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. 

Remembering Papi. Resolviendo - Cuban style

My dad was an Electrical Engineer. A Cuban Engineer. Which made him brilliant and innovative with just a touch of Mad Scientist to him.

When we first arrived in this country, someone had given us a very old, very used, five foot tall refrigerator. We were grateful to have it, since we arrived here with nothing. A gift of a large appliance, no matter how old or short was nothing to be sneezed at.

That refrigerator was not just old, it was quite fragile. It was for sure not a big name, like Frigedaire or Maytag. It had one of those clunky metal handles that you pull down in order to open the fridge. I still remember that it made a big "ka-chunk" sound when you opened it. There was no sneaking food from this old beast. Having six kids in the family constantly pulling on that old handle was a bit too much for the old fridge to handle, (pun intended) and so it soon broke off.

Of course, we couldn't afford a new refrigerator...

My dad, the Cuban Engineer to the rescue!

He found the largest screwdriver he could find. Seriously, it must have been at least 12 inches long. Then he attached some bolts to the bottom and attached it where the old handle had been and voila! New refrigerator handle!

We have no photos of this amazing thing. We barely have photos of ourselves during this time, but that’s not important right now.

Check out the sketch I’ve drawn from my very vivid memory of the thing. I always found it in turns amazing and hideous.


Damn Cubans!

Do you have a good "Resolviendo" story? Please share.

(original story posted on TikiTiki Blog.)

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.

La Virgen de La Caridad - A Personal History

September 8, 1961.

My family had been in the U.S. for seven long months. There was still a longing for anything or anyone that reminded us of "home." We eagerly waited for news that the revolution had failed and that the new regime had fallen and that we would soon be heading back to all things familiar.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Miami, which was instrumental in helping 14,000 unaccompanied minors travel to the U.S. to save them from Marxist indoctrination, was to have a mass. (My brother was one of those Pedro Pan kids. You can read about that here.)

September 8, 1961. That same day...

The image of Our Lady of Charity (La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre) arrived from Cuba. She was first taken to the camps where the newly arrived children were interned waiting to be sent to host families in other parts of the country. Then she was to be exhibited during a mass at St. John Bosco in what is now known as Little Havana. My mother insisted we go. I think it was equal parts religious devotion and longing to be among other exiles.

Verdes sisters 63

The Verdés sisters minus one. Circa late 1961. I'm the little one with the curly hair.

Off we went to the participate in the mass, to see the newly-arrived-from-Cuba image of Our Lady, and to connect with other Cuban refugees. 

Picture my mother with her three youngest daughters (there are 5 of us girls) in tow. Into the throng we went. And there she spotted an Old Cuban Friend. The exchange went something like this:

Old Cuban Friend: "You! Here? What joy this brings me!"

Luza (my mom): "I can't believe it!"

They proceed to hug and cry and cling to each other like drowning children to a life preserver.

Breaking away and between the sobs, they begin to ask about the rest of the family. My mom introduces us as her three youngest. "You have THREE young girls?" The woman starts looking a bit suspicious.

Old Cuban Friend (or was she?): "Wait! What about young Arturito? And what about Zeida from down the street?"

It was at this point that both of them simultaneously realized that they did not know each other after all. But, of course, in Classic Luza Style, she said nothing. It was a case of completely mistaken identity.

She quickly grabbed us and we went into the mass.

"Mami, who was that?"

"I have no idea."

I think the emotions were genuine. We were here and we were free and there was some comfort in the familiar. The tears of grief and joy were heartfelt, even if they were grossly misplaced. And, to be honest, I've experienced that Cuban familiarity many times. My dad used to say that all of us Cubans have a map of the island on our forehead that only other Cubans can see, but that's not important right now. (Cuban Superpowers Activate!)

This happened 50 years ago and I can vividly remember the moment. I had never seen my mom cry so hard. It made such an impact on me.

September 8th is the 400th anniversary of the original finding of the statue in the rough Cuban waters in the Bay of Nipe (pronounced NEE-PEY). Here's that story.


The Archdiocese of Miami is celebrating with a mass and concert. And because the Cuban community has grown in the half century since the arrival of Our Lady, it will be held in a much, much bigger venue.

Here are the details:

Saturday September 8th 2012

American Airlines Arena, 601 Biscayne Boulevard, Miami, Florida 33132

  • 4:00 PM - Doors of the AAA open to the public
    Statue of Our Lady of Charity departs by sea from the Shrine of O. L. of Charity
  • 4:30 PM - Holy Rosary at the AAA
  • 5:00 PM - Arrival of the statue at the AAA
  • 6:00 PM - Holy Mass, presided by Archbishop Thomas Wenski
  • 8:14 PM - Concert with the participation of well-known singers and musicians

*Admission is free, and there will be concession stands open throughout the event.

If you're in Miami, you should go. Maybe you'll see someone you know. Or think you know. Even if you don't know them, if they're Cuban and you're Cuban, you should hug and kiss them anyway.

It's what we do, isn't it?

Cuando Sali de Cuba - Luis Felipe's Story

Marta here. I started this series, Cuando Sali de Cuba, Stories of Courage and Hope in order to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month: Cuban-Style. I asked my readers to send me their stories about how their families left Cuba and how they ended up here in the U.S.

As the stories began pouring in, I realized that this needed to be an ongoing series. The stories are still coming in. Some are written as tributes by descendants of Cuban refugees who were born here in the U.S. and some, like this one, written from the perspective of someone who lived and survived the first years of the revolution and helped others escape.

I asked my friend, Joey Lay, of the Dos Cubanos Pig Roasts to send me his story. He did one better. He sent me his father's.

I'm honored to offer you Luis Felipe's story. It is absolutely fascinating because of the position he held in the national bank system at the time of the revolution. It will in turn make you angry and break your heart. 



CUANDO SALI DE CUBA – 14 de Octubre 1960

WHEN I FLED CUBA - October 14th. 1960

Every Cuban that left their homeland in the aftermath of the communist takeover treason from the beginning of the 60’s decade through this date, half a century after, has a story to be told and a vivid and stressful one. 

This is my story. I hope you share the sense of hope when I survived and the sense of mourning when somebody else you never knew did not make it.

The world needs to know.


It is our great responsibility to speak on their behalf, as so many innocent people were swallowed by the horrors of cruel and despotic criminals that had no control of their appetite for power and civil compulsion. They have demonstrated this over five long decades and three generations immersed in tremendous devastation as they struggle for life and freedom, the two most precious gifts from God.

It was October 14th, 1960, at dawn, fifty years ago now, the telephone at my parents home rang very loud and clear at that early hour. It was still dark and it felt like the surroundings were matching the situation that all were experiencing in Cuba at the time.  My cousin was calling to advise me to leave right away.

I was already planning ahead of what was coming to protect my wife and 2 ½  year old baby daughter because it had been announced that the banking system was being taken over by the Communist Government. I was affiliated with the Bank that was in charge of  the Dollar Currency, known as divisas, donated by the people for a supposedly more democratic government that was to be put into place during the first year of the Revolution.

This, of course, never took place because Castro and his comrades deceived the people of Cuba making them believe that they were going to establish a just and democratic country with rights for all their citizens where peace and prosperity were going to flourish. History shows they had no intention of doing this. Instead they brought violence, terror, and misery. Desolation has prevailed for over half a century without the most needed rectification of direction to improve the conditions and liberty of  the people of Cuba.  

The fact that I represented the bank employees as a delegate of the national banking syndicate, jeopardized my security and the control of my actions and movements because I refused to follow the orders and instructions of the newly formed revolutionary government.

This "new" government was increasingly influenced by the communist party and the atheist platform. Their plan was to attack the church and religious entities and take over the press and all communications media as well as the different sectors of the business world.

The situation in the country escalated at an alarming rate. The oppression was at full force and the threats were constant. They menaced by means of telephone calls and the sudden presence of armed people that looked more like gangsters than soldiers.

This was the contribution of the errantly named Cuban revolution. A revolution that did not exist because it was stolen from the people and given to the elite of international communism.  The Red Menace took over our island with absolute cruelty and disregard for the human condition and absolutely no sensitivity to their citizens. Private property was rapidly stolen and given to cement the absolute control of the state, and the state was Castro.

El Che Guevara and all the other abusers of power aligned with world elements of the Communist International Group, funded and supported by the Soviet Union and their enslaved satellites. Since I was considered a leader with a Christian philosophy and democratic principles and surrounded by people like me, I was a target for pressure and threats and next in line to either be sent to prison arbitrarily or shot to death like many others were on a daily basis at La Cabaña and other military fortresses.

The new regime had thousands arrested  and also sent to the death squadrons each morning at dawn, without due process of justice or a day in court  since the purpose was to eliminate people that loved freedom and because the justice system was eradicated when these hordes took the country by surprise. They took advantage of a corrupted and weak military dictatorship that was governing by force, too, and had displaced the constitutional government of an elected president and congress eight years before.

I had to leave Cuba that morning of October 14th, 1960 if I wanted to survive with my family in a country of freedom where I could be of help to my countrymen and to restore our civil life and patriotic values, as well as the religious profession of the people that were not respected by the usurpers. My choice was obvious but the mission almost impossible because of the scrutiny on me.

It was difficult to get out of the country and the permits were unattainable, but I had a plan, and, I put it into effect, carefully and with elaborate disguising.

It worked only because we had God’s protection to such a risky departure. All elements were against me. The banks were invaded by the government militarily with machine guns and all; just like an assault.  

And the leader of the syndicate had already left to fight the revolutionary army from the Mountains of Escambray, in Central Cuba, just five days before.

I was the second in command and everybody was looking for me because I did not show up at the bank that day. They went to my house to get me, but I had already vanished. They went to my parents' house searching for me, but I had already left with my father, my wife and baby daughter. We were on our way to the International Airport where there was a big event that particular day.

At first it seemed it would be much more dangerous to be heading to the airport with a military presence there, but instead it turned out to for my benefit. The confusion was what helped me escape.  

I arrived at the airport while the armed groups were looking for me. I was the only bank associate that did not show up while the takeover, or so-called nationalization, of the commercial and private banks, in addition to all the retirement funds was happening.

There was a big confusion generated by the coming of the Minister of  Exterior Relations accompanied by the President of Ghana (pseudo-communist) from the United Nations. It happened to coincide with the time of my departure and called for a concentration of all the militias from different fields and sectors of the country, including the bank militias that were at the airport.

All of this perfectly coincided with the time I was there trying to board the airplane. The militia from the banking sector belonging to different institutions thought that I was there for the celebration and had no idea I was really there to escape from my persecutors.

After being stripped and thoroughly checked, we had to walk quite a long way on the tarmac in order to step up the ladder to climb into the aircraft. We were on hold for nearly 45 minutes while we could see the Foreign Minister's aircraft with the President of Ghana (the African country). 

Twice the armed soldiers boarded our plane and two men were removed, one at a time.  Our little baby girl was crying, trying to drink a bottle of milk in that terrible heat and the loud noise from the propellers. 

Finally, the airplane took off.

Up into the air we went and the blue sky could be seen all around us coming from heaven into the horizon.

Everyone on the airplane, from the passengers to the crew were happily clapping and relieved that we had succeeded in our dangerous plan to escape communism and oppression after so much turmoil. The happiness reflected in the passengers faces was undeniable. There was singing and laughing, smiles and hugs. We all felt united in our euphoria and relief.

When I arrived with my wife and tiny daughter at the old Miami Airport, the Pan American Terminal on 36th Street was full of people waiting for one of the first groups coming from the chaotic island of Cuba. Once the Pearl of the Antilles and now immersed in tears, hate, guns and distress. 

Of course, with empty pockets but a clean heart, we gave thanks to God for his enduring protection that saved our lives.

I called my family that could not come with me to let them know we had arrived safely.  I told my Father and my Mother that I was safe and that I would start helping others to escape the horrors of communism. Our Lord helped me not only to be a bridge between the Cubans and Americans in this country but also allowed me to be an instrument to help bring to freedom hundreds of families and nearly 5,000 people who were being persecuted in Cuba because of their religious beliefs or democratic ideals. Except my grandmother, who knew that she would never see me or the rest of the family again. She was in her 90's when she died a few years later.

I'm sad to say, however, that 51 years after the day I left Cuba for the last time, the conditions there are much, much worse. We lost our homeland. And now three more generations of young people have been deprived of the right to live according to God’s plan for humanity.

The same oppressors that killed our friends and citizens just because they did not follow their ignominies continue to rule the country with a cruel and miserable tyranny. We knew many who served more than 20 years in jail, many of them dying in prison. The devastation has been horrendous in all spheres of society. Such a thing as this had not even been seen before colonial times.


My wife, Miriam and I were married in Miami at Gesu Catholic Church the same day that the revolutionary forces entered in La Habana, January 3rd, 1959.  


Our oldest daughter, Myriam Cristina was born in Cuba, and five more children were born to us here in the U.S.A., Luis Felipe Jr., Dennis Albert, Joseph Edward, Rose Marie and  Robert Anthony.

Lay 6


They are all married and we now have 12 Grandchildren. We live in peace and prosperity in the freedom offered to us here in the U.S.A.

~Luis Felipe Lay


Marta here:

I'm so very grateful to Joey and his father for sharing this amazing story. Gracias, my friend. I'm proud to know you.

If you're Cuban American, your family has a story to tell. Please allow me the privilege of sharing it here on my blog. Even if you were born here in the U.S. and you want to pay tribute to those who bravely left Cuba for a better life here, please do. Send me an email with "Cuando Sali de Cuba" in the subject line. Also, please send some family photos. 

It's my honor to pay tribute to your courageous families. As Luis Felipe so eloquently put it:

The world needs to know.

(cross-posted on Babalú blog)

Cuando Sali de Cuba - Margaret's Story

Marta here. Welcome to my ongoing celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month - Cuban Style with a series of stories about Cuban American families and how they ended up here in the U.S.

Cuando Sali de Cuba, stories of courage and hope.

Today's story comes from Margaret. She tells about the agonizing wait to leave Cuba and how her family was harrassed by Castro's goons after they decided to leave.


My family consisted of my mom, my dad, my brother and I.  We were a happy family. My dad worked for US Company as a mechanic-electrician.  He and my mom were married for 17 years and had built a modest home in El Cotorro,Reparto Las Brisas.  He was born in Guanavacoa  and my mom in Regla.

Abuelas pictures 012

My dad knew what was coming when the Castro Regime took over, so when the Bay of Pigs invasion was unsuccessful, he and my mom started paperwork to leave. My uncle in New York was our sponsor and it took one year from the time the paperwork was started to the day we received the departure date.

As all Cubans know, you leave everything because the government says it’s theirs. Everything in the house is inventoried  when they find out you are leaving and then 3 days before your actual departure day, you are put out of your home, inventory taken again to make sure you haven’t sold or given away any of YOUR stuff.

If anything was missing, you didn't leave. My family’s day of departure was September 26, 1962.

Our uncle took us to the Havana Airport, we went into the “fishbowl” where you were called names and jeered at by the loyal Castro-lovers who stood on the other side of the glass room.

Abuelas pictures 016

Margaret with her mother and brother.

We were lucky; we were not searched in the manner in which many were. However our luck ran out when going up the stairs to the plane. My dad’s name was called and he was not allowed to board with us.

We took off without him and knew nothing of him for over 24 hours.

Once he joined us in Miami almost two days later, he said he had not been tortured but I don’t really believe it now. My dad got sick one week after we arrived in New York and died on November 15th, 1962 less than two months after coming from Cuba.

 Anyone that says you can’t die of a broke heart is wrong. Leaving everything you worked so hard to have to a government just because you disagree and want to leave can break your heart.

My dad never got to experience the freedom he died to give us and my brother and I are forever grateful to him and my mom for their sacrifice to get us out of that hellhole!  How different our lives would have been if we had stayed.

Abuelas pictures 024_3
Margaret's mother and stepfather.

Our story is not that different from many Cubans, but it is ours. We were lucky to be here and I will forever be grateful to the United States of America for opening their arms to us.

~ Margaret Rabelo-Carlson

Cuando Sali de Cuba - How We Became Marielitos - Gracie's Story

Marta here: Welcome to my ongoing celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month: Cuban-Style with a series of stories about Cuban American families and how they ended up here in the U.S.:

Cuando Sali de Cuba, stories of courage and hope.

Today I want to introduce you to Gracie and her family, who left Cuba as part of the Mariel Boatlift in 1980. Gracie interviewed her family and pieced the story together according to all of their recollections.

There are two things I have noticed about the Cubans who came to America during the boatlift. Aside from the incredibly difficult conditions they endured at El Mosquito, the camp they were sent to while waiting for a ship to take them to America:

  1. They all vividly remember the names and types of boats that brought them to freedom.
  2. Their stories invariably include their amazement at the gracious treatment they received by the U.S. Military when they first arrived which cemented their love of this country.

125,000 Cubans came to the U.S. during this time. Most of them arrriving with nothing but the clothes on their backs. It's to their lasting credit that they've become, not just another historical footnote, but truly American success stories.

Here's Gracie's story.


How We Became Marielitos

I was 2 years old when my family and I left Cuba. Little did I know that my life was about to change as we boarded the Miss Mona Rose, an 80 foot long shrimp boat.  We were among 280 Cubans who boarded that boat at 2am on September 3, 1980.

My dad, me, and mom in Miami

Gracie and her parents

That was the day we left all of our possessions and everyone we knew behind. My family migrated to the U.S. during the Mariel Boatlift in 1980, along with approximately 150,000 other Cubans. During that time Castro had rid his country of what he considered to be “antisocial elements” including: gays, Jehovah Witnesses, non-political prisoners, and those who didn’t follow his communist regime. When boats went to Mariel to pick up other’s family members, he would add additional passengers that he no longer wanted in his country

The first of my family to leave Cuba were my brother Ruben, and my sister Miriam, who were 18 and 20 at the time. My father typed a letter stating my siblings were both gay and he then forged the signature of the revolutionary committee president. 

Ruben and Miriam took the letter to the police station. The head of the police said that he needed their parent’s authorization to leave the country and proof that Ruben was released from military duty. He took them aside and said he knew our late grandmother and family well, and although he did not believe they were antisocial elements he would approve the leave from Cuba.

5 days later, a police officer went to our house and told them to report to the police station at midnight. A bus would pick them up to take them to Cuatro Ruedas, where antisocial elements or “Escorias” ("scum") as Fidel called them, were held while they were waiting to leave the country.

My brother and sister were at Cuatro Ruedas for one week without any outside contact.  There, Miriam passed out one day from lack of food. Eventually, they were sent to El Mosquito, the final holding camp in Mariel. Prior to entering El Mosquito, the guards took their watches, jewelry, and other valuables. They took advantage of the situation in any way possible, including sexually harassing people. They asked my sister to bend over to search her, putting their hands in her pants as well as her underwear. Miriam vividly recalls one guard grabbing his genitals over his pants as he asked her, “So you don’t like this?” since her paperwork stated she was gay.

Miriam, Mireya, Ruben, me in Miami
Miriam, Mireya, Ruben and Gracie in Miami

Once word spread that my siblings were leaving, my parents were hassled by neighbors, co-workers, and friends for not following Castro’s regime. Our neighbors threw rocks at our house and yelled profanities at us. My father lost his job and wasn’t able to find another.

My aunt, Cristina, lived in Miami for over ten years at that time. She listened to the radio every night as they listed all the names of Cuban immigrants that had arrived to Key West. After two weeks of my mom not hearing from my siblings, on June 3, 1980, my aunt called with news that Ruben and Miriam arrived to Key West safely.

Me, Mireya, Miriam, Miriam's daughter,Diana, and Ruben 2009
Gracie, Mireya, Miriam & her daughter, Diana, and Ruben 2009

The events that follow are the reason I am forever grateful to Ruben and my Tia Cristina. Ruben was willing to risk his freedom and life at the age of 18 to ensure the rest of us could leave the country. Tia Cristina and her husband fronted over $10,000 for us to come to the U.S, over $30,000 in today’s standards.  

During the next two months, Tia Cristina paid two individuals on separate occasions, $1,500 for each family member that she wanted brought back from Cuba. First, she paid a man who promised to pick up the family in Cuba within 15 days.  After a month passed without him leaving to Cuba, a number of disregarded phone calls and house visits from my aunt, Miriam and Tia Cristina spent one night in Tia’s car watching his house. Their persistence paid off and they were able to get the money back.

Mami, Tia Cristina, and my daughter, Ruby

Mami, Tia Cristina,  & Gracie's daughter, Ruby

My aunt later found a man named Jim; an American who was picking up other families. We were desperate at that point, as the Port of Mariel had been open for several months and everyone feared Castro would soon close the port. Ruben then decided he would return to Cuba to pick us up with Jim, who did not speak Spanish and my brother knew little English. He went for two reasons: to make sure the man would keep his end of the bargain and to ensure our family would go on the boat first, rather than those chosen by the Cuban officials.

Ruben and Me
Gracie and Ruben

Ruben returned to Cuba the 2nd week of July.  Since he could not legally leave the United States, once they reached Key West, Ruben hid under mattresses in the van he traveled in. That evening, he snuck into the boat and they sailed off. Once they arrived in Cuba, my brother risked imprisonment and his life the moment he dared to touch Cuban soil. A line of boats awaited them when they reached Mariel with others who had gotten there prior to them.

Ruben lived in the boat for seven weeks. That is how long it took them to reach the front of the line and have the paperwork completed for the rest of the family to leave Cuba. He slept on a comforter on the floor and ate canned food that he had brought to survive during those several weeks.

We boarded the boat September 3rd.  We left Cuba with only the clothes we were wearing. The weather was not in our favor that day and when one of the boat’s stabilizers broke, water started to enter the boat as it rocked. I was seasick and vomiting. The women and children were told to go to the cabin.   My brother says it was like a scene from the movie, The Perfect Storm. The waves were enormous. People were falling into the ocean and drowning. The crew members tied a number of passengers to a rope to keep them from falling, including my dad, Mireya (my other sister), and Ruben.   

My father recalls a small boat, with 9 people, leaving Cuba just a few minutes ahead of us. Once we were in international waters, we lost sight of the boat, which had been traveling close to us. Our captain called for help and soon after, the American Coast Guard had two boats and a helicopter searching the waters. My dad says he’ll never forget how impressed he was with the Americans for their thorough search for people who weren’t from their own country. At that moment he said he knew we had made the right choice in risking everything to go to America.  

Finally, September 3, 1980 at 7pm, we arrived in Key West. Along with me came my parents, Mireya, Tia Ana, and her two daughters Aniutka and Anabel.  My brother was questioned after they realized he had left the U.S. illegally. He was told he had to go to court and explain why he left the country.

Aniutka, Me, Anabel

Aniutka, Gracie, and Anabel

One of the most fascinating things about putting this story together is how everyone has different memories of the same event. Luckily, I don’t remember our awful 15 hours at sea, how scared my mom was when Ruben and Miriam left without us, or the three month ordeal my family went through before we left Cuba.

This story is a collection of my family’s recollections of how we became Marielitos.  Although, I will never forget where I came from, I am now proud to be an American and forever grateful to this country.


Marta here.

I'm so grateful to Gracie for sharing her family's ordinary courage and the difficulties they encountered. There are thousands of stories just like theirs that have not been told.

It's not too late to tell your story. Send me an email with "Cuando Sali de Cuba" in the subject line to mdarby(at)cox(dot)net. I will keep posting them as long as you keep sending them.

Thank you so much. Que Dios los bendiga.

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.