December 25, 2008
A Refugee Family's First U.S. ChristmasBy Humberto Fontova
When Cuban refugees by the thousands landed amidst "gun and religion-clinging people" with ingrained "antipathy to people who aren't like them," the potential for trouble was enormous. When young southern Americans just starting the travails (and joys) of careers and families suddenly found masses of excitable foreign-tongued, octopus-eating strangers applying for jobs besides them, working besides them, worshiping besides them, moving in next door--the potential for trouble was enormous.
In our case especially. In 1961 we landed in New Orleans, deepest darkest Dixie, Red America with a vengeance. Worse, the city 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. Obama, no doubt, contemplates the place with a shudder. Showcasing it's villainy is a long-time fetish of Hollywood screenwriters and casters. 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 much time to indulge in things like despair. She was alone in a strange country, penniless and friendless, 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 can relate 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 blond 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 Obama's campaign staff 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'd take my mother shopping with her. Next day she'd console 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 Cuban patriots fought to the last bullet. Mr. Jeffrey had seen his 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.
Next day, another knock......"AAHH!!.... Something's on FIRE outside! Is that a burning CROSS?!
No it's Mr Simpson's Bar-B-cue. He always liked a BIG fire. ( Remember Eddie Murphy's early skit about his uncle Gus Bar-B-Cueing? "Now THAT'S a FIRE!" )
That always reminded me of our upstairs neighbor Mr Simpson's fire. It's Mrs Simpson at the door, asking us over---in that hilarious (to us) Southern drawl--to share in that mountain of chicken and burgers they're scorching. The Simpson's hailed from Birmingham. To Obama's Team, no doubt, that's exclusively the land of Bull Connor and fire hoses and nothing more. Next day Mrs Simpson knocks again, to offer us terrified children another ride to that strange school where nobody understands us ( "bilingual education" my a**! We learned English in two months precisely because it didn't exist). Mrs Simpson was also holding a shopping bag.
What's in that bag? Well, Mom's tearing up again, but these tears look different....ah, some clothes outgrown by the Simpson children, for us. (No way Mami! I ain't wearing that!) And looks like a new blouse for her.
Next day and here comes Mrs. Boudreaux from across the street. She's a local, from the land of - shriek and shudder! - David Duke, to the Obama Team. To us she was a perpetually cheerful woman with fuzzy slippers and a HUGE-bottom (Cubans always notice this) who's bringing a big pot of Gumbo and a phone number of a friend who might have a job for Mom..
They came almost every day. 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 parent's 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.
The Christmas Eve before his passing 10 years ago I complained about my wife's oyster dressing; "a bit dry," I huffed.
"I think it's delicious, honey!" he quickly turned to his daughter. "Sure beats my Christmas eve feast in 1944."
That night, made expansive in these usually mum matters by the wine, we learned his 1944 feast had consisted of frozen C-rations and the setting was a quaint little Belgian town named Bastogne. This was the first time his own daughter heard of his role in the very epicenter of a little dust-up later known as the Battle of the Bulge. Here's a trademark, I've noticed, of relatives of genuine combat veterans. Sure, we thrill at the newsreels on the History Channel. Those on the spot would rather forget that "thrill."
Weeks later my eyes popped as my mother-in-law pulled out an old satchel and displayed a Screaming Eagle shoulder patch and some medals I identified as a Bronze star, a Silver Star with Oak Leaf Clusters and many others. The Purple Hearts I had expected from his forehead scars and limp.
As one whose family was almost suffocated by them, I'm here to say that the arms of those "gun and religion-clinging folks" with a vicious "antipathy for those unlike them"" opened damn wide for these foreigners. And the embrace from Hollywood's favorite caricature of "intolerance" and "xenophobia" and "hate" on these weird octopus-eating strangers was plenty tight and plenty warm.
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 60's But thousands of then-destitute Cubans recall them as as "el pueblo que nos abrio los brazos" (The people who opened their arms to us.)