Growing Up In New Jersey Meant Having a Cuban “Family” For Me

19 Dec

Growing up in North Bergen, New Jersey, in the early 1960s, I will tell you that I knew many people who left Cuba. For some reason a large number of Cuban refugees ended up in West New York, New Jersey, the city where my Mom grew up and where she taught elementary school.

Among my Mom’s close friends were three women who had left Cuba after Castro took over. In Cuban, two of them had lived upper class lives, with servants and large homes.   The husband of one had had an important position in the previous government. He did not come over with her, as he was imprisoned.

Our lives became intertwined with the families of these three women, We knew their spouses and children. We went to their homes. Although I never learned to speak Spanish, I could understand it as I spent time with the grandmother who never learned to speak English.

They hated Castro. They had a good reason to hate him, as he had destroyed their lives as they knew it. But the years passed. They did make a life in New Jersey, although they always talked about the cold here and the beautiful island of Cuba.

My Mom and these women shopped together, ate together, had parties together. They formed a family at school that continued when they all retired. They took my Mom shopping and always made sure she was dressed appropriately!! They were much more formal at first. And knew all the great places to shop. Gloria, Elvira and Belkys were part of our lives.

At my wedding, it was Gloria who brought needle and thread for my wedding gown. She was concerned because I chose not to have a bustle made. Instead, I had a loop to put the train over my arm. She was right. I grew tired of that very quickly. And Gloria sewed an improvised bustle to my gown at the reception.

They shared happy events and sad ones with us. I remember at my Grandmother’s shiva in 1991, they all came, “the Cuban contingency,” as my Dad called them. At the shiva was a new friend of mine, who was Chilien. I cannot erase from my mind the vision of Gloria and my friend, Vero, standing opposite each other, hands clasped, as Gloria interviewed Vero in Spanish. Thank goodness she passed. We have traveled the world together and have become family, just as my family united with Gloria’s family decades before.

My father and Gloria’s husband, Raphael, drove into NYC together for years. My Dad took his car in, leaving from our home on 78th Street near Boulevard East, and pick up Raphael who lived on Boulevard East right near the border with West New York. They were a team! A comedy team at times!

These three women had an important impact on my life. They were always there. They were at my wedding, my children’s bar and bat mitzvah.  All family events!  They were there at my Mother’s funeral and a few months later at my Dad’s funeral. Their love for my parents and for us never wavered.

So as President Obama, Raul Castro, the Pope and Canada worked in secret to change the relationship between Cuba and the USA, I wondered what they would think of all this.

Perhaps by now their anger would have disappeared. It is over 50 years. The USA has made peace with Germany, with Japan, with Vietnam with South Korea, with China. Why not Cuba?   It makes sense. The world is too small for this distancing from a neighbor who is so close.

No other country has agreed and supported the USA’s blockade of Cuba. No other country has agreed with this decision.

If you read the history of the Island of Cuba (I recommend the book, Havana Nocturne), you would learn that the mob and the dictator before Castro, Fulgencio Batista, were not better than Castro. They were destroying Cuba. Castro, not that I am endorsing what he did, had a reason for the overthrow of the existing government.

Fidel Castro is no longer at the helm of Cuba. It is his brother, Raul.   I believe from the moment he took over, Raul Castro was looking to make a change. I have a personal story that endorses this belief.

My parents went on a cruise in February of the year Raul took over the helm of Cuba, for my Mom’s birthday. My Dad had a heart condition, but was not known to follow medical advice very well when it came to eating correctly. He became ill on the cruise going into congestive heart failure.

The ship had to make a very quick trip to the Grand Cayman Islands where my Dad and Mom were taken off the ship and directly to a hospital. There my Dad was stabilized and then my parents were flown by air ambulance back to the USA. As they flew, the pilot spoke to my Mom.

“Look out the window,” he told her. “That is Havana.   We are the very first air ambulance that has ever been given permission to fly over Cuba!”

Thanks to Raul Castro’s new government, the air space over Cuba was opened for medical emergencies, and my Dad lived three more years.

It is time to make a change.

While growing up in New Jersey, I had a Cuban family! I think the USA and Cuba could form strong bonds, just as the USA and Japan, Germany, and other former adversaries have formed bonds.

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2 Responses to “Growing Up In New Jersey Meant Having a Cuban “Family” For Me”

  1. Celia Serrano December 27, 2015 at 10:28 am #

    Great story! Thanks for sharing, your fellow West New York girl, Celia.

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