Our memories constantly teach us things. Today, I am sitting in the living room of my friend Marta as she celebrates her sixtieth birthday. Reflecting on her life, she remembers an important birthday party forty-four years ago, and the lessons of family.
After 11 hard years of working in the United States from the tender age of sixteen to twenty-seven, Marta received a very important birthday wish come true. She had succeeded in emancipating her family from Castro’s Cuba. Finally, she could watch their faces, hold their hands as she blew out her birthday candles, smell them as they embraced her.
It is the memory of hard work, optimism in the face of terror and, the loyalty of family. Marta’s face darkens as she begins her tale. Normally, it is the face of a young girl even at sixty. There is not a single line, the blue eyes twinkle with mischief, and the mouth is forever in the form of a laughing letter O. To remember her story, she must admit the sadness that she has journeyed through to find her peace. We know that true peace is never easy to come by. But it is life’s constant mystery why some people must endure such horror along the way.
Little Marta’s family had immigrated to Cuba from Portugal in the mid 1900s. Little Marta’s father Jose went as a young man in his twenties. Fifteen years later, little Marta’s mother, Alsina, left her own small town with a cousin and went in search of the place that was “heaven to women.” They came from different villages in Portugal but with very similar dreams of fortune and plenty. Jose and Alsina found it all and one another in the paradise of Cuba. The young lovers were married in 1938.
Alsina and Jose enjoyed many good years together. The two worked very hard and were able to secure a profitable family business. Alsina and Jose raised two young daughters, Maria and little Marta. Anyone who needed anything in their family and community benefited from the couple’s hard work. No person was turned down for food or shelter. The family of four never forgot their own humble beginnings and their gratitude.
But no fortune or favors could save the family or their Cuba from the arrival of Castro in 1959. It is particular to Marta’s heroism that she can speak of a man both brilliant and evil. Castro’s communism was comprehensive to the last detail. Any and all material goods became the property of the government. Comite’ de Defensa governed each neighborhood. There was no more private life or privilege. A new money system took over in one single day. Castro had each home inventoried to the last candlestick. The sanctity once enjoyed by all was replaced by terror and the screaming of “paredon, ‘paredon,” when another of their own was taken to the wall for execution.
But the sanctity of one’s children was the most heinous violation of all. Castro said that children after the age of five were government property. The government then was the “patria potestad” or the true guardian of the citizen’s youth. Parents could no longer claim the rights of their own children and make decisions for their schooling or future.
During the initial phases of Castro’s totalitarian regime, there was a very brief window of opportunity for the families. Cuban parents looked to the United States and their then good relations to shelter their children. Operation Pedro Pan (Peter Pan) was set in motion. Thousands upon thousands of children left Cuba in mass exodus to be taken in by foster care in the United States. Little Marta did not wish for another mother and father, hers were the most marvelous in the world. A young neighborhood man and boyfriend, Carlos, had made it to the United States. As Carlos was older than little Marta, she might be able to get a visa to go to get married to him and become an American citizen.
So little Marta, and one of her best friend’s Manolo traveled to nearly a dozen embassies with translations of paperwork looking for a visa. At the time, little Marta was sweet 15. In the meantime, the Bay of Pigs and the slaughter of innocent Cubans who tried to revolt against Castro was going on around her. One slip and Marta and Manolo would suffer the same consequences for disloyalty to the government.
Finally, little Marta was able to leave for the United States. Marta was alone because she had become separated from her dear Manolo. Manolo was to follow in a few days and they would meet in Miami. Little Marta swore to not rest until Manolo and her entire family could join her in safety. She did not know that she would not sleep well again for eleven years. Little Marta did not know then that Manolo would become a part of Operation Pedro Pan and never see again his adoring father who had to stay behind in Cuba.
It had been planned that the family that her boyfriend Carlos had arranged to give her safe haven in New York would be passed off as her godparents. But little Marta only had six US dollars sewn into her buttons by her mother Alsina. It was not enough money to get her from Miami to New York. If she could not provide proof of an airplane ticket in twenty-four hours, little Marta was told that she would be held in the barracks with the other children of Pedro Pan to await foster care. She was desperate. Little Marta finally found her priest from her home in Cuba, Padre Villaronga, in the Freedom Tower in Miami. He made little Marta promise to be good always and he gave her the airplane ticket she needed. It is now at the mention of her beloved priest, that Marta’s eyes return to their brightness. She recites for me the poem that this same Padre Villaronga taught to her in a safe village in childhood now so far away,
Mira que Dios te mira,
Look that God is looking at you,
Mira que te esta mirando
Look that God is looking at you now,
Mira que te vas a morir,
Look that you are going to die,
Mira que no sabes cuando
Look that you do not know when
It took another decade of working in factory rooms and; then in business offices in the New York City area, to thrice attempt the emancipation of her family and finally succeed. But Marta does not celebrate this victory as hers alone. She speaks of the heroes she found in her parents, the town priest, Manolo, and even the newly elected Senator of Florida, Mel Martinez, that is a child of Operation Pedro Pan that she has never even met.
At sixty years of age, Marta still puts in a fourteen-hour workday. She remembers her Cuba, the days of plenty, and the traditions of her family to take care of those in need. Today her memories remind her of the greatest birthday wish come true, that her family is now together again safe, liberated, and in a new land of opportunity. It is possible that our memories teach us the answer to the question we have asked our whole life – who am I? Our memories are the stories of our character and the actions of our soul. Our memories tell us exactly who we are.