Teacher on Cuba exodus: 'We knew we could not return'
Isel Martin recounts her family's journey, and her own.
By ISEL MARTIN
For the Orange County Register
"Mrs. Martin, you're rich, huh?"
Many times I get this question from my Hispanic students because I live
in a two-story house, send my kids to a private school, and live in a
nice area of Santa Ana.
Perhaps they are not used to Hispanics who have done well for themselves.
I tell my students that I was not born with any of these things and they
too have the same opportunities that I had. I tell them, "Go to college
and get a degree and don't have kids until you can afford them." Then I
tell them my story – that of most Cubans and other immigrants.
My family left Cuba after the revolution. We were not part of the
Communist Party, so my father automatically lost his job and was not
allowed to work.
Life was difficult if you did not have a job. So the Cuban exodus began.
As a political refugee, I arrived in Miami in October of 1971 with my
mother and two siblings. After landing, we went to the Tower of Liberty,
the Ellis Island of Cubans.
Unlike other Cubans, we immediately went to Norfolk, Va., where my aunt
and sponsor was living. We lived there for less than a year and then
came to Santa Ana to join my dad, who had a job and a house waiting for us.
Santa Ana had a small Cuban community where everyone helped each other,
either by baby-sitting or by giving rides to those who did not have cars.
Think how hard it was for these adults who left their lives in Cuba!
Most were in their 30s, with children, and did not speak English.
Cubans left with nothing. The Cuban government did now allow us to leave
with anything. We all left with the clothes on our backs and nothing
else. Most not only had to leave their comfortable lifestyles, but their
families as well.
We knew we could not return. We had to make it here and we embraced the
opportunity. Many women who had never worked outside the home were now
part of the work force. Those who were professionals were now doing
manual work until something better came along.
Growing up biculturally was not always easy. There were many American
customs my parents did not understand, like slumber parties, sack
lunches and dating before 18.
Many of the Cuban girls had to have chaperons when dating. Imagine
bringing your "abuela" – your grandmother – on an innocent date with
your friend Billy. Many of us dated within our own culture to avoid
these uncomfortable situations.
I remember my first shopping experience being in a thrift shop and then
like many of us relying on the ever-popular layaway system.
My friends and I still laugh at our memory of lunch at school. Our sack
lunches were not packed in pretty lunch bags, nor did our sandwiches
have the expensive deli meats. Instead we had a huge sandwich with a cut
of ham from a pork butt wrapped in aluminum that was then packed in an
even bigger grocery store paper bag.
Cuban kids learned quickly how to maneuver the two different worlds in
and out of the house.
In those days we had a Cuban club where we would go every weekend with
our parents and practiced the old Cuban customs like dances and other
social norms. Like most kids of my generation, I started working at 15
and haven't stopped. I paid for my car and college. I worked at a
fast-food joint and two retail stores before finishing my teaching
What other country in the world has embraced immigrants like the U.S.?
There is a reason why people want to come here. America is the only
place where you are not bound to your social class. Anyone can walk out
of their social and economic history and strive to be whatever they
want. To some this may sound cliché, but to immigrants it is precisely
the reason they want to be here. Anyone can reinvent themselves.
For all my parent's and friends' sacrifices, there were also many gains.
My generation was more independent than my parents who had not worked at
such a young age.
We also knew that we had more options than they ever had. My mom's
generation got married much too young. Here, we were expected to go to
college and hold off marriage. All Cuban kids remember hearing the
mantra we all grew up with: "The only thing that can't be taken away
from you is your education."
Cubans have a very large percentage of college graduates among
Hispanics. I'm sure it was that constant grilling from our parents to
not end up in factory jobs like them. We knew we owed it to them to do
I know I will visit Cuba some day. I, however, will have to wait until
there is a change in government. I, like all other Cubans, pray for the
day that democracy makes a comeback. I will continue living in the U.S.
because this is my country. The American flag is the one I display, not
the Cuban. When Cuba competes against the U.S.A in water polo, boxing,
baseball, or any other sport, it is the U.S. that I root for. After all,
this is the country that took us in when we needed a new beginning.
Cubans are very grateful to this country and we are probably the most
patriotic of all Americans
This September I will start my 20th year of teaching and I will continue
telling my students who think I am rich that they too have the
opportunity that was given to me and to everyone living in this country.
God bless America.
Teacher on Cuba exodus: 'We knew we could not return' | cuban, cubans,
many, most, kids - News - OCRegister.com (28 September 2009)