A refugee family’s first Fourth of July
All the “POPS!” and “BANGS!” from fireworks had my single (for the time) mother edgy. Firing-squads had been murdering thousands of Cubans ‘round the clock. Other thousands of Cubans waged a lonely and hopeless guerrilla war against the massively-armed forces of Soviet proxies Che Guevara and the Castro brothers. All this 90 miles from U.S. shores.
All those bombs and gunshots were only months distant on July 4th, 1962–the Fontova family’s first Fourth in the U.S. We landed in south Louisiana, deepest, darkest Dixie. Castro’s propaganda constantly hammered that such areas of the U.S. were infested by “gun and religion-clinging people with ingrained antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” In the following five decades this dovetailing of Castroite and Democratic “talking points” became very noticeable to Cubans in the U.S.
But refugees can’t be choosy. New Orleans then hosted a huge NASA project, attracting blue collar workers from surrounding states, Texas, Alabama, Mississippi. Here’s backwoods states synonymous with hate and murderous bigotry–and here’s the social class most prone to it.
After all, Peter Fonda says Easy Rider was gunned down here. Oliver Stone says JFK’s murder was hatched here. Showcasing its villainy is a long-time fetish of Hollywood directors and screenwriters. We’d be lucky to get a welcome with mere tar and feathers. Firebombs and nooses were more likely.
My father was one of Castro’s tens of thousands of political prisoners at the time, listening to the gallant Che’s firing squads every dawn, wondering when his turn would come. My mother wondered too, but she didn’t have much time to indulge in things like despair. She was alone in a strange country, a penniless and friendless political refugee, with three kids to somehow feed, shelter, and school. Two nephews were also under a death sentence after fighting to the last bullet at the Bay of Pigs. (Actually, we had it relatively easy. Most Cuban refugee families of the time can relate to stuff ten times as hair-raising and heartbreaking.)
But a knock on the door in those early days and a burly stranger visible through the window wasn’t exactly comforting. We hadn’t been living in the humble apartment complex for long when it came. We peeked through the window, “AHHH!! Is that a WHITE HOOD?!!
No, it’s Mrs. Jeffrey from next door with her bleached blonde bouffant.
“And what’s she carrying?– AAAHHH!! Is that a shotgun?! A rope?! A bomb?!”
No. It’s a basket of fried chicken. And that’s Mr. Jeffrey behind her. He’s coming to offer help translating that job application.
The Jeffreys were originally from Texas. To liberals, the place probably denotes religious nuts in Waco and sadistic yahoos dragging people to their death behind pick-up trucks. To us, it’s Mrs. Jeffrey with her big basket of food, and more importantly, with her big Texas smile. A few days later she took my mother shopping with her. Next day she consoled her during another sob-fest.
Mr. Jeffrey was a WWII vet and knew some Spanish. I’ll never forget him sitting next to my mother, swerving from fiery rage to silent sympathy while apologizing to her in a heavy Texas twang for JFK’s Bay of Pigs backstab- as if it was his doing, as if he hadn’t done enough for others’ freedom already!
But as Mr. Jeffrey saw it that was his flag on those ships off the Cuban coast in April 1961, his flag on the planes overhead. And his president who gave them the order to scram as Soviet artillery and armor poured in and Cuban patriots fought to the last bullet. Mr. Jeffrey had seen our flag go up over Manila. Dozens of his buddies who helped carry it fell along the way. He saw what that fluttering canvas meant to the delirious crowds who screamed and wept and cheered, knowing that freedom was at hand. The thought of it ordered to betray a freedom fight enraged and sickened him.
The following week comes another knock……”AAHH!!…. Something’s on FIRE outside! Is that a burning CROSS?!
No it’s Mr. Simpson’s barbecue. He always liked a BIG fire. (Remember Eddie Murphy’s early skit about his uncle Gus barbecuing? “Now THAT’S a FIRE!”)
That always reminded me of our upstairs neighbor Mr. Simpson’s fire. It was Mrs. Simpson at the door, asking us over—in that hilarious (to us) Southern drawl–to share in that mountain of chicken and burgers the Simpsons’, and the Jeffreys were scorching to celebrate America’s birthday. The Simpsons hailed from Birmingham. To liberals, no doubt, that’s exclusively the land of Bull Connor and fire hoses and nothing more.
Our new neighbors knocked often. And this was in the very gizzard of the “bigoted” and “hate-filled” South. When you’ve just fled a Stalinist hell with the clothes on your back, when you find yourself in a strange land, penniless and not knowing the language, when nights are a sleepless, mind-churning marathon of worries: “Did Uncle Pepe fall to the firing squad this dawn? Is cousin Manolo still in hiding? Where’s the next meal coming from? How on earth will we pay for the kids schooling?” With all this going on, that stuff helps, believe me. (I speak here for my parents’ generation. I was seven years old. Seemed like a Disney adventure to me.)
Later in the suburbs, another family became even more special. Years before, the lady had worked at a local plant riveting the hulls on the famous Higgins boats, designed in New Orleans for oil companies to traverse the shallow coastal marshes, then tweaked for work on such as Omaha Beach and Iwo Jima.
These were “the boats that won WWII,” according to Ike. One such boat carried her fiancé to shore at Salerno, another at Omaha Beach. He clambered out of yet another Higgins boat after crossing the Rhine, where a burst from a German machine gun riddled his legs.
Almost 40 years later, I watched him limping up the aisle, grimacing slightly with each step. Then he broke into a huge smile– while handing me his daughter as a bride.
We landed in the South, but I’ve heard compatriots relate similar stories literally “from sea to shining sea.”
Nobody called them “the Greatest Generation” back then. I guess the perspective wasn’t there in the 60s. But thousands of then-destitute Cubans recall them as “el pueblo que nos abrio los brazos” (The people who opened their arms to us.)