Remember when newcomers were welcomed here?
Its been many years since Ive thought about the Bernals, our Cuban family, who were part of the grand exodus from Cuba in the years following the overthrow of the dictator Batista.
Fidel Castro was welcomed by most Cubanos when he came to power in 1959 and in the early years when many still believed his promise to hold elections and create a democracy. Soon, it was clear, Castro was a dictator like his predecessors. The exodus, before it was over, would amount to more than a million Cubans of all social classes leaving their homeland, the majority settling in the United States.
Among the first group to leave Cuba were 14,000 children between the ages of 6 and 17, who were airlifted to facilities in Florida as part of Operation Peter Pan. Twice-daily Freedom Flights continued during the Nixon and Johnson administrations, 1965 to 1973. In the longest-lasting airlift of political refugees ever to take place, 265,297 Cubans were transported to a number of cities in our country with the help of religious and volunteer agencies.
One of those cities was Detroit. One of those agencies was the Presbyterian Church. As a member of session in our church at that time, I was among the first to hear that we had agreed to help support a family of four: Felix Bernal, his wife Maria and their two children, 12-year-old Jorge and 6-year-old Marianela. Having studied Spanish in both high school and college, I was recruited to help the family get through those first few months of adjustment to our non-Hispanic suburban community.
I recall that first time the Bernal family visited the Grosse Pointe Memorial Church one Sunday, the four of them following the minister as he guided them slowly through the crowded meeting room, introducing them to our welcoming, though curious, congregation. Felix, a slight man, kept a smile on his face, nodding politely, occasionally shaking hands with some of the men. Maria clung to his side but kept her focus on her shy daughter, Marianela. Their serious son, Jorge, wore dark-rimmed glasses and seemed ill at ease in the crowd. Our hearts went out to them. It was early December. I imagined how uncomfortable they must be feeling in our harsh Michigan winter. Warm coats had been among the first items procured. Wed learned that they were not allowed to carry clothing or any of their possessions when leaving Cuba including cash, though they had succeeded in smuggling a few bills inside their shoes.
How the family must miss their home. I had visited Cuba as a teenager, an overnight stop on a banana boat cruise. A young Cuban Id met on the cruise had proudly escorted me on a brief tour of the island, lush with flowers and palm trees. Memories of that day flooded through my head as I watched the family wend its way through the church crowd.
With the help of the congregation, an apartment had been rented and partially furnished. We learned that Felix had been a licensed druggist in Cuba, an occupation he was unable to pursue in America.
The only job he could find was as a janitor in one of Detroits automobile factories. But I never heard him complain, despite the drastically changing circumstances of his little family.
The two children were enrolled in school, Marianela assigned to the same grade school that one of my boys attended. Fortunately, her first-grade teacher had grown up in Texas and was fluent in Spanish. It was no surprise that the 6-year-old was the first to speak English, without a trace of an accent. Jorge never lost his Cuban accent, nor did Felix. Maria never fully mastered English.
We continued our friendship with the Bernals for a number of years. One time, we invited them to a Mexican dinner at a downtown church, believing Mexican food was similar to what they were accustomed to eating. After dinner, they let us know that Cuban-style food was vastly different from Mexican-style cuisine. A few weeks later our family was invited to their home they had moved to a larger apartment by then to enjoy a true Cuban meal. Maria had prepared a number of special dishes to delight our American palates.
In the years that followed, the Bernals melded with other displaced Cubans in the Detroit area. Our contact with them continued on a now-and-then basis. One brisk fall day, we attended the wedding of Jorge to a local Cuban-American girl. Jorge had found a good job as a draftsman with an architectural firm. A few years later Marianelas marriage to an American boy was announced.
Through the years, we continued to exchange Christmas cards, always with snapshots of our growing families included. One year, the Bernal card came with a Florida address, and we learned that they all had moved to Miami except Marianela, who remained in Detroit, now the mother of two children. The still beautiful young woman had developed muscular dystrophy and was confined to a wheelchair.
About 20 years ago, my husband and I enjoyed a brief visit with Felix and Maria in Miami. They seemed content and were living in a Cuban community ... devoid of ice and snow. We were happy for them.
In contrast to those times, I cant help but reflect on the unforgiving attitude our nation is exhibiting in todays world toward the desperate children of Central America now seeking to escape from intolerable conditions in their own countries.
Audrey McConachie-Byers is a member of the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center.Add a comment