Cuban mother took family to flee communism
By Naomi King
Published: Tuesday, July 28, 2009 at 12:31 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, July 28, 2009 at 12:31 p.m.
HOUMA — For more than three years after the Cuban Revolution, Oneida
Merlos would drive a white Ford Mercury into the countryside to buy food
on the black market and sneak the contraband meat, cheese and rice past
soldiers to feed her family.
Living under the new communist regime, the young woman decided her two
children would not grow up in her native Jatibonico, Cuba, under such
oppressive social and economic conditions.
So the Merlos family fled to the U.S. in 1968, following other relatives
who'd moved to Houma months before. Not knowing a word of English,
Oneida embraced her new Louisiana home while remaining forever proud of
her Cuban heritage, family said.
On Friday, Merlos, the mother and wife of 54 years to Angel Merlos, died
of pancreatic cancer. She was 71.
Oneida and 75-year-old Angel were likely one of Houma's oldest Cuban
couples, family members said. Some 10 to 20 Cuban families still live in
the area, they said.
They came to Houma following the Cuban Revolution, an armed revolt led
by Fidel Castro and others to overthrow U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio
Batista on Jan. 1, 1959.
"The Castro revolution was welcomed by the overwhelming majority of
Cubans," said David Abraham, professor of immigration and citizenship at
the University of Miami. "There were those in the upper classes that
were opposed from the outset."
The U.S. passed the Cuban Adjustment Act in late 1966, allowing anyone
coming from Cuba to be immediately eligible for permanent residency, a
designation no other country has received.
"The idea was to weaken the Castro government, but the effect has
probably been the opposite," Abraham said. "Rather than staying and
protesting and working against the government, they leave and come to
Many doctors, lawyers and other professionals fled. The government took
over Angel's family machine shop that worked on equipment for the local
sugar-cane industry. The communist regime rationed food and, at one
point, closed the Catholic church the Merlos family attended.
The Merlos family applied to leave under this new provision, was given a
number and told to wait until it was pulled.
For the next 39 months, Angel Merlos worked in potato and banana-plant
fields at a work camp, he said. Though voluntary, if he left the
hard-labor job, his family's name would be taken off the list of those
waiting to leave, family members said.
The couple finally arrived in the U.S. with their 11-year-old son,
Manuel, who is now vice president of business development at Danos and
Curole, a Larose-based oilfield services company, and 4-year-old
daughter, Alina, now the executive director of the United Way for South
Louisiana in Houma.
They came on a series of U.S. government-paid flights from Cuba, called
the Freedom Flights.
At the beginning the Cuban emigration, the communist government allowed
those who left to take personal belongings. But at times the Cuban
government also forbade refugees, like the Merlos, from taking any
personal items besides the clothes on their backs — no money, luggage,
photos or jewelry.
Many families smuggled mementos, however, by either tucking earrings
into skirt hemlines or, like Oneida did, taking photos back during
subsequent trips to visit relatives still in Cuba, the Merlos family said.
For the most part, the U.S. embraced the early refugees like the Merlos
family as heroes, struggling against communism. But socially, they still
had to adjust to the new language and culture just like any other
immigrant population, Abraham said.
While Angel went to work in the Avondale shipyard, Oneida's first job
was sewing elastics into bloomers at the Dorsey Co. in Mathews. After
two or three years there, she began working at the Woolworth department
store in Houma. Every day, she carried a notebook and scribbled English
words she didn't know and ask her children later to translate.
She kept her heritage alive, too, cooking traditional Cuban meals like
arroz con pollo and picadillo.
She visited her homeland six times. During their last visit in 2004,
Oneida and her husband saw children standing outside a convenience
store, looking at toys and candy through the window. The scene touched
Oneida's heart, and she promptly bought $20 worth of candy, passing it
out to the children as they lined up, Angel Merlos said.
"I just couldn't believe how the people lived," said Manuel Merlos, 52,
describing his trips back to Cuba. "It's pretty much like time stood
still. … We thank our mother every day for getting us out of there."
"We're going to miss her forever," said her 45-year-old daughter, Alina.
"If it was for Daddy or me or Manuel or her grandkids, she would walk
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