Refugees. Not immigrants.

My dad would have been 96 today.

It is his birthday.

Although we celebrated so many wonderful birthdays with him, I distinctly remember the year he turned 50.

Because it is stamped on a passport. And forever in my memory.

My Cuban Passport

My Cuban Passport

I know it is stamped the 12th. But the flight didn't take off from Havana until after midnight.  We waited for hours in "la pescera" (the fishbowl) to be allowed to board.

We didn't tell anyone we were leaving.

There were no goodbyes.

My mother never saw her own mother again.

My dad had left Cuba months earlier and was just waiting until my mother could get visas for the 5 girls.

My brother left Cuba as an unaccompanied minor on December 26, 1960.  One of the original Pedro Pan kids taken in by Father Bryan O. Walsh in Miami.

So it was my mom, and us girls, and 13 suitcases on that midnight flight.

Back then, in early 1961, Cubans would still go to the airport to greet other arriving exiles.

I remember being oh-so-tired and happy.  I remember seeing my dad on the other side of the customs counter and not being allowed to go to him.  I remember that he and my brother were yelling directions to my mother: "Ask for 3!  Ask for 3!"  I later found out that it was for the length of the visa. I remember the cheering and clapping when we finally made it through customs.

I remember wishing my dad a happy birthday and thinking how very old 50 was. I can only imagine the relief that was in his heart that day as the eight of us were reunited.

The next day we got red heart-shaped boxes filled with chocolates.

Happy Valentine's Day.

Welcome to America.

Oh, and... Felicidades, Papi. Gracias por todo.