-How old were you when you left Cuba?
31 years old. I left on January 20th, 1971.
– What did you do for work in Cuba?
I was a barber. My father was a barber as well, and when I was 12 my mother sent me to his shop to start learning from him. At first I would just help out around the shop, cleaning floors and such.
-Why did you leave Cuba?
Because I am not a communist. The post-revolution Cuban Government was Communist, and they had a tendency to repress the people. There were a few times I was thrown in jail for a few hours simply for disagreeing with the government. One of these times, the police thought that I was responsible for organizing dissent against the government. Even though I didn’t, they put me in jail for a few hours. There was no freedom of speech.
There was no food in Cuba. Even if you had money, there was barely any foodto buy. I remember one time I caught a small chicken that was wandering the streets and hung it upside down on a tree outside my house. I was going to kill it, but a strong storm had begun and I ran inside. The rain caused a light flood, and the chicken’s head was low to the ground. A puddle formed, and the chicken drowned. I couldn’t let it go to waste, so I quickly ran outside and brought in the dead bird so it could still be eaten. There wasn’t really much of an option- there wasn’t much else I could get my hands on.
I had two kids- two little boys. Aside from a lack of food and other necessities, I had heard rumors that the government was planning to take all of the kids on the island and put them in a government-run school. That school would likely have been used as a tool to brainwash them, and I couldn’t allow my kids to grow up like that. Even if those rumors weren’t true, all boys are drafted into the military at 16 no matter what. They would have either been forced by the government to police and oppress their own people, or they would have been sent to other communist countries to oppress the people there. I couldn’t let that happen to them. I had to leave.
-What was the process of leaving like? What measures did you take to get to the U.S?
On March 16th, 1968, Castro confiscated my business. They took the barber shop my father and I had run together. Government officials came in with automated weapons and informed me that the shop was no longer mine, but now a property of the government. I was told I had to continue to work at the shop, but my pay would be limited to 100 Cuban pesos a month.
That translates to roughly 5 U.S dollars. Fifteen days later, I was called into an office in a government building – I don’t remember exactly, but I believe it was some sort of (im)migration regulation office. I had submitted papers applying for the right to leave the country before my barber shop was taken. I sometimes wonder if that’s why they took my business. The man that was leading the conversation told me that if I were to rip up the application in front of him, the government would let me keep working in my shop. I said “No, I am going to the United States.”
At 9am the next morning, I was arrested and taken to a work camp where I would be tasked with working the farm fields. This was not an uncommon practice for the government – I’m fairly certain the camp I was sent to was specifically for those trying to leave the country.
At first, I started by picking tomatoes and such, but later graduated to working the equipment and farming sugar cane. For two years, nine months, fourteen days, and 6 hours, I worked. I counted every hour I was there. I was treated very poorly- I still find myself waking up at night from dreams of being in the fields, afraid. They worked me so hard and fed me so little that by the time I got to Miami, I weighed 96 pounds.
I can recall a plant that grew in the sugar cane – I couldn’t tell you the name of it, but it was much like poison oak. We couldn’t do our job harvesting the sugarcane without coming into contact with it, and therefore I was constantly itchy and covered with rashes. I’m pretty sure it was planted there on purpose by the guards to punish us for wanting to leave, as if the back-breaking labor and starvation wasn’t punishment enough. Every moment of it was miserable. But it was worth it to me, the fatigue and neglect. I would have rather died in the fields trying to get out of Cuba than die of starvation or illness in the streets.
I’ll never forget when my dad came to pick me up from that place. Before I had even known I was getting out, government officials had gone to my house, where my wife and two young kids were, and declared ownership of it. My family was kicked out of their own home and left on the streets, and I didn’t even know.
When my father came, we were informed we had to go to the immigration office to finalize some paperwork. I got to the office around 2 or 3 pm that day. I told the immigration officer I was speaking to that I was planning on leaving the country the following day.
To that he responded, “No, You’re leaving today. If you’re not out of the city by midnight, you’re not going to the U.S, you’re going to jail”. Any joy that I may have felt from being released from the work camp was immediately muffled, and I was at once focused on bringing my family to safety.
Thankfully my sister lived in the next town over, Camaguey. We managed to get out of our city 2 hours before our deadline. Our next task would be to get to Baracoa by morning to catch our flight. It was about 5-6 hours away from my sister’s house. We ran into problems leaving Camaguey, as Castro was in the city that night and thus traffic was shut down – we once again weren’t allowed to leave.
By the grace of god traffic opened up in time for us to meet our driver, who we had to pay 1,000 pesos to take us to Baracoa (1,000 pesos is around a year’s wage). When we finally arrived at our final destination, we sought out refuge among a family who we did not know. We couldn’t risk the police seeing us and preventing us from making our flight, which they would have done had we been caught. I recall hiding even once we had made it into the house, covering the mouths of my crying children so that no one could detect us. If the police had happened to visit that house that night and heard us, not only would we have been in trouble, but they would have taken the house of the family that gave us shelter as well.
I didn’t recognize him at first, but it was my friend from back home. We were so close he might as well have been my brother. Apparently he had been listening to the radio for the names of people who were being brought to the U.S by the various programs seeking to help Cubans at the time (Such as the freedom flyers) and heard our names. He gave me the biggest hug. I asked where my family was, and he assured me that they were already here waiting for me. It was nice to know that I had someone watching out for me.
He insisted that he take us to his mothers house, where all of our friends who had left Cuba were waiting to welcome us. His mother cooked a wonderful meal for us, and I was given a total of $200 from everyone there, just to help us get started in the states. The next day, a few of them took us to buy clothes. We weren’t able to take anything from Cuba with us, so we literally only had the clothes on our back when we arrived. The hospitality was touching, and quite possibly life saving too.
I remember I struggled to eat for most of the first few years. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the food in America, or anything to do with my physical self. Every time I sat down to eat, I remembered my family in Cuba. While I was in America, able to eat just about anything I wanted, they had no food. I guess it was a form of survivor’s guilt. I felt so bad feeding myself when my own mother and father couldn’t find food to eat. I couldn’t do it. My friend’s sister in Miami noticed this, and I will always remember what she said to me. She said, “Wake up. You need to wake up. You have two children. You need to think of them too. You can’t take care of them if you’ve starved to death”. She really helped to snap me out of it. After all, she was right. It was just so hard.
We had come from a dictatorship where you can’t move, you can’t speak your mind without fearing being arrested, and you can’t fall asleep at night assured that your children will be safe when you wake up. It was hard to remind myself that I wasn’t there anymore, and that I was safe.
We didn’t stay in Miami for too long after all of this. Maybe only a month or so. I wanted to be as far from Cuba as possible. In the back of my mind, I think I was afraid that somehow they would find something wrong with my papers and I would be sent back. One of my cousins was already living in the Bay Area, so that’s where we decided to settle.
-How did you get established in Silicon Valley? How did you begin to builda life for yourself?
My cousin went to a church in Palo Alto asking for them to help us. We were given furniture, food, clothes, and much more. The church even paid for 2 month’s worth of rent on a small apartment on Alma street. Once again, I was reminded of how lucky I was. The church also set us up with a social worker, who enrolled me in an adult school in East Palo Alto.
I was grateful, of course, but I told her that I really just wanted to work. I had been working since I was 12, it was what I knew how to do. She told me I was the first person to tell her that. She promised to find work for me. So, next time we spoke, she told me that if I continue going to school, they would employ me as a janitor after my classes. I was offered 100$ a month in pay.
It wasn’t much in reality, but compared to what I was making in Cuba, it felt like a pretty comfortable income. On top of that, I also picked up a job as a janitor at Moffet air base, where I would clean up the oil and grease that came off the airplanes. I would work until 3 or 4 in the morning most nights.
And this was only 3 months after leaving the work camps in Cuba, so my body hadn’t fully recovered from the abuse it endured. The people I worked with weren’t very nice either. I would get rides home from my coworkers every night, and they routinely dropped me off 3 or more blocks away from my house. It was like I wasn’t worth the gas it would take to drive a few more blocks. I was the odd one out, I still barely spoke english. It wasn’t easy, but I made it. It was hard to finally be free from the fields and free from the grips of the dictatorship in Cuba and still work so much that I barely saw my kids. But at least in America, I was paid for my work. In Cuba, I worked hard every day and got nothing. It wasexhausting, but at least the work I did in the states paid me enough to put food on the table.
Eventually I went to barber school, which was frustrating because I had worked as a barber since I was a kid. I did manage to show proof of my Cuban certificate stating I was a trained barber, and they let me skip the course. I only had to take the final exam, which basically required me to give a haircut, a face massage, and a beard trimming. I had about 90 minutes to complete it, but I finished in 45.
From there, I worked in a small barber shop for a while with some people I met from barber school. Amazingly, I soon managed to find a small barber studio being sold for about $850 dollars. I split the price with my friend, and we worked together for a few years before he eventually left to find work elsewhere. Finally, after all those years of struggle, I had my own barber shop again. I still have it to this day.
-What is your favorite thing about being in the United States
The family I was able to raise here. My daughter was born here, my grandchildren were born here, my great grandchildren were born here… The last time my whole family got together was a super happy experience for me. Seeing how my family has grown, what it’s been able to become… I was so happy. I love seeing everyone together, and everyone getting along. That’s all I ever really wanted.
-How did it feel to vote in America for the first time?
It was my first time voting- I never voted in Cuba. The only person you could vote for was Castro, and I definitely didn’t want to vote for him. I felt free voting for the first time. Like I could do anything. I could vote for whoever I wanted, on whatever bills I wanted… in Cuba, that was never an option.
-What do you wish natural born americans knew about the world, orwhat it’s like to be an immigrant?
American people have everything. More than everything. I think that they need to know what it’s like to live in other countries like Cuba or Venezuela or Nicaragua. The government oppresses the people until they have nothing. You as an American have everything that the people in Cuba don’t have. I wish people understood how lucky they are.
A student interviewed her grandfather for this narrative.