I share this personal story to give voice to the unheard stories still to be told of many immigrants fleeing their homelands and coming to our country. I thought this post was appropriate to my blog, Rafael’s Music Notes, even though it is not about music. This real life story is about how I, one of many Cuban immigrants came to this land and how in a small way and with the help of many added a little to the long list of accomplishments of so many others among the people of my country of birth. Let us not close our ears or our doors to others in need of refuge.
A Little Refugee Story
I was 17, alone, with a cardboard suitcase and $5 in my pocket.
There was a Cuban Refugee Center located in the building of the Miami News newspaper, which had generously opened up its lobby to accommodate the overflow of humanity pouring out of the planes that carried hundreds of Cubans coming from the neighboring island week-in, week-out.
I marched into the building and, after standing in line for hours on end, asked a lady behind a desk if I could receive any help. She asked to see my passport and promptly informed me that 17-year old Rafael Jorge de Acha was going to get help from the Cuban Refugee Center.
Without hesitation and, within minutes, I became another item in the long list of Cubans seeking help from Miss Liberty, to whom I gave my poor and tired and huddled self in exchange for a bag that contained tomato soup, rice, black beans, crackers, powdered milk, instant coffee and little else.
The next job was to find a place to live.
A young Cuban fellow with the unlikely name of William Bush ran into me at the Refugee Center. Both being in the same refugee boat that was now beginning to take water, we headed up Biscayne Boulevard in search of a place that we could rent with our collective funds – $10.
The farther up one went, the less safe the area. We walked on, as the afternoon slowly turned into evening and of the few doors that had a Vacancy sign up front many were slammed on our faces the moment our Cuban accents were heard. There were even some NO CUBANS signs on some houses.
A good Samaritan finally turned up – a kindly old lady with a Middle-European accent who offered to take us in, not only for the evening but as permanent (or as permanent as we wanted) residents of a converted garage in the back of a home where the other residents in addition to her and now us were several cats and a couple of overfed dogs. Rent to be paid whenever.
After Bill Bush and I had settled into our newly-found quarters we celebrated our success with a feast of tomato soup, black beans, rice and crackers.
A little while after we had stuffed ourselves there was a knock on the door. Frau Wonder-heart was at our door with a plate of cookies and a quart of milk. All we could do was to bow in gratitude like idiots. We quickly fell asleep.
The following morning we awoke rather late to deal with Reality in CAPS. All we had been allowed to take out of Cuba was $5. Find work or perish was the order of the day. Wearing my best and only nice shirt and pants I set out and down Biscayne in the direction of the Cuban Refugee Center, haven for the lame, the hungry, the halt and the jobless. Miami in those days was a small town suddenly dealing with the influx of thousands of Cubans coming in every week. Jobs were few to be had.
I encountered the same lady behind the same desk only a little worse for wear. She lamely asked if I knew anyone in the United States. “Well, yes, I do”, I hesitantly replied.
During the heady days of 1959 many American students – the liberals and the merely curious – had come to Havana to see for themselves what the miracle of Castro’s revolution had in store. It was then that I met Marty and Muffy Pierce, graduate students at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. The Pierces and I had corresponded since we had met in Havana, where I had shown them around. Would they, I wonder, sponsor me to come to Minneapolis?
The Cuban Refugee Center would pay for the trip. One-way. The Center was anxious to relocate all incoming Cubans to wonderful exotic places like North Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska and Idaho. No New York or Chicago or Los Angeles, please. Minneapolis was a stretch. I phoned the Pierces and, yes, they would sponsor me. In February of 1961 I flew with a one-way ticket from Miami to Minneapolis.
And that became my first American home away from home.