my dad in Camagüey, Cuba, 1958
My dad was born seventy years ago in Camagüey, Cuba on St. Patrick’s Day; my maternal grandparents and mom landed in the United States on their Freedom Flight on what was my dad’s 15th birthday. Neither of my parents came from families wealthy enough to flee Cuba during the earliest years after the Cuban Revolution, the Golden Exile as it’s referred to now, but my six-year old mom and her family were solidly middle class and able to get onto one of the many Freedom Flights that went from Havana to Miami five days a week. My dad wasn’t as lucky. His parents divorced when he was young, a year or so before the revolution. His dad left the city, his mom took his older brother and younger sister in the divorce, and for some reason my dad was left to be raised by his maiden great-aunts. He doesn’t really talk about his childhood a lot and I get it; I didn’t talk about my childhood for a very long time.
He wanted to be a physical education teacher but he was assigned to study medicine by the government. He did well but he also didn’t like it; my mom once told me she understood why he didn’t try to make that his career in the US once she saw him almost faint at all the blood during my delivery. He loved what he could get his hands on of The Beatles and Rolling Stones and he played an old set of rusting drums in a band with his friends.
His mother and sister were selected in the lottery and got onto one of the last Freedom Flights to the US in the mid 1970s. My dad registered but never got the call. He didn’t want to leave his great-aunt, elderly at this point, but she encouraged him to leave Cuba. The final push came when she passed away in early 1979. My dad got his Cuban passport, packed one bag, and sold his great-aunt’s hidden silver tea set on the bolsa negra (what we would call the black market). He paid a man who ran a fishing boat from Cuba to Mexico to help him get out of the country and not list him on the manifest; the man agreed and hid my dad inside a cabinet with a false door while the boat was investigated before setting off. Part of the way to Cozumel, my dad came up on deck and saw the only place he had ever lived getting smaller and smaller.
my dad’s Cuban passport in 1979; at 5‘2”, he was the original short king
My dad took the ferry from Cozumel to Cancun and quickly found work in construction. No one cared about his papers once he was out of Cuba. He lived there for a year until he was able to enter the US and get his green card in 1981. For the first time since he was a little boy, he was living with his mother and sister. There was a community of exiled Cubans in Miami and that’s where they had all ended up; Hialeah to be exact. My dad was 30 and he didn’t want to be a doctor no matter how much his mother wanted him to be one. He didn’t speak English well enough and he didn’t want to retrain for something he knew he didn’t like. He started in construction and quickly apprenticed in laying tile and doing custom cabinetry. He worked with a general contractor who took him under his wing and taught him well.
My parents met at my aunt’s (that is, my dad’s little sister’s) wedding in 1982. My mom was adjusting to life after a dance career ended by injury and on the rebound; my dad was dating around but not looking for anything serious. They hit it off and my mom caught the bouquet while my dad got her number. A year and a bit later, their families were thrilled to have their Cuban children marrying each other. Three years after that, they had bought a 3 bedroom house in the suburbs of Fort Lauderdale and couldn’t stand each other. They had very similar backgrounds but growing up in different countries left an unfamiliar gulf between them without the shorthand of experience to ever cross it. They were about to call it quits when my mom found out she was pregnant with me.
my parents two months before my birth, October 1986
They adored me but they were complete opposites when it came to money. My mom was a baby boomer in the truest sense, lucking into a job at the local electrical company where she was paid well to not just do her job but to train and get certifications for that job; she only had her high school diploma but this was plenty then for a good salary and benefits that don’t even exist in the best jobs now. She wasn’t rich but she was comfortable and as an American citizen by now, she had access to credit and used it. She had grown up never being able to have the things she wanted, the things her friends and class mates had, and now she was going to have everything she wanted even if she didn’t need it; sometimes especially if she didn’t need it.
My dad had built up his business as a contractor and tile layer. He made decent money and was careful with it. He remembered what it was like to not have enough growing up in Cuba and what it was like to start over in Mexico and then in the US; he never wanted to be left without enough. He wore the same clothes for years, he shopped for deals, he never thought about updating furniture or anything as long as it was functional. He would drive a car for years until it was in pieces, patching things together until he literally couldn’t find parts for that model anymore. He bonded with my abuelo, my mom’s dad, who also had never lost that fear of not having enough money. My dad eventually worked at the same factory as my abuelo where they made plastic materials for building signage until my abuelo retired and my dad was laid off a few years later. They ran a carpentry and tile laying business as a side gig for years to pay for my private school and ballet and so many other things.
me and my dad, 1992
There’s so much that happened between my parents from the time I was born until they got divorced when I was 14 and I’ll get to it but I want you to know who my dad is, for better or worse. He became an American citizen when I was 9 years old. The only things he spent money on were the extra cable channel for all the European and Latin American soccer matches, his 1967 Mustang, and his fish tank because he has always loved taking care of fish for some reason. He has voted Republican in every election he’s been able to. He doesn’t like to spend money on restaurants or take out or delivery. He doesn’t like to read. He has lost even the little English he had as he’s aged just as I’ve lost some of my Spanish and so we feel even further apart than we already did; I feel a lot like what I imagine my mom must have felt like with him in their marriage. I’ve realized that there wasn’t just a gulf between him and my mom but between him and most people. I don’t know how to swim it and I’m not even sure he wants me to.
My parents’ divorce and everything that led up to it left our family in a precarious financial state. My dad lost his house, his dog, his job, pretty much everything he had built since he came to the States. He moved into a one bedroom apartment and when I stayed with him on the occassional weekend, he slept on the couch so I could have the bed. He started again, he saved, he built again. He went to work making electronic parts for military contracts. He married my stepmom, another immigrant who came to America as an adult. They bought a small foreclosed house and made it their own. He and my abuelo bought me a brand new car when I was 21 and my first car had died; they made payments on it for six years until it was paid off. He grinned at me as we drove it off the lot.
“Are you happy?” He adjusted the air conditioning.
“So happy,” I said. “Thank you so much, Papi, but it feels like too much.”
“Enjoy it, that’s all I want.”
I drove that car to university, to my first real job after graduating, to so many places. I drove that car all the way to Canada to begin my life with my husband; my dad helped me pack it full of everything I owned. When I was 28, I was in a car accident on the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto that injured me and my husband. I screamed in shock for several minutes after we crashed and the air bags deployed. The first thing I thought after I stopped screaming was how my dad had finally finished paying for this car not even a year before.