Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Background Story

Santiago de las Vegas is a small colonial town on the outskirts of the capitol. It was established on May 3, 1749.  The old cathedral in the town square was built in 1694.  We don't know exactly how far back our family lived in that town, but we do know our time there and in the neighboring town Bejucal goes back as far as the early 1800's, and possibly earlier.

On December 24, 1962, my parents, my sister, grandparents and several family members left on a ship called the African Pilot, after an agreement reached between the U.S. government and Castro.  1,113 prisoners, brave men captured after the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion were released, my uncle Jose Peruyero included.  They arrived at Port Everglades in Ft. Lauderdale, FL.  It's reported that over 1,000 of the prisoner's family members left Cuba on or around that Christmas Eve.

My grandmother embracing my uncle; a tearful reunion for a Pedro Pan family.

My dad says the night he left, everything moved fast.  Some goon came to his door and told my parents to step outside the house.  They were to take only a change of clothes.  My mom packed a bag, the door was locked and police tape was put up to block re-entry.  Later that evening my grandfather Tuti (aka Tito) jumped the backyard fence, broke in and took some extra clothes for my sister, then just barely a toddler.

That night they headed to the African Pilot, never to return to Santiago de las Vegas.  The town my dad knew since childhood.  The place where my parents met and later fell in love.  The place my family called home. 

59 years pass.  Time goes by and places once known by heart are forgotten.  Names of friends; gone.  The colors of buildings, faces, facades and shop signs, many lost from memory.  There are still some good memories, but mostly the painful ones overshadow.  Tears, anger, rage, regret.  Too many horrible memories of betrayal, loss, fear and terror.  My parents always told me, "We will never go back."

Then I decide to go.

It's hard for my parents to swallow.  The memories come in again on them in a flood.  Mami cries, get's angry.  Papi just stares and thinks.  This goes on for weeks.  Then the moment of truth...

"Give me a pen and paper.  I want to show you where we all lived."

Mami draws out a partial map of Santiago de las Vegas.  Suddenly, the streets and places come into focus.  She can still see the houses as they were.  She draws a little box.  "That's Wesley Methodist Church.  It's probably a disaster now, but...".  Another box.  "This is where I lived.  I've seen pictures and they put this horrendous addition on the roof.  It's ugly and it wasn't there when I lived there." Another box is drawn on the other side of the street. "Aqui vivia tu papa...".  Your father lived here right across the street from me. "This house is where the Balido's lived, and this is where Rose Bagley lived..."  Another box.  "I lived in this house when our family first moved to Santiago.  It had beautiful columns in front..."  Another box.  "Aqui estaba el mercado del Chino, donde tu papa compraba su chicle". This is where the Chinese grocer had his market; where your father would buy his gum.  

Within ten minutes, my mother has written out a map of all the places that mattered to my parents in Santiago de las Vegas.  It rises from a place deep in her heart, where all the really great memories are kept safe.

Then the warnings.  "Be careful who you talk to.  Be careful what you say.  Don't trust anyone."  I say "Yes Mami..." The fear is still palpable, and I can see her in my imagination standing in front of a door sealed with tape, standing next to a man with a shotgun.  I give her a kiss and I leave.

My mother's home at the far left... with the ugly addition on the roof. 
These homes are from Cuba's colonial period.


PunkOutlaw said...

Very insightful stuff.. thanks for sharing this information. One can only hope our relationship with Cuba will change soon and 11 million people will eventually be free from the misguided dogma of one disillusioned old man.

Rose Bagley said...

As I am sitting here this early Sunday monrning checking out facebook, I see a notification that Ozzy Mora had mentioned me. I couldn't wait to read what he had said. Ozzy's family lived next door to me in Santiago de las Vegas. We didn't know each other very well, if at all. We haven't seen each other in almost 50 years. But, I couldn't wait to read Ozzy's comment because Ozzy and I share a unique experience that have bonded us for life. We are both "Pedro Pan kids" All 14,048 Pedro Pan kids share the same common experience of leaving our homes and of being sent to the United States unaccompanied as wards of the Catholic Church and the United States government that so graciously took us in and cared for us till we could be reunited with our parents. All of us shared the fear that is expressed in that beautiful picture of Ozzy and his mother hugging each other after their separation. A moment that all Pedro Pan children lived for. As I continue to read this beautifully written article I see a picture of my childhood home. Just the way I remembered it, except, now is all dirty and run down. I was stunned to see this picture. I have so long dreamed of one day seen my home again. I have such wonderful memories of all the places that are mentioned on the map that was drawn.I remember them just like it was yesterday. Memories of a very happy and love filled childhood surrounded by my family and neighbors. Last year I was very lucky to have seen a picture of the writer of this article, Marco Ruiz. I contacted him because of his name and his resemblace to a young man that lived accross the street from me in Santiago de las Vegas. He promptly answered me, eventhough he was in Chile at the time and told me that the man I was asking about was indeed my neighbor and his dad. Within hours, I was contacted by Elsa Ruiz his mother. After chatting a while on facebook, I mentioned to them about a monthly breakfast that our hometown in exile held every month. It happened to be the next day. They came and we had a wonderful reunion of getting to know each other all over again. Through pictures I have been able to meet their wonderful children, grandchildren, and hard to believe great-grand children. What a beautiful family!! Thank you for the opportunity and pleasure of reading this article. God bless!!

Marquito said...

Thanks for the kind words. And thank you Rose for the story. We need to keep these stories alive for our children and grand-children. If my visit with the people in Cuba taught me anything it's how quickly we forget.

José Alberto Balido said...

What a beautiful story! Thanks for sharing it with us, and with everyone who loves our dear home town. Keep writing!

Marquito said...

Thanks Jose. I'm doing a whole series on the Cuba trip and there's plenty on SDLV.