In this deeply moving memoir, González recounts his remarkable personal and professional journey. The memoir begins with Gerardo's childhood in Cuba and recounts the family's emigration to the United States and struggles to find work and assimilate, and González's upward track through higher education. It demonstrates the transformative power that access to education can have on one person's life. Gerardo's journey came full circle when he returned to Cuba fifty years after he left, no longer the scared, disheartened refugee but rather proud, educated, and determined to speak out against those who wished to silence others. It includes treasured photographs and documents from González's life in Cuba and the US. His is the story of one immigrant attaining the American Dream, told at a time when the fate of millions of refugees throughout the world, and Hispanics in the United States, especially his fellow Cubans, has never been more uncertain.
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As the plane approached the runway in Havana, my heart thudded at the sight of the royal palms, the national tree of Cuba, dotting the landscape. As a child going on road trips through the countryside, I was mesmerized by the beautiful trees that seemed to appear everywhere. The day was bright, hot, and humid — just as I remembered. I walked into the terminal at the José Martí airport in disbelief. It had been fifty years since I had touched Cuban soil!
The year is 2012. Unlike the day I left Cuba as a terrified eleven-year-old, I was returning not only as an adult but as a leader — a widely respected American educator. I was leading a group of alumni from my university who were among the first Americans to enter the tropical island since relations between the two countries began to improve under the Obama and Raúl Castro administrations.
Memories flooded back during the brief visit — some happy, but many bittersweet. I did not immediately realize that going back would bring about a deeper level of understanding of my parents' motivation for leaving Cuba and the experiences that have shaped my life.
Seemingly ordinary sights unleashed powerful memories and emotions. It was like stepping back in time. There are centuries-old ways of doing things in Cuba. Seeing a bodega, a small Cuban convenience store, for the first time as an adult was very emotional. As a child, I used to go to my grandfather's bodega to pick up things that my mother needed — rice, beans, eggs — or simply to visit with my grandfather. On his way home from the bodega each night, my grandfather would bring me small pieces of chocolate, cheeses, and other treats he knew I enjoyed.
My family was among the many thousands of Cubans who left the island for the United States between the January 1959 Fidel Castro takeover and the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. After a series of agonizing discussions with my grandparents, and fearing that the revolution was taking children from their parents and placing them in indoctrination camps, my parents decided to leave Cuba and everything they owned so that my younger sister and I could have a better life.
My parents had grown up in poverty and struggled to make ends meet, though by the time we left, my father had started a small welding and auto repair shop that provided for the family.
In our early years in the United States as Cuban refugees, we faced what seemed like insurmountable struggles. My experiences in American schools set me adrift in an alien education system I could not understand. However, my parents kept a steadfast focus on education as the way to a better life for my sister and me. Though not educated themselves, my parents used every possible means to impress on us the importance of education.
My father would make his point by holding his hands up in front of me. The hands of a mechanic who has worked on engines for more than forty years have a very distinctive look. Forty years of getting burned on hot engines, cut with fan belts, soaked in grease and gasoline, and being exposed to countless harsh conditions turned my father's hands into vivid reminders that he was a man who did hard labor. He would say, "Mira, Gera, mira a mis manos. Quiero que estudies para que cuando tú tengas mi edad tus manos no estén como las mías — Look, Gera, look at my hands. I want you to get an education so that when you're my age your hands don't look like mine."
I did attain a college education. In fact, I became an academic and in 2000 reached the pinnacle of my academic career. I was named dean of the School of Education at Indiana University, one of America's premier educational institutions.
In May 2012, almost exactly fifty years after immigrating to the United States, I was asked by the Indiana University Alumni Association to lead a people-to-people cultural exchange tour to Cuba. In the years since my family and I had left the island, I had not thought much about a return trip. I was excited about the opportunity to go back to my native land for the first time, but I didn't know what to expect. I found the experience much more emotional than I could have imagined. And it led to a series of reflections about my life and conversations with my parents that inspired this memoir.
In Havana, automobiles from the 1950s, some in mint condition, cruised the city's streets. Until very recently, people could buy and privately operate only those cars that were on the road before the 1959 revolution. Infrastructure was neglected, leaving entire buildings crumbling and many elaborate Spanish colonial landmarks beyond restoration. Our group toured historic landmarks and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) world heritage sites, including La Habana Vieja, the sixteenth-century city center. We also visited the Instituto Superior de Arte; the Cuban National Ballet School; a health clinic, to learn about Cuba's socialized medicine program; Ernest Hemingway's estate, Finca Vigía; and the Museo de la Revolución, which houses Cuba's most complete exhibition of its revolutionary history.
I was fascinated by everything we saw, but what I enjoyed most was talking with the local people and hearing their stories. One of my most emotional encounters happened in Trinidad, a sixteenth-century town some twenty-five miles from my Cuban hometown of Placetas. As I walked down the street with our group, an elderly man approached me with a bundle of pesos in his hands. In broken English, he said, "Mister, I change you these pesos for CUCs." Cuba has a double economy: one that functions in pesos for the general Cuban population and one in Cuban convertible pesos (CUCs) for tourists. The average Cuban worker earns about 400 pesos per month. A CUC is roughly equal to twenty-four pesos.
Pointing to his pesos, he continued, "Mira, mira — Look, look — they have Che's picture on them."
I responded in Spanish, "I will trade you a CUC for your peso, but I prefer one with someone else's picture."
He promptly replied, "Sí, sí, tengo uno con José Martí — Yes, yes, I have one with José Martí." We had a deal. As we traded his peso for my CUC, we continued the conversation in Spanish. He said, "Hablas español muy bien. ¿De dónde eres? — You speak Spanish very well. Where are you from?" I told him that I was from Placetas, just a few miles from Trinidad. With a look of astonishment, he said, "From Placetas? My daughter married a boy from a medical family named Garabito and now lives in Placetas with her husband." It took me a while, then it dawned on me that Garabito had been my family physician when I lived in Cuba.
When it was time for the group to move on, the man said, "Señor, I don't blame you for not wanting a peso with Che's picture. When I was a young man, my father saved enough money to buy three small houses. His intentions were to get a little rental income from them and then, when his children grew up and married, give them the houses to live in. When the revolution came, the three houses were taken away from him." He paused and struggled to continue. "My father died of a heart attack — a broken heart, really — as a young man right after that. I'm over seventy now, and I also died the day he did."
That was one of many emotional stories I heard from local people. I was impressed by their resilience, warmth, and ability to overcome such difficult circumstances. The dual economy forces many highly educated people in Cuba to abandon their professions simply to make ends meet. An informatics professor was selling trinkets to tourists on the side of the road. He told me he could earn more in a day doing that than he could in a month working at the university. I met a nurse doing menial jobs in a cigar factory who told me the same thing. Everyone wants access to CUCs and a higher standard of living. Everyone tries to resolver — make do — to get by. Some people take advantage of unsuspecting tourists to make a hefty profit. Others cut corners on goods and services they produce and keep the spoils. Yet others steal products from their government employers and sell them on the black market. Pilferage is common.
Under Raúl Castro's recently enacted privatization policies, many Cubans have also been licensed to own and operate private businesses. Known as cuentapropistas — entrepreneurs — these business owners sell their products and services on the free market, often to tourists for CUCs, and attain a much higher standard of living than is possible on a government salary. I met an entrepreneur who had set up a sugarcane-juice stand using a traditional technique of grinding the raw cane through a small, hand-operated iron grinder. He added a shot or two of Havana Club rum, some lemon or a slice of pineapple, and sold a glass of the spiked juice to thirsty tourists for five CUCs. He was doing a brisk business.
The irony of the revolution is that it was supposed to create a classless society. Instead, it created two clear and distinct classes of people: those who have access to CUCs and those who don't. That distinction is increasing a sense of inequality as well as growing desperation and resentment over what many see as a failed promise. Most Cubans I met on the streets wanted either to leave the island or to see social and economic change. Apagones — Power outages — are frequent and basic conveniences unreliable. To put it bluntly, things don't work very well in Cuba. Cubans have an all-purpose catch phrase to explain the situation: "¡Ay, es Cuba! — Hey, it's Cuba!"
In general, my interactions with average Cubans were warm and friendly. Everyone was welcoming. When they recognized that I was Cuban, they were even more hospitable. But conversations sometimes progressed from pleasantries to issues such as poverty, housing, and jobs. Then people grew uncomfortable, perhaps for having said too much. After all, I was a perfect stranger, and for all they knew, I couldn't be trusted.
In one instance, I accompanied our tour guide to a small outdoor bar known for serving the best mojitos on the island. Mojitos are a traditional Cuban drink made with rum, lime juice, soda, mint, and sugar. It was obvious that the three bartenders took pride in making every mojito to perfection. As usual, I started talking with the workers, first about their art form, and then about life in general.
One of the bartenders was curious about what it was like for a Cuban to live in the United States. He asked me many questions about lifestyle, work, and so on. As he grew more comfortable with me, he talked about his own family. His father had left Cuba and had not been in touch for a while. Then he expressed his own unhappiness with the conditions in Cuba and spoke of his desire to leave. The other bartenders were engaged in the conversation to some extent but mostly listened. I could sense their growing discomfort about how much their colleague was disclosing to a stranger. Eventually, they pulled him away and scolded him about being careful what he said.
It seems everyone I met had an invisible line beyond which they treaded very carefully. I sometimes heard common Cubans on the streets refer to Fidel Castro as "El Barbudo — the Bearded One" — but in most cases, they simply did not mention either Fidel or Raúl Castro. The few references I heard tended to be warnings against mentioning their names. "Aquí no hablamos de eso; te puede traer problemas — Here we don't talk about that; it can bring you problems."
The fear of government expressed in these and similar conversations during my visit reminded me of stories my parents had told me about why they had decided to seek exile in the United States half a century earlier. They also resurfaced some of the fears I felt long ago as a child trying to make sense of changes I didn't understand.
Precursors to Exile
Before the revolution, life in Placetas in the province of Las Villas (now called Villa Clara) was fairly typical of the slow pace of life in small Cuban towns. It was a peaceful and friendly community. Like most cities and towns in Cuba, Placetas had a central park that served as a community center before the revolution. The park was known as Parque de los Laureles — Laurel Park — because of the beautiful laurel trees that adorned its perimeter and green spaces. The park also featured a glorieta — band shell — in the center, iron benches, and paths where men and women walked in opposite directions to make eye contact, meet and talk, and enjoy the music. On Sundays, men wearing their fine linen guayabera shirts and women in their best clothes went to the Parque de los Laureles to socialize and enjoy traditional folkloric music, romantic danzón, and modern tunes. Men also gathered to play dominoes, smoke cigars, tell jokes, or simply recount the week's events. It was one of my father's favorite weekend and evening gathering places.
During the week, my father went to work every day as a mechanic in his taller — auto repair shop — and, as were most Cuban women of the time, my mother was a housewife and homemaker. We lived close to my grandparents and many aunts, uncles, and cousins. Ours was a large, close-knit family.
To understand why we upended our lives and gave up our family and friends, my father's business, and the stability of our home in Cuba, you have to understand what was happening to Cuba after Fidel Castro overthrew the dictator who preceded him, Fulgencio Batista. Batista was the president of Cuba twice: once from 1940 to 1944, then as dictator from 1952 to 1959. During his first term, he instituted a progressive constitution. At the end of that term, he moved to the United States. Many people believed in hindsight that his intention was to build up relationships with the mafia and the bosses of American gambling, drugs, and prostitution. When he returned and took over the government, he used those relationships to make the island into his personal slush fund, skimming off a percentage of all the illegal activities he'd allowed to be introduced.
Batista suspended the national constitution he'd enacted in his first term, revoked all political and union liberties, and joined with sugar barons and tobacco plantation owners to the disadvantage of the citizens. People hated his government. It was corrupt and repressive and exploited Cuba to the point where most silently prayed for his overthrow. When Fidel Castro took power, he was warmly welcomed by the vast majority of people.
My father was among the early supporters of the Castro revolution. But when it became evident that the new government was turning into just another form of repressive and autocratic dictatorship, like many other disaffected Cubans, he wanted no part of it.
Castro's changes were happening all around us. They were rapid and had an immediate impact on our lives. Chief among them was the creation in 1960 of the neighborhood Committees for the Defense of the Revolution — Comités de Defensa de la Revolución (or CDR) — watchdog committees with representatives in every housing block and on almost every street corner. They were to be the "eyes and ears of the revolution" and to report on "counterrevolutionary" activity on every city block (Space War 2010).
It was just like Dzerzhinsky's secret police in Russia in the 1920s. Suddenly, friends and neighbors became dangerous informants who could cause immeasurable problems for any family that didn't sympathize with the revolution. In our previously peaceful and friendly community, we felt that even the trees had eyes peering at us, and every window was like an ear, listening to what we said.
The revolution changed the ambience of the Parque de los Laureles. Loudspeakers were hung throughout the park. Instead of hearing soft music emanating from the band shell, visitors were subjected to recorded revolutionary hymns and a constant barrage of slogans praising the virtues of the revolution. As my father put it, "Everything from the loudspeakers was the revolution, the revolution, and the revolution everywhere." He continued, "You couldn't go to the park because you would get drunk on so much revolution."
During the few times my father still visited the park, he was under surveillance. On the way home one night, a neighborhood acquaintance walked past him and whispered, "You have a shadow." In other words, he was being followed. To test the warning, my father stopped suddenly as if to read a sign on one of the columns on a breezeway. He heard the "taca, tac" sound of shoes from someone following closely, but pretended he had not heard anything and continued walking. Again he stopped abruptly. Sure enough, he heard the now familiar "taca, tac." He looked back and saw a shadow dodge behind a column. My father looked around casually and continued walking.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Cuban Refugee's Journey to the American Dream"
Copyright © 2018 Gerardo M. González.
Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments
1. A Homecoming
2. The Great North
3. Into the Cold
4. Miami Do-over
5. I, Too, am a Passerby
6. Home of the Gators
7. Life after College
8. Professional Transitions
9. Introduction to Hoosier Culture
10. Give the Thaw a Chance
11. But I'm From Around Here
12. To You, the Immigrant
What People are Saying About This
In A Cuban Refugee's Journey to the American Dream: The Power of Education, author and educator Gerardo M. González brilliantly illustrates the joys and struggles of the refugee experience, and the inarguable role of education as an open door to opportunity. This is a delightful read, and one that will inspire you to achieve greatness regardless of the odds.
In A Cuban Refugee's Journey to the American Dream: The Power of Education, author and educator Gerardo M. González brilliantly illustrates the joys and struggles of the refugee experience, and the inarguable role of education as an open door to opportunity. This is a delightful read, and one that will inspire you to achieve greatness regardless of the odds."
There can be no more persuasive testimony to the power of intelligence, commitment, and inspiration than Gerardo M. González's memoir. The contribution of immigrants to America's prosperity and national achievements is undeniably impressive. Yet, this transformational story of challenge and achievement, while individually exceptional, is nonetheless emblematic of the experience of countless immigrants who have made America better than it could otherwise have been. No finer antidote to the simplistic sloganeering of the immigration debate exists.