Havana, where those who were departing were strip-searched and made to wait for hours within sight of their loved ones left behind. We could see each other, but couldn’t talk through the thick glass.
There were a lot of us kids in that pecera that April 6, around a dozen or so. Our parents were on the other side of the glass. We were all very brave. I don’t remember anyone crying.
We all knew we might never see our parents again.
In my case, that’s what happened: Tony and I never saw our father again. And, needless to say, he never saw us again either. We said our final goodbyes with hand signals, like deaf-mutes.
I have met my alter ego many times, especially when I go to Miami: some Cuban man my age who didn’t get to leave in 1962, and then had to spend many years in prison. I know that’s where I would have ended up. I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. The injustices and the soul-crushing nonsense of the so-called Revolution drove me insane, even at the age of 9, 10, 11. My mother would later confess to me that she had to send us away because my brother and I had bad cases of “lengua larga”, which roughly translates in English as “loose tongue.”
Shouting insults at the Pioneers who walked past our house in Havana was only the tip of the iceberg: “uno, dos, tres, cuatro, comiendo mierda y gastando zapatos.” We said even worse things in public. Years later, in Chicago, my mom would say that hearing my brother and I chant that counter-slogan to the Pioneers is what convinced her to send us away.
I’m always eleven years old on my second birthday. I will always be eleven in my mind and heart, no matter how long I live. I will always be Cuban, too, in addition to being an American. And I will always thank God for the good fortune of having parents who placed my future above their own wants and needs.
Talk about tough love: theirs was the toughest, and also the wisest and sweetest.