Cuando Sali de Cuba - Anna's story

Editor's note: One of the best things I love about blogging is hearing your stories. When I do a comment giveaway, I read each and every one of your comments. A while back I was doing a giveaway for the Mariel DVD and asked you to share your Leaving Cuba stories. I was at once astounded and deeply touched. If you're a Cuban living in the U.S., you have a story. And most likely it is an amazing one.

I'd like to start sharing your stories here on My big, fat, Cuban family. So please enjoy the first in what I hope will become a regular series here: Cuando Sali de Cuba, stories of courage and hope.

The first in this series comes from my friend, Anna Tang Norton. It's the story of how her parents met in Cuba and how they started with nothing and managed to thrive here in the U.S. Enjoy.


Cuando Salieron de Cuba...

I was born in the USA, but my parents came from Cuba in 1968 and 1970.  Their story is just as incredible as the many I’ve heard over the years, and like those stories, I am never tire of hearing it.  In fact, I’ve romanticized it in my mind; I think it’s incredible and only my parents could have experienced it.

When my parents met in Havana in the mid-60s, they both knew they did not like the government there and were looking for a way out of the country.  My father had already started working toward his goal of leaving the country, and when he learned of my mother’s similar intentions, they set toward that goal together. 

They were both sent to work in the fields - La Agricultura - for months, as punishment for declaring their desire to abandon their country.  Finally, in early 1968, my father received word that he would be leaving the country, heading to Madrid.  Quickly, he and my mother married and four months later, my father received his visa to leave Cuba for Spain in his first steps to obtain asylum in the United States. 

He went to Spain, and two months later, arrived in New York City.  They figured it would be a short period of time before my mother’s visa arrived, and she would follow the same trajectory.  However, it was two years before she reunited with my father in NYC.

The two years they were apart were difficult, to say the very least.  For years, I have been told the stories, so many times in fact, that I can recite them from memory.

Living in Brooklyn, my father spent two years doing his own laundry, which was all dyed blue, as he didn’t know to separate colors in the wash.  He also learned to walk on the street side of the sidewalk on his way home from work, to avoid hold ups.

One of my favorite stories is when he would pass a nun every morning and she would say, “Morning!”  He simply replied, “Sorry” and would continue walking.  I remember asking why he would say “Sorry” and he told me, “I didn’t know that she was saluting the day.  I had always learned to say ‘Good morning’ and I thought she was asking for ‘money.’  I felt terrible that I didn’t have any money to give her, so I would apologize everyday.”

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When my mom arrived in 1970, my father picked her up at the airport and took her to a brand new apartment he had rented in Queens.  He withdrew all the money he had in the bank, took my mother to buy a coat for the winter and spent the rest on groceries. 

If it had been me, at this point, I think I would have been spent.  But for my parents, their journey was really just beginning.  With nothing to their name - no family, no money, no language - they dove right into work, trying to assimilate into this new world.

A few years later, my sister was born and a few years after that, I arrived.  By the time I came along, in 1975, they had traveled across the Hudson and settled in New Jersey.  I can’t imagine how they did it - they became citizens, they bought a home, they raised two daughters, provided the best they could for us, took us on vacations, celebrated our birthdays and holidays. 

They did it all - they did it with hard work, sweat, humility, and pride.  I am fortunate to have been raised with their example.

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Years later, they have lived a full life, with joys, sadness, and everything in between that comprises a life.  A good life, overall.

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They still talk about Cuba, about how it was when they were little, how it changed when the Revolution started, and how frightened they were when they left. 

They also talk about their visits back to Cuba.  In 1987, I had the privilege of traveling to Cuba with my mom for the first time.  I was 11 years old, and while my mother had been born there and I had not, it was a brand new experience for both of us.  I was able to witness my mother seeing her father for the first time in 20 years, witness the beautiful dynamic and love of family, even though they don’t know you or you them. 

Years later, I was able to travel to Cuba again, this time with both  my parents.  I was older this time, 23, and spent hours with my cousins (many which have been able to come to the United States themselves), aunts, uncles, and again, my grandfather.  I am fortunate to have parents who have continued to love their country of birth, even though that country closed the doors on them so many years ago.

But at the same time, they are American.  They have spent more than half their lives here, learning American customs.  Loving American customs. 

They taught me to be American - to have dreams and fulfill them. They opened doors for me, encouraging me to educate myself.  They always came around to my American thinking, even though sometimes it took a little more prodding and convincing than I wanted (I specifically remember my teenage years during this time - ha!). 

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They encouraged me to stand up for myself, to take care of myself, and to never expect that someone would take care of me.

Now that I have my own son, I always carry the lessons they have taught me close to my heart.  For some, it’s a terrible nuisance to have immigrants for parents.  But for me, it’s their experience, their lessons, and their example that lead me to be a good daughter, wife, mother, and overall person.

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I am grateful for my parents and their story on leaving Cuba - and no, I don’t roll my eyes when I hear it:  "Cuando salimos de Cuba..."

~Anna Tang Norton

{I'm collecting your stories! I would love to have you share your family's own Cuando Sali de Cuba story. Send me an email with the story and some photos. Send to mdarby at cox dot net. Please put Cuando Sali de Cuba in the subject line. Thank you!}