A Sense of Belonging: From Castro's Cuba to the U.S. Senate, One Man's Pursuit of the American Dream

Overview

The remarkable story of how a teenager rescued from Castro’s Cuba rose to become a United States senator

The swift and improbable rise of Mel Martinez to the top echelon of America’s government began not with a political race but with a burst of gunfire. In April 1958, an eleven-year-old Martinez huddled on his bedroom floor while Cuban soldiers opened fire on insurgents outside his family’s home in the town of Sagua la Grande.

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Sense of Belonging: From Castro's Cuba to the U.S. Senate, One Man's Pursuit of the American Dream

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Overview

The remarkable story of how a teenager rescued from Castro’s Cuba rose to become a United States senator

The swift and improbable rise of Mel Martinez to the top echelon of America’s government began not with a political race but with a burst of gunfire. In April 1958, an eleven-year-old Martinez huddled on his bedroom floor while Cuban soldiers opened fire on insurgents outside his family’s home in the town of Sagua la Grande.

If political unrest made daily life disturbing and at times frightening, Fidel Castro’s Communist Revolution nine months later was nothing short of devastating. When armed militiamen shouted violent threats at Martinez for wearing a medallion as a sign of his Catholic faith, his parents made a heartrending decision: their son would have to escape the Castro regime–alone.

A Sense of Belonging is the riveting account of innocence lost, exile sustained by religious faith, and an immigrant’s determination to overcome the barriers of language and culture in his adopted homeland. Though his story ends in the United States Capitol, Martinez has never forgotten the boy who experienced the loss of liberty under communism. A Sense of Belonging is a paean to the transformative power of the American dream.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Mel Martinez is a living embodiment of the American Dream. From his early days under the iron-fisted rule of Fidel Castro to his arrival in the United States at age fifteen, and now as a member of the U.S. Senate, Mel has demonstrated grit, resolve, and a commitment to fighting for the fundamental rights of freedom and human dignity. This remarkable story not only gives a glimpse into the life of a great man, but also reaffirms the notion that in America, anything is possible.”
—John McCain

“An extraordinary and inspiring book, Mel Martinez’s account is at once a memoir, a historical document, and a tribute to both his native homeland and his adopted country. Of the fourteen thousand stories that the children of the Pedro Pan airlift could tell, this is definitely one of the most exemplary. Senator Martinez reveals here, as he does in his public life, how the hyphen in ‘Cuban-American’ is like gold refined in a blazing furnace. Years from now–even centuries from now –readers will surely marvel still at the history recorded in these pages.”
—Carlos Eire, National Book Award—winning author of Waiting for Snow in Havana

From the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307405418
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/25/2009
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 1,004,734
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

MEL MARTINEZ is a United States senator from Florida.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Homeland

Darkness. A porch. A warm ocean breeze. The sound of voices—my father’s, and those of the old fishermen gathered around him. Stories about fishing, storms, boats, life.

These are my earliest memories. They are memories collected at my family’s quaint summer beach house at Playa Uvero, fifteen miles from our hometown of Sagua la Grande. My father’s father had built the house in this fishing village on the northern coast of Cuba long before it became a popular summer vacation spot. At that time Playa Uvero was the year-round home only to charcoal makers and professional fishermen. When my grandfather and other early vacationers settled, they built their houses near the locals’ homes, far back from the water’s edge. Later vacationers built houses on stilts close to the shore.

Sadly, I never knew my grandfather—he died when I was only forty days old—but the beach house he put up in the 1920s is the backdrop for some of my most vivid recollections of childhood. That porch in particular: it’s as if I can still hear the buzzing of insects in my ear and see the weathered fishermen trading stories with my father.

My father, who had been coming to this village every summer since his own childhood, was very outgoing and friendly and loved to talk. He had a booming voice that, along with his heavyset frame, made him a real presence. So our porch became a social center, with men from the village gathering there most nights. I would plop down in my dad’s lap or, later as I grew bigger, would sit cross-legged on the porch, listening to them talk. We would be enshrouded in darkness, for the simple reason that our rustic little home had

no electricity. A small windmill supplied only enough electricity to charge a car battery, which in turn powered a couple of lightbulbs. We wouldn’t have used the bulbs on the porch, since the darkness helped keep away the ever-present bugs. For additional lighting when needed, we used kerosene lanterns.

The stories these men shared were mesmerizing to a young boy. The old fishermen had lived through World War II, when German submarines combed the waters off Cuba. One man from the village told a story about picking up some German sailors who were adrift on a raft, hauling them into his fishing boat, bringing them ashore, and turning them over to the authorities. It amazed me that submariners from across the ocean had apparently patrolled so close to our little home.

My father was a veterinarian in Sagua. Just as his father had done before him, he would commute on weekdays in the summer, taking a small railcar to and from Sagua, about an hour’s ride through the green sugarcane fields of Central Resulta, the sugar mill in Sagua la Grande. Meanwhile, the rest of our family stayed in Playa Uvero from mid-June to mid-August. I didn’t mind the simple living conditions— the lack of electricity and running water, the cistern we relied on, the charcoal-burning stove and the kerosene

single-burner stove we had. I enjoyed the novelty of taking a shower at Uvero. The bathroom shower was nothing more than a five-gallon tank with a showerhead welded to the bottom. We would fill the tank with warm water and hoist it using a pulley attached to the ceiling. There was a cleat on the wall where we would tie off the line holding it up. Once it was secure, the bather released the water by pulling a cord one way for “on” and the other way for “off.” Simple, but ingenious.

I loved spending the summers at Playa Uvero with my mother and my younger brother, Ralph. There were always aunts, uncles, and cousins visiting as well. Every Sunday, my great-uncle Mariano would come for the big seafood lunch we shared as a family and would bring fresh bread from Sagua with him. Sunday lunches were always on the front porch, with the breeze gently blowing.

Playa Uvero was an idyllic setting for a boy. Cuba was a kind of paradise to me, unrivaled in its physical beauty, its climate, and the warmth and friendliness of its people. I got to see the sun sparkle on the water in the daytime and then watch it set as a fiery red ball at dinnertime. As a small child I played for hours in the sand, and as I got older I would pass entire days swimming and fishing.

My father passed many things on to me—not least being my name, Melquiades, which was also the name of my grandfather and my great- grandfather before him. A love of fishing was one of the many traits I shared with my dad. He was big on fishing, and he taught me the techniques of hand-line fishing and net fishing. We just threw the line out with a weight on it and held it firmly in hand, then pulled when a fish struck. We also would cast a net for bait, snaring small fish in the mesh. When I got older I got my own small cast net. I developed a routine: catch bait with my cast net, then go fish until lunchtime.

My dad would often go out in our twenty-three-foot boat and fish for the whole weekend. Sundays would be filled with anticipation for his return. My mother would bring my brother and me to the shore in the afternoon to await his arrival. Often when Papi came back, his boat would be practically overflowing with fish—grouper, snapper, yellowtail. It was more than we could ever eat in those days before reliable refrigeration. So he would wait for the commercial fishermen (many of them his old friends) to come in and sell their catch on the beach. Once he was sure he wasn’t undercutting any of the professionals, he would give away his extra fish.

When I was around ten, my dad finally started taking me on overnight trips. Sleeping and eating on the boat seemed like heaven on earth. On one occasion Papi bought lobsters from some commercial fishermen. The lobsters he cooked made for not only a wonderful dinner but also a rare breakfast treat: the next morning I ate the leftover lobster, cold with stale Cuban bread.

When I turned twelve I received the greatest summer gift ever. My parents surprised me with my own twelve-foot rowing dinghy, complete with a live well. This was a dream come true. It was handy for my father’s fishing trips—my job was to row while he and the other adults threw a cast net for bait fish—but during the week, it was all mine. I would row out to my favorite fishing spots with a friend. Being out there in the sea on my own gave me a quiet sense of independence.

Fishing left me with memories of the best of Cuba and the best of my childhood. To this day when asked I will always answer that it is the thing I miss the most about Cuba.

= = =

So many of my recollections of Cuba involve family. The whole family gathered every summer at Playa Uvero, of course, but that was not the only place. It wasn’t unusual in Cuban families to have several generations living under one roof. That was the situation I experienced for the first six years of my life. We lived with my father’s mother—my grandmother Graciela. Her home was a large upstairs apartment located right in the center of Sagua la Grande. Grandmother Graciela had a pretty balcony in the front and a little courtyard in the back, where I have faint memories of riding my tricycle and my scooter. I also recall going downstairs beneath the balcony and getting the bus to take me to first grade and my first school experience. My father drilled into me that when I got on the bus I was to say good morning to the bus driver.

My own little universe was all right there in Sagua la Grande, a city of maybe thirty thousand people located on the banks of the Sagua River, about two hundred and twenty miles east of Havana, due south of Miami. When I got a little older I could go everywhere in town on my bike—my school, the ball field, my grandmother’s house, my uncle’s house.

Sagua, though not a big city, was an important commercial center, with a sugar mill, a foundry that made parts for sugar mills throughout the country, and a thriving shipping business out of the Port of Isabela de Sagua. The surrounding agricultural area was rich in sugarcane, rice, and cattle. But those aspects of Sagua did not really enter my world. It was simply a great place to grow up.

Only about twelve miles from Sagua was the tiny rural town of Quemado de Güines, home to my mother’s mother, Pilar Caro Ruiz. My mother loved going home to see her mother. When Ralph and I were young, she would often take us there for weekend visits. I would sleep in that little wooden house and wake up with the sun streaming in and the clip-clop of horses going down the street. An old milkman would deliver on horseback, perched in the saddle with a couple of big milk jugs strapped on either side of the horse in straw bags. He would sing out to the ladies to come out of the house. They would bring a container and he would pour the milk into it. That was one of those little things I vividly recall—pastoral, rural, rustic. It was typical of the life of a small Cuban town in the 1950s. This was a long way from the glittering lights of Havana’s nightlife.

= = =

Adventures were never hard to find, even when we were not at the beach. My grandfather Melquiades, who built the beach house, also owned a small soda-bottling factory in Sagua, Compañía de Refrescos Purita, S.A. After his death, my great-uncle Mariano and my father ran the business with their partners. Since my dad was busy with his veterinarian job, Mariano oversaw the day-to-day operations. I was constantly in and out of that little factory. Going there was great fun for me. Many of the men who worked at the plant watched me grow up. When I was a little boy, the bookkeeper entertained me in the office. Later, as I grew older, I did some real work with the men. Sometimes I’d help load the trucks with cases of soda and then ride shotgun for the deliveries at restaurants and bars in and around Sagua. Other times I’d load bottles into the bottle-washing machine. Little bits here and there to help with the family business.

Aside from the free sodas and the camaraderie with the guys, I loved spending time with Uncle Mariano. He never married and had no children, so as the oldest grand-nephew, I was his favorite. He was grumpy and demanding to the men who worked at the plant but always had a softer side for me. Like the beach house, the soda factory was a favorite place of mine.

So too was my uncle Rinaldo’s dairy farm. The farm was slightly outside Sagua la Grande, and it was very beautiful, with flat green pastures. I spent a lot of happy days at my uncle’s farm. I was fortunate to have a horse I could ride there. I’d walk my horse under a guava tree and fill the saddlebags with guavas to snack on and bring home to our family.

But even better was spending time with Uncle Rinaldo. He and his wife, my mother’s sister Yolanda, had no children at the time, so I was the beneficiary of his unfulfilled paternal instincts. On days I didn’t have school, Rinaldo would pick me up in the afternoons and bring me along to “help” with the chores. I don’t think I was much help, but I loved saddling up our horses and riding all afternoon, checking fences or moving cattle from one pasture to another, and then at the end of the day unsaddling the horses, watering them, and putting them out in their pasture next to the barn.

For a boy this was sheer pleasure, but I also got to see the backbreaking work my uncle and his helpers put in to keep the farm running. Often they would put the cattle and other livestock through vats to delouse them and rid them of ticks. I learned to milk cows, to round up animals, to take care of the horses, and to manage the calves, which were smaller and more manageable for a boy. Of course, for me this was an afternoon’s entertainment, but for them all this work came after having awoken hours before sunrise.

Both the soda factory and the farm were, like the small beach house, the scene of vivid memories of my youth in Cuba. Within just a few years, though, both places would be gone—two more casualties of the radical “revolution” that was soon to sweep my homeland.

= = =

As a veterinarian, my father was familiar with the animal issues Uncle Rinaldo and other farmers faced. He dealt with all kinds of animals, but focused mostly on cattle, horses, and pigs on the farms outside Sagua. Just as I helped out on my uncle’s farm, I would tag along with my dad as he made his rounds; as I got older, I would also help him out by carrying his bag, holding animals for him so he could give them shots, and carrying medications for him. He would wear a white doctor’s coat with his name stitched on his left pocket. That left pocket always carried his Parker fountain pen.

As a veterinarian in a country setting, he had a range of responsibilities. Much of the time he headed out to the country to tend to farm animals. One time a horse encephalitis epidemic broke out and he was incredibly busy. Everybody had to have their horses vaccinated for fear they would lose them. Sometimes, too, he had to inspect the slaughterhouse, which was certainly an eye-opening experience for a kid. It was smelly, bloody, and noisy, and we were never there long. But we went often enough that I got to see a member of the Guardia Rural (Rural Guard), an official who came on horseback to check on the slaughterhouse, wearing what would be known in the states as a Smokey the Bear hat.

I loved making the rounds with my father, bumping along dusty dirt roads in a 1950 Chevrolet with a scoop back. That old Chevy sedan was his car for business—no pickup, no panel truck, no jeep. My dad hated to drive the stick shift. Sometimes he would get stuck and we’d have to jump out and rock that old car to get it going again. This made for high adventure—in mud sometimes a foot deep. If we tried to take a shortcut and we ended up stuck on a country road, he was always ready with an old Spanish saying like “Nunca dejes camino por vereda,” which means “Never leave the main road for the trail.”

From the Hardcover edition.

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Table of Contents

Prologue: Departures and Arrivals 1

Ch. 1 Homeland 9

Ch. 2 Revolution 29

Ch. 3 Exit Strategy 43

Ch. 4 Exile 51

Ch. 5 Homecoming 67

Ch. 6 Crisis 79

Ch. 7 Graduation 89

Ch. 8 A New Course 103

Ch. 9 Reunion 117

Ch. 10 Ownership 135

Ch. 11 Turning Points 147

Ch. 12 Kitty 155

Ch. 13 New Homes 165

Ch. 14 Margarita 179

Ch. 15 Serving 199

Ch. 16 Washington 215

Epilogue: Dreams 227

Acknowledgments 239

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