Cuando Sali de Cuba - Stories of Courage and Hope

Cuando sali

My family moved to the U.S. reluctantly. 

When we left Cuba, we didn't know we were coming here for good. I think that's a part of our story as Cuban refugees that doesn't get much play. 

When we left our beloved homeland, we (when I say "we," I mean, my parents) thought it was only a temporary stay until that whole pesky revolution thing blew over. Obviously, it has not. 

The Verdes sisters circa 1961

The Verdés Sisters, circa 1961. Our 1st photo here in the U.S.

We began our life here in the U.S. based on the premise that it was going to be sort of a long vacation. Then we began calling it exile. Then there came a point when we knew for certain that there was no going back. 

It's Hispanic Heritage Month. From the 15th of September to the 15th of October, we, here in the U.S. celebrate the contributions of Hispanics to the fabric and culture of America.

For the past few years, here on my blog, I have celebrated the stories of Cuban families who came here and built beautiful lives as proud Americans. I call that series, "Cuando Sali de Cuba - stories of courage and hope."

Here's a link to all of the stories. Cuando Sali de Cuba.

Here's a video of my family in Cuba "back in the day" and in the here and now. Set to the beautiful song by Celia Cruz that inspired this series. The lyrics are especially poignant to me as well as to most Cuban refugees. 

That's right: Refugees. Not Immigrants.

Cuando salí de Cuba
dejé mi vida, dejé mi amor
Cuando salí de Cuba
dejé enterrado mi corazón.


When I left Cuba
I left behind my life, I left behind my love
When I left Cuba
I left my heart forever buried in the ground.

That just about sums it up. 

Cuando Sali de Cuba - Gustavo's Story

Cuando Sali de Cuba image

Marta here: Through my blog I've been privileged to meet so many wonderful Cubans, who represent the very best of our Cuban exile community.

One author in particular has been an inspiration to me since my very first blog post right here on My Big, Fat, Cuban Family titled, like his book, Life on the hyphen...

His name is Gustavo Perez-Firmat. You'll find his books listed over there on the right under Smart Cuban Authors.

He is also a fan of My Big, Fat, Cuban Family Cookbook and my pastelito recipe, but that's not important right now.

Gustavo Perez-Firmat
Author Gustavo Perez-Firmat & his lovely wife, Mary Anne with their favorite cookbook.

Gustavo's story is being featured in an episode of the new PBS series on Latino Americans. Gustavo was interviewed for it, and they used a lot of family photos and home movies.

You are all familiar with the story: The family left Cuba abruptly. Started a very different life here in the U.S. waiting for the whole Revolution thing to blow over so they could return home to Cuba. You know how it ends.

Episode will air tonight, Tuesday Sep 24th, 2013. Check your local PBS listings for times.

This video is worth your time. Enjoy.

Cuando Sali de Cuba - Fernan's Story (A Giveaway)

Cuando Sali de Cuba image

Marta here:

A friend called me recently: "There's a new book called, The Cubans. You're mentioned in it."  I was intrigued and contacted the author, Fernando Hernandez who very kindly agreed, not only to share his story, but to share his book with MBFCF readers.

First, let's let Fernan tell his own story.


  July 8th, 1962 was the day I left Cuba, my parents, other family members, friends, and all the memories that a nine year old boy had experienced. On that fateful day my life was changed, transformed, I was never to be the same again. It was to be also one of the saddest days of my young life as I waved goodbye to my mami.

  My brother and I were among 14,068 young children who left Cuba via Operation Pedro Pan, a clandestine operation from 1960-1962 that brought youngsters from 5 to 17 years of age to the United States by themselves. I am sure the communist authorities knew perfectly well that thousands of Cuba’s youngest citizens were leaving, but I believe they did nothing to abort the operation. Family separation was one of the many tactics the regime enacted, and having heart-broken parents in the island assured them of fewer political troublemakers and contrarevolucionarios. When we left from our hometown of Banes, in the Oriente province (now called Holguin), only mami accompanied us to La Habana. You may wonder, where was your father? He was too despondent, emotionally wrecked to muster the courage to bid us goodbye. He never came to see us, as my brother, mother and I got on a bus for a long ride to the capital. Papi stayed behind, comforted by our abuela and other family members. Sometimes we don’t fully grasp or comprehend the suffering that so many of our parents endured when we left our homeland. The other day a man who knew my dad told me he never met a man who shed so many tears for his children as my papi had. Our separation was close to four years, did he have any tears left?

  Mami showed me what unconditional love is as we spent a few days in La Habana, a city we had never visited. She took us to the zoo and went sightseeing while we waited for the departure day. She never cried or displayed any emotional weakness during the ordeal, I can still see her permanent smile and her encouraging words to my brother 11, and I. All that she knew was that we were going to a boys’ camp in Miami and then we would be relocated to either a foster home or an orphanage somewhere in the United States. My parent’s main concern was that we would live in a democratic society and that they would join us in the near future. Her anxiety, anguish, and motherly instinct of being close to us did not cloud her judgment and she proceeded to send us to the promise land. Her pain was secondary; she knew this difficult decision had to be made for our benefit.

  The day finally arrived. We were placed in the pecera, a large room in the airport enclosed with glass that resembled a fish bowl. We were the fish and those on the outside looked at us as if we were in an aquarium. Mami reminded us to behave well and to take care of one another. But I do not recall mami kissing or hugging us one last time. She walked out of the pecera firm, stoic, and walked to the upper level to see the plane depart. My brother and I, along with the rest of the people waiting, were notified to board the flight.

  As I took a seat in what was my first flight, I glimpsed out the window and saw my mami frantically waving a white handkerchief toward the plane. Then I saw her embrace another woman (perhaps another Pedro Pan mom?) and began to see her collapse in a torrent of tears. Even after 51 long years, I have to dry my eyes as I write this. I cannot forget, and I don’t ever want to forget, that moment when a mother’s heart could not be contained. Mami waited to the very last, possible second to unleash what her heart felt, she could no longer conceal her parental anguish. She thought I could not see her from the plane but my eyes were fixed on my precious mom who gave everything she had for my brother and I. As I watched helplessly, the mother I loved was baring her soul and spirit in a continuous cry. What a great blessing to have Maria Elisa Lorenzo Gonzalez as my mami! Thanks to mami and papi I had an opportunity to live as a free man. May my parents reside in a special place in heaven, a palace reserved for all the loving and courageous Cuban parents who sacrificed all so that we could live in an open, free, and democratic society.


by: Fernando “Fernan” Hernandez
Author: The Cubans Our Footprints Across America (July 2013)

Fernan has graciously agreed to share his book with MBFCF Readers. So let's do a giveaway!

The cubans

MBFCF Giveaway:  

The Cubans, Our Footprints Across America by Fernando "Fernan" Hernández.

One person will win the book, autographed by Fernan. Please leave a comment on this post for a chance to win the book. Answer one or both of the following questions:  

  • Do you know (or are you related to) any Pedro Pans?
  • Did you ever have your own "Cuando Sali de Cuba" moment? (The realization of what an enormous thing had happened to your family.)

I'll choose a winner on Wednesday, September 25th, 2013 at 11 am.

Cuando Sali de Cuba - Ada's Story

Marta here: I have more stories than I could fit into just one month. I am going to share them once a week. Thank you all for having the courage to share the details of the most difficult time in your life. Today's story comes from Ada. Being able to leave Cuba after just having had surgery was worth the risk.


by Ada Owens

My mom, my dad, my two brothers and I left Cuba when I was just 4 years old.

It was not our time to go, as we were nowhere near the number that was to be called next, but the government got a hold of the fact that my father had just been operated on. They decided to give us our number then, because since they only give you three to four days to prepare to leave, and they figured we would have to stay given my father’s condition.

Ada owens

Once the police officer on the motorcycle left our house after giving my mom the news, she immediately went to the hospital to inform my dad.  To her surprise, he said “Get everything ready; we’re leaving.” He had to sign a paper given to him by the doctor saying that he was leaving on his own free will and that he understood that due to the altitude on the plane, he could hemorrhage. He had his deviated septum operated on, so he had to fly with his head tilted back the entire flight.

Thank God he was ok.
We lived in Puerto Rico for a year with relatives then moved to Hattiesburg, Mississippi where I lived for the next 17 years. After that I moved to Miami Lakes. I now reside in Tampa with my husband and two children.  I often think about how different (and bad) my life would have been had my parents decided to stay and commend my parents for their bravery.

Ada owens wed
Ada's family.
Thanks for the chance to tell my story.

Cuando Sali de Cuba - Edilia's Story

Marta here: My heart was aching as I first read Edilia's story. Imagine being a newlywed in Castro's Cuba and looking for a chance to get out and start a new life. 


By Edilia Beltran Pinero

My full name is Josefa Edilia Beltran Bermudez de Pinero.  I was 13 years old when Castro came into power.  I did not understand much of what was going on, but quickly learned that life as I knew it had ended. 

I had been born late in my parents’ life, therefore they were hesitant to leave Cuba and had hoped that the Castro regime would be defeated and life would go back to normal, but it was not be.

I had spent my childhood and early adolescence in a private school and had enjoyed every second of it. Our summers were spent in Varadero. We also visited Soroa, Hanabanilla, Valle de Viñales, Valle de Yumuri, Trinidad, Cienfuegos, Santiago de Cuba,  Santuario del Cobre, among others.  I had a wonderful life thanks to my parents! 

Now, my school was no more and indoctrination permeated every aspect of public school.  lt was 1961 and rather than being subjected to the brainwashing and a year away from graduation, I decided not to go on with school and found my first job.  I had met a young man while still in private school and we started so see each other, first as friends and then we became engaged.  We got married in October 1962 and started our life together. 

Varadero, 1965. Edilia, Manolo y Manolito.

I became one more among the young women of my generation who got married looking forward to the start of a new life abroad. At first, I was adamant about not leaving my parents behind but they were encouraging us to leave as the situation was getting worse and worse.  

To make a long story short, my husband was not allowed to leave when we first attempted it. Men between the ages of 14 and 27 were not granted the required permit. They had to put a stop to the droves of young men that were leaving the country to seek a new life abroad. Consequently, we had to wait until he reached the appropriate age.

When we requested permission to leave, it was still a nightmare. He lost his job and was sent to several forced labor camps. I was able to escape the forced labor because I had two small children, but life for me was not easy either. People knew we were “gusanos” (worms) as they called us and we were under constant surveillance and and suffered a lot of public and private humiliation. 

The least of mistakes could send you into limbo and your permit to leave Cuba would not be granted. We lived our lives in extreme fear. This feeling of living in constant dread, day in and day out, is one I will never forget.

Finally in March of 1972, we were granted the long awaited permit and boarded an Iberia flight to Madrid at 9 am in the morning. I left with mixed emotions as I was leaving my parents behind and did not know at the time if I would ever see them again. They still had hope and thought our absence would be temporary. 

Everyone was extremely quiet as the plane lifted off – fear does paralyze you. Finally, someone broke the silence and said, “We are not in Cuba anymore!” and we all laughed and cried at the same time. Food came and it was lobster salad! We started to see that there was definitely a different life out there.

When we got to Madrid we had friends waiting for us. It was 1 am the morning of the next day and the temperature outside was 33ºF.  We bundled up as well as we could, especially the children, and descended the stairs to get into a bus that would take us to the terminal. The next day we went to Catholic Charities and they provided us with warm clothes, coats, and even boots. Life in Spain was good. Within a month we moved to the Canary Islands where friends had found us both good jobs and we enjoyed our time there.   There was still a problem: the only family we had outside of Cuba was in the U.S. So finally in May of 1974, we arrived in Miami.

Miami, 1978. Edilia, Manolo, Manolito y Janely.

By the time we came here, we were experts in “starting a new life.”  We immediately found jobs, I got a college degree. We changed jobs several times - always looking for improvement, and I have to say that we could not complain. We were able to provide our children with a great education, which was our number one priority. 

Sadly, I did not see my mother ever again. She passed away in Cuba in 1981 while we were trying to bring her and my father to the U.S.  My father made it a year later and lived with us until his passing in 1984. I am eternally grateful to my parents for the life they gave me and for the sacrifices they made so that we could give our kids a better life.  Now that I have grandchildren myself, I totally understand.


Edilia, Manolo, Janely and the four grandchildren. Boca Raton, 2012.

My husband and I are retired, enjoying our four grandchildren - born to our daughter - and we are celebrating our 50th Wedding Anniversary this year.  Our son passed away in 1981, he was 17, but we have the consolation that he too was able to enjoy a good life until God decided he needed one more angel. He lives on in our hearts.

All the tribulations and suffering that we went through to become Americans were worth it.  Even though we still keep many of our Cuban traditions and have taught them to our family, we are undeniably part of the melting pot. We enjoy our afternoon cafecito, pastelitos de guayaba y cena de Nochebuena, while at the same time enjoying hamburgers, Thanksgiving dinner and apple pie.

Cuando Sali de Cuba - Silvia's Story

Marta here: Silvia shares her story today forthe first time. It was very emotional for her to travel back in time to those last painful years her family spent waiting for the Freedom Flight that would bring them to the America.

I'm grateful to Silvia's daughter, my online friend, Maribel, for convincing her mom to finally share her beautiful “Cuando Sali de Cuba” story. And to Silvia for being brave one more time.

Maribel writes about her own adventure-filled life on her blog Stroller Adventures.


by Silvia Estudillo

We all have a story to tell from our past, some are happy and some are sad…

For us Cubans or at least for me it is very sad. Deeply in my heart it is something that I don’t like to bring up as emotions take me over. Cubans we are very passionate and I’m not the exception to the rule. In fact, in my case, it feels like it is double.

I had started to write my story a long time ago, but never finished because of the memories brought that came back to me and believe me, they were not pleasant to confront. Even so, I must say that up to this date I give thanks to God for how my life was irrevocably changed life. As I always heard from my family and in my father’s owns words: “Thanks to Castro we are living in a country that believes in freedom and everyone has the same rights.”

He and President Kennedy gave us the opportunity as he came up with the great idea of los “Vuelos de La Libertad” (Freedom Flights).  Yes that is how I got my Ticket to Freedom.

I was only 5 years old when Castro took over; I still remember every detail.

Life changed abruptly for us. You could feel it in the air. Stores were closed. My parents had started a small laundry business out of the house. My mother took care of it while my father was a retailer at a “sombrero” store on Reyna and Galiana. Practically overnight the businesses were closed down by the government, which left my father out of a job.

Furthermore, one day they came to the place where my parents had established their own business. It was now a Dry Cleaner, fully equipped. They had one employee whom I loved very much. Her name was Inez - oh what sweet memories! Then suddenly we had nothing. I remember my father would stay in bed all day long in a dark room. My mother had to look for a job and she could only find a housekeeping job, where she used to take me every day.  Our lives took a turn that no one expected. 

When Fidel gave the speech that we all love: “EVERYONE THAT WISHES TO LEAVE THE COUNTRY IS ‘FREE TO DO SO,” my father jumped on the opportunity and that how it all started...

Everyday I dreamed about The Day. But it did not come until November 3, 1970.

My father kept the airline tickets up to his last day with these words: “The Day of Our Freedom.”

In the years we waited to leave we were constantly taunted and called names. The kids on my street would sing to me: “Oye gusanita, no saques los pies, pues si los sacas, te los carta el comité.”

For this reason my mother spanked me every day as she would not want me to play with these kids because she feared for my life. But I was a child and I could have cared less. All I wanted to do was play. So, I would leave the house every day to play, while hiding from my mother. When I came back home I knew what was coming to me.

In my middle school years, more trouble came to me since I had a big mouth - which I still do - I would get into trouble every day, especially with my Spanish teacher who was a big Castro supporter. Needless to say, she and I did not get along.

Finally one day as I was on my way home from school, someone told me that The Man With the Motorcycle {if you are a Cuban, you know what I mean} was in my home. In my own home! I was so very happy and ran as fast as I could. As I got home, my mother saw me and gave me The Look.  Being afraid that we could lose our chance, our One and Only Chance - The Big One - TO BE FREE! Imagine life with no more Castro, no more harassment from the Comité, no more being afraid.  Yet, even at that point, we all knew very well that they could detain us for any little thing and deny our request.

The inventory went through and we had to leave our home. The government took everything we owned. We were only allowed to take some personal belongings. But for us, who had been waiting so long for that Big Opportunity, we were ready. We had our “gusanos pack” waiting for when that moment came.

After they had confiscated everything and taken our home, there were 15 long days of waiting. We were all scattered to different houses where good friends let us stay until The Big Ticket Day.  I was 17 and my sister was 6. Our parents stayed at one house, my sister in her friend’s house and I was with another family. That made it a little more bearable to make the transition, knowing that we were moving onto a new life. It was sad that our friends were not leaving and I could sense how much they wanted to be in our shoes.

Well the big day finally came. Our little family of four had gathered at a friend’s house. The dad saved my father’s money for the taxi - it was about $300 Cuban pesos. It was done this way, because if they found that money on you, the government would take it like they took everything else. You had to have a personal banker who arranged for your trip to Varadero where the Freedom Flights would arrive. Only the crew members would fly every day from Miami to Varadero. They would then fly back to Miami with a plane full of Cuban refugees.

We arrived in Varadero, all nervous and quiet, afraid that if we spoke a word, they would change their minds about letting us go. It was a rainy day and there was a hotel for us to stay overnight since we had to wait for the next day. That place was full of families.

There was one particular family that broke everyone’s heart. They had been there for 15 consecutive days. Can you imagine the experience of not knowing what to expect the next day? All of us who were gathered there from different parts of the island, sharing the same dream, from the same country could not say much to each other. We could only mutter very few words as we were surrounded by the militia who were sadistically just waiting for the right moment or the wrong word to take you in. We all knew very well what it meant: it meant the possibility of loosing our Ticket to Freedom. Or, ‘Going to Wonderland,’ as I still call it. No one was willing to take that chance.

We were there for 3 days and every day would be the same for almost everyone, get ready to be at the airport by 6:00 PM. The first 2 days for some reason that I don’t remember, we were sent back to the hotel and I will tell you that when you got to that airport it was not like getting to an L.A airport or New York or even the smallest airport in the United States. It was more like a military zone. The militia was all around. You could not see the inside from the outside because there were big walls all around. 

We were made to wait in line outside for hours and when the time came to open the big gate to let you in, they would call your family name or the number you were given at the time you applied for the request. My father had that number saved with the airline tickets. I still remember that we were somewhere in the 190,000's. I don’t recall the rest.

I think my father prepared beautifully for all of this. He had saved the money to survive the days that we had to stay there. We ate very poorly at a local restaurant for people like us. You did not know how long you were going to be there, so the money you had, had to last. 

And every day before your trip to the airport, if you had any money left, you would give it to a family like the one that was there for 15 days so that they could survive. Because once the motorcycle police came to your house and the government took all of your belongings and “la libreta,” which gave you the right to buy food, you were on your own. Can you imagine the agony of the families that were there, waiting day after day, for days without end?

On the third day, we went on to the airport and it was raining again. It was also cold and we had to wait in line again hoping that our name would be called. Finally we heard it - they finally called our name.

We were so surprised. We cried as we could not believe that it had finally happened. We felt very lucky, and our prayers had been answered. “Virgencita de la Caridad, we love you more than ever!”

We went inside the building and walked through halls until we got to a big waiting room full of nervous people walking around. No one could be still, but again, no one spoke a word. It was like we were our worst enemies, but I guess that is how terror affects you.

The night wore on, and since the flight would not be coming until the next morning, we went through very tight security. They called each family to a private room where we were then interrogated by different officials over and over again. They would ask the same questions trying to catch us saying the wrong thing so we could possibly lose our Ticket to Freedom.

They would search your belongings, taking things away from you, like family pictures, jewelry (if you had any with you). You were only allowed to leave with a certain amount of clothes that they had given you permission to take, but no more. Lucky for us, my father had sent our family pictures, Virgen de La Caridad, San Lazaro, whatever precious things he was able to, to the states ahead of time. He knew what he was doing. Once we got to this juncture, there would have been no possibility of saving any of the things that were dear to us.

The night dragged on and it got later and later, with the no change in the scenery. I was getting so hungry, but there was no dinner (Nada de nada!) offered to us as we waited through that very long night. As dawn approached, our expectations grew. I'm sure the same question was on everyone's mind, although we couldn't voice it: “When is that plane coming for us?”

The morning air was broken by the noise of a airplane. A plane was landing! I couldn't believe it was actually happening. This would be my first time on an airplane and I did not know what to expect. I was a teenage girl that had lived all of my young life in a country with tight boundaries, sequestered from the outside world. All I had known up to that point was what was happening in Cuba. Castro, daily misery, standing in line for hours at a restaurant or store to get what they allow you. By the time it was your turn and you get to the front of the line, you find out there is no more food or there are no more shoes. You would slowly turn to go back home, with your head down and your hopes completely dashed.

It hurts so much, as I write down those memories. The pain and the memory of hopelessness will always be with me, for the rest of my life. I am almost 60 years old and an entire lifetime has gone by. My parents are gone, but these memories of that difficult time in my life are stronger than my blood. I wonder if, when I die they will follow me to heaven? Virgen de La Caridad, please don’t allow that to happen! Let me be free forever of my past. And I don’t mean my Cuban past, because, as I always say, I am very proud of being a Cuban. My family and my Mexican husband very well know, that as a Cuban I am always right and perfect, and as he says “nunca he podido vencer a la Cubanita.”

It was finally time to board our flight. We started to march like soldiers toward the plane. We were greeted by some nice ladies. I later learned they were called ‘stewardesses.’ We sat quietly as we were trying to be as normal as possible. When the plane took off the moment came when we were finally up in the sky, everyone started to scream, “WE ARE FREE!” Most of us were crying from the mixed emotions we felt.

I remember taking a look around and being amazed at what I was seeing: big men, crying out loud. My eyes could not believe what they were seeing. As we continued on our short flight to Miami, one of the nice ladies came to offer us a small breakfast. Woohoo! Food at last!

Another thing surprised me as we landed in Miami’s airport. This was all so new to me, and remember, I didn't speak any English. As we went through the halls from one room to another there would be signs that said, EXIT, and I thought to myself , “Wow! These Americans are so nice to us. They are even wishing us “EXITO*” in our knew lives. How generous of them.” That was me and my wide-eyed Cuban innocence taking in my very first impressions of the U.S.  (*Success.)

Finally the time came for us to go. My uncle that lived in Miami was waiting for us. He would be taking us back to his home for a miraculous and emotional reunion. Can you imagine?

As we drove, we looked at the beautiful city around us and thought, “This is Wonderland!”

We arrived at my uncle’s house where they were waiting for us, with dinner, of course. We felt like mice in a trap! There was a decorative bowl of fruits on the table; grapes, apples, and oranges. It looked so very nice. My little sister had never seen fruit before, since she was born in 1963.  After Castro took power, all of that disappeared. My sister took one of the fruits and started trying to eat it. We all started to laugh as she struggled with it, looking  at everyone with a question mark on her face. It was finally explained to her that it was not real. They immediately replaced the plastic one with the real thing. 

As for me, we were taken to a local store where they bought us ice cream. I had an ice cream sandwich bar. It was the very first time I had ever had one. I loved it so much that I went to eat one more, and one more and one more. I got so sick that, to this day, I have never eaten another one.

After being in Miami for a week, we finally flew to California. I fell in love with my dear West Coast from the first moment I arrived. Life was not always easy the first few years. It took me about two years to learn the language. Of course, eventually I met new friends and life went on. California has been my home since then.

Our dream life became my real Wonderland. My dreams, little by little, with lots of effort from everyone came true. Everything we went through has made us all stronger.

I miss my country. Inside of me there is a Cuban which I love, but at this point in my life, I feel more international. I’ve been married to my Mexican husband for 39 years and have been exposed to a mix of cultures. So if you were to ask me where am I from? My answer is: “I have no boundaries. I am free as can I be. A mix of congri, hamburger and mole and I am proud of it.”

Remember, I am Cuban. Proud. Perfect. And always right.


If you know me from my past, I would love you to get in touch with me. My maiden name is Silvia Caballero Garcia.

Cuando Sali de Cuba (or not) - Christina's Story (MBFCF Giveaway #4)

Marta here: I first met Christina, author of The Red Umbrella, a couple of years ago at Cuba Nostalgia in Miami. My first impression of her was that she was "the real deal." She cares deeply about her subject matter because, in the case of The Red Umbrella, it is very close to her family's story. She has been gracious enough to share her inspiration for writing this beautiful novel.


by Christina Diaz Gonzalez

Technically, I can’t say or write about “Cuando Sali de Cuba” as I have never been to the island. However, since I was a little girl, I have been hearing stories of how my parents left Cuba through Operation Pedro Pan.

The heartbreak of saying goodbye at the airport’s pecera, the pain of leaving everything behind and the fear of an unknown future in a foreign country was repeated countless times.  Yet, the magnitude of this exodus of children was lost on me.  Growing up I would roll my eyes whenever the topic was brought up.  To me, it was old news.  In fact, we all have those family stories that we so often take for granted until those who tell the tales are no longer with us.  Thankfully, I had a wake-up call before it was too late.

I was an aspiring writer searching for inspiration to write my first novel. It wasn’t until I heard another author talking about her book (Erika’s Story written by Ruth Vander Zee) that I realized the powerful story that I had within my own family which was being lost to the sands of time. 

I saw that if my own kids didn’t grasp this important part of American history (over 14,000 Cuban children being sent to the U.S.,  by themselves, is a HUGE part of American history… not just Cuban-American history), how could I expect others, who didn’t have a family connection, to even know about Operation Pedro Pan?

That’s when I decided to write The Red Umbrella.  I guess this was, in a way, my “Cuando Sali de Cuba” moment because I gained a deeper understanding of what it was like for these children of Operation Pedro Pan to leave their home, their parents, their friends. I tried to imagine myself being placed into those circumstances and then I put my main character, Lucia, into similar situations. 

The red umbrella

It has been with great joy that I have received countless emails and comments from many Operation Pedro Pan kids saying that they are grateful that their story is finally being shared with a new generation. I am so very proud to have had a small part in sharing their “Cuando Sali de Cuba” story.


MBFCF Readers, please say hello to Christina Diaz Gonzalez. I was personally floored when I read her debut, The Red Umbrella. She so perfectly captured the conflicts and fears of what it must have been like for an unaccompanied minor to come to a new country and how they might react in that frightening and difficult situation. She is as talented as she is lovely.

Christina Diaz Gonzalez

Christina has recently completed her 2nd novel, A Thunderous Whisper, set in the sleepy Spanish town of Guernica during World War II.

A thunderous whisper

MBFCF Blogiversary Giveaway #4:  

The Red Umbrella and A Thunderous Whisper (both autographed by the author)

One person will win both books, autographed by Christina. Please leave a comment on this post for a chance to win the books. Answer one or both of the following questions:  

  • Do you know (or are you related to) any Pedro Pans?
  • Did you ever have your own "Cuando Sali de Cuba" moment? (The realization of what an enormous thing had happened to your family.)

I'll choose a winner at the end of MBFCF Blogiversary Giveaway Week on Monday, October 8th, 2012 at 11 am.

Cuando Sali de Cuba - Elena's Story

Marta here: Most Cubans are familiar with Santayana Jewelers. They are a mainstay of the Cuban exile community in Miami. I'm delighted that Elena Santayana has graciously agreed to share her family's stories. Her memories of growing up Santayana are both hilarious and poignant.

(Translations to her Cubanisms are marked with a red * and are at the bottom of the story.)

Gracias, Elena. You humble me.


I was born en la saguesera. That’s the southwest area of Miami, on June 8, 1978. I have three sisters, Marisa, Miriam and Patty and a twin brother, Rudy. We grew up in a split plan home in the beautiful Westchester area of Miami, Florida.

Totem pole pic
Totem pole pic

Santayana loved taking totem-pole pictures.

Both of my parents came to this country alone. My dad, known as Santayana, was Peter Pan (pronounced with rolling r’s). I thought that meant he wore green tights and fought pirates. Later, I learned it meant he came to this country without his parents and stayed at a home for boys until a cousin or uncle picked him and his brother up. But I never really “got it” until quite recently. When I was 17 years old and in high school, I never took a moment to imagine, “What if right now, I was sent away to live in another country, indefinitely, with little money and alone?”

Mom arrived in the United States on the Freedom Flights. In 1961, the day before Halloween, she was supposed to board a plane with her brother and sisters but there was a problem with her visa and she was made to stay an extra couple of days in Havana. She was 17 years old and didn’t speak much english. She lived in a house with 12 other people in the northwest area of Miami or, as she says, “la casa del nor’wes’ ”.

The original hipster
The original hipster

Elena's mama. The original hipster.

My father, Santayana, was a hard working man. Every morning he would dress in a fine suit and take his maleta* of jewelry to visit clients at their homes. Before he opened the jewelry stores, my dad was known for his maleta. I still hear stories of people who remember my dad showing up at their house, opening his maleta and revealing tray after tray of sparkling jewelry.

In the 80’s my dad had three really cool things in his possession. Number one, Santayana owned a beeper. Not the beeping kind we know now, the kind doctors still use. Dad’s beeper was like the speaker at KMart. Here’s how it worked:

  • Step 1: Call the beeper.
  • Step 2: Wait for the tone.
  • Step 3: Convey the message for all to hear over the speaker/beeper strapped to his belt. Twice.

The messages were to be coded at all times so that random strangers on the street wouldn’t suspect he was carrying a maleta of jewelry and give him the proverbial, “Palo por la cabeza.*” 

An example of an acceptable message would be: “Santayana, llama la tienda. Santayana, llama la tienda.*

However, if you said, “Santayana llama la joyeria.*” - that got you in big time trouble. Similarly, if you said, “Papi llama a mami,*  you would get banned from beeper detail. Singing Happy Birthday into the beeper was also not warmly received.

Second, Santayana had a car phone. His car phone was super cool, space-age stuff. Imagine a rotary phone bolted to the center consul of his wine colored Caprice Classic. The advanced car phone technology also required the Caprice to sport a subtle, 6 foot long antennae on its roof. Phone calls were ridiculously expensive but dad was a gadget man and had to have it. No one had a car phone.

Well, some people had carphones - drug dealers. In third grade some kid asked me, “Is your dad a drug dealer? Why does he have a car phone?”  We’re talking about Miami in the 80’s, this kid was not asking an illogical question. So I told him, “Noooo, my dad is not a drug dealer, he’s a jeweler.”

The third, neato thing Santayana had in the 80’s was a beautiful, brand-new, wine-colored Caprice Classic. On the rare occasion that Santayana took me and Rudy to school, he would pretend that his car was an airplane; he was the captain and we were his crew. I was the flight attendant offering peanuts and Rudy was the mechanic. There was always something wrong with the plane and we would have to rush, rush, rush to fix the problem. This game probably explains my fear of flying.

Although it had been over 20 years since our parents’ flight from Cuba, growing up in the 80’s, we were raised to believe that our residence in Miami was temporary. Every Christmas Eve someone proclaimed, “El año que viene en Cuba!*  Then everyone would toast and cheer and give each other big hugs.

Santayana fam 1980
Santayana fam 1980

The Santayana Family. Circa 1980.

My uncle Marcelo, who exiled to the Canary Islands after serving 9 years in a Cuban prison, had a really short index finger. His index finger was literally shorter than his pinky. Don’t imagine that his finger didn’t have a nail. It totally did. The whole thing was intact, it was just short. Like a baby finger. As a kid, that finger was the freakiest thing I had ever seen.

He waved that finger around like there was nothing wrong with it. I once asked him about it, he loudly proclaimed, “Porque este año, este año cae Fidel!* while slamming the tip of his freakishly short index finger on the table. I totally believed him. I mean, it made sense to me that slamming that finger down every day for the past 20 years would make it a whole phalanx shorter.

Every year was the year Fidel was going down. Every Christmas we were spending the next one in Camaguey. I worried about what I should pack in my luggage. Should I take a bathing suit, a sweater, boots? Should I start packing today? Was there going to be horseback riding? Whose house would we be staying at? How would Santa know where to leave the presents? It was all very confusing.

Mom (far left) with 8 of her 11 siblings
Mom (far left) with 8 of her 11 siblings

Elena's Mom (far left) with 8 of her 11 siblings. Tio Marcelo (not pictured) died this year, 2012, on her dad's birthday.

In 2007, my father was diagnosed with a horrible form of cancer. One night, as I was sitting with him at the hospital, it came over the TV that maybe Fidel Castro was dead. I wondered to myself, “Do I wish death on Castro now?” I wasn’t sure if I wanted Castro to be dead just then because my father was, at the time, on his own death bed. On this night, facing the uncertainty of my father’s life, I wasn’t sure I could wish death upon anyone. Not even on the person who had caused so much misery to thousands of people.

I also did not want my dad to live in a world where Castro was finally dead. The one reason he had not visited his childhood country after all these many years was the fact that Fidel Castro was alive, and finally, right when it was too late, the son-of-a-bitch up and dies? I didn’t know what to do. So I did the first thing that came to mind, I went to La Carreta.

I have celebrated many major life changing events at La Carreta. I sounded the horn of mom’s minivan from our house all the way to La Carreta both times the Florida Marlins won the World Series. I made sure to find parking far and early both times the Heat won the Playoffs because getting there late meant being stuck in traffic. Once, the day after Halloween, my friends and I dressed up in costumes and strutted our stuff carrying a boom box from the entrance, all the way to the back, then right out the front door. But this night, the night we thought Castro was dead was different. The energy in the air was celebratory, but nostalgic. It was both happy and sad. And I watched, completely covered in goosebumps, as a group of 20 or so teary individuals sang and danced in unison to Willy Chirino’s “Ya Viene Llegando” (video below) until the police came and broke up the entire party.

I don’t have to tell you, but I will anyway, Fidel Castro was not dead that night. Nor has he been dead any night since. My dad wasn’t happy I danced in the streets. He didn’t want me to go La Carreta to celebrate that man’s death. He didn’t want to be duped by the Castro regime. But I wanted to pass the joy in my heart to my dad. The joy I felt from being his daughter and the immense sense of pride I feel of being Cuban.

A few days or maybe weeks later my father passed away. He died in a world where Fidel Castro lived, his beloved Cuba, still existing under the foot of a tyrant. But, in the end, the only thing that ever truly mattered to him was his family. When my dad died I understood, for the first time ever, what Cuban nostalgia was really all about.

* Translation of terms used in Elena's story:

  • Maleta - suitcase.
  • Palo por la cabeza. - Blow to the head with a large blunt object.
  • Santayana, llama la tienda. - Santayana, call the store.
  • Santayana llama la joyeria. Santayana, call the jewelry store
  • Papi llama a mami. - Dad, call mom.
  • El año que viene en Cuba! - Next year in Cuba!
  • Porque este año, este año caie Fidel! - Because this year, Fidel will fall!

Celebrating Six Years in the Blogosphere (MBFCF Giveaway WEEK!)

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you already know that I love any occasion to celebrate. So, you're probably asking, "What are we celebrating today, Marta?"

Let me tell you. Today marks the 6th Blogiversary of My big, fat, Cuban family on the Web.

GUAT? I know. Shut up.


That's right, people! SIX. YEARS.

I sat down in front of my computer screen on October 1st, 2006 and started over-sharing about being Cuban in the O.C. and how difficult it was to get decent Cuban food and so I just started cooking for myself and my family. And I took pictures every day anyway, so I started sharing my recipes.

And isn't it fitting that my October 1st Blogiversary is right smack dab in the middle of Hispanic Heritage Month? Coincidence? I think not.

I was amazed when I hit the One Year in the Blogosphere mark in 2007. So I celebrated.

1 year

Encouraged by your great response to this little Cuban corner of cyberspace, I kept writing, and picture-taking, and documenting and before I knew it, two years had gone by. And so I celebrated again. And designed a faux magazine cover, and I gave stuff away.

2 years

Blown away by your support and because I apparently had a whole lot more to say, I continued to write and lo and behold, in October of 2009, I celebrated My 3 Year Blogiversary. (<--is that even a word?) By that time, I had gotten into a groove and I was totally loving the whole faux-magazine-cover thing and I really enjoyed giving stuff away, so I did it again.

3 years

I was having SO. MUCH. FUN! I did stuff. I took pictures. I wrote about it. This space had become a living, breathing, photo album of my life. And I just kept writing, and picture-taking, and over-sharing right up until it was time to celebrate Year Four of Blogginess.

4 years

To be perfectly honest, I was still amazed and surprised that anyone even wanted to read what I was writing about. I kept doing it because, well, it is my life. And it should at least be of interest to me, right? Plus, when I look back at the hundreds of posts that I've written, it tells a really nice story about a really nice life and that makes me really, really happy.

I had some health challenges in 2011 and the thought crossed my mind that I had probably told all my stories and said everything I wanted to say about my family and my kids and all that. And I actually toyed with the idea of stopping this whole documenting-my-life-for-the-world-to-see thing. I took a break for a while and went back and read some of what I'd written and decided that even if no one else was following, it was an excellent record of my life (or at least the last few years of my life). And it made me happy. So when I got to Year Five in the Blogosphere, I really felt like I had a lot to celebrate.

5 years

Now I'm six years into telling, not just my own stories, but sharing some of yours with the Cuando Sali de Cuba series. I'm very proud of my little cyber-home here at My big, fat, Cuban family. I've made some lovely relationships with some wonderful people and generous sponsors.

As of today, my 6th Blogiversary, I'm happy to report that I have 4,491 followers on the MBFCF Facebook Fan Page where I get to over-share every single day in real time, but that's not important right now.

I want to thank you all.

You read. You share. You come back. You write to me. You leave comments. You make me laugh out loud. I love writing about the "relajo" that is my life and I'm humbled that you keep responding so positively every time. I love that you get my Cubanisms.

{A very special Thank You and shout out to Val & the rest of the Intransigents over at Babalú Blog for their unfailing friendship and support and for putting MBFCF on the Blogging World Map. Gracias!}

So, about that whole celebration thing.....

I'm going to be celebrating ALL WEEK. That's right. For the next SIX days, I've lined up some fabulous Cuban sponsors and I'll be hosting a very cool giveaway every single day for the ENTIRE WEEK to celebrate each of my SIX Bloggywonderful years.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. ;-)

To kick things off - here's MBFCF Blogiversary Giveaway #1:

My Big, Fat, Cuban Family Cookbook

Mbfcf cookbook

Leave a comment on this post for a chance to win my cookbook and please answer one or all of the following questions:

  • How did you find My big, fat, Cuban family?
  • What do you enjoy most about this blog?
  • How long have you been here?

I'll choose a winner at the end of MBFCF Blogiversary Giveaway Week on Monday, October 8th, 2012 at 11 am, so you have lots of time to enter.

Have I said, "thank you"? Seriously. Thank you.

Habana Brand Clothing - The Winners!

I hope you've been enjoying all the "Cuando Sali de Cuba" stories from the various contributors. I know I certainly have. I always tell people that there are as many amazing escape-from-the-island stories as there are Cubans in the U.S. Thanks for proving my point. I'll be sharing more stories in this space in the coming weeks.

A great big Thank You to Roland Vega for sharing his story and to Habana Brand Clothing for hosting the giveaway. Here he is rocking that classic Cuba men's design. Isn't it beautiful?

The Getty 2011 008

Thanks to all of you who entered the giveaway for the Habana Brand Clothing. I have looked through their entire catalog and have seriously fallen in love with their genius designs. 

Congratulations to the winner of the Men's tshirt in the size, color, and design of your choice.

Screen Shot 2012-09-30 at 9.28.47 PM
And the winner of the Women's tshirt in the size, color, and design of your choice.

Screen Shot 2012-09-30 at 9.29.35 PM

For those of you who did not win, but would still like a fabulous Habana Brand tshirt, please go to the Habana Brand Clothing site and when you purchase the tshirt of your choice, please mention My big, fat, Cuban family in the comments and they will send you a Habana Brand tote bag with your purchase. Isn't that a sweet deal? Go! And represent! And as usual, tell them Marta sent you. ;-)

Thank you for continuing to support Cuban-owned businesses and for all the Facebook "liking" you've done in the past few days. You guys seriously rock.

Congratulations, Ody and Rosalina, please send me an email to with HEY, MARTA! I WON STUFF ON YOUR BLOG! in the subject line so I don't accidentally delete it. Send me your snail mail address so I can forward your information to my friends at Habana Brand Clothing. Yay!