Book Review: The Long Road to Freedom

The Long Road to Freedom -- Cubanos in Wisconsin by Silvio Canto, Jr. and Gabriel Canto

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the fall of the iron curtain more than 20 years ago, most Americans do not think any more about the threat from Communist regimes or how people lived in these societies when they were under Soviet control. Much closer to home, the Fidel Castro government in Cuba has just entered its 55th year.

In this short but stirring account of why one family made the decision to leave Castro's Cuba, and how that family came to call Madison, Wisconsin, their new home, Silvio Canto has provided an unusual look at one family's travails and journey, which occurred while he was a young boy in Havana and then in his adopted country. Like many in Cuba, Canto's parents initially believed that the Castro regime would be an improvement over the dictator Fulgencio Batista, whom Castro replaced in power in early 1959. But it did not take long to see that one dictator had merely been replaced by another, and that the new regime's beliefs in the leveling of society, and in community rather than private property, meant an end to the economic system through which hard work could produce a better life for a family.

Canto's father, a successful banker, was forced to find temporary work in a bakery. Loyalty to the regime became the measure of one's place in society. Castro installed the typical Communist apparatus of having people spy on and report on their neighbors. A level of paranoia developed about what one could say about political issues and to whom. The Catholic school which Canto and his younger brother attended was closed down. No false Christian God was to be legitimized on the island. (At least not until the Pope's visit in 1997, when Castro undertook a Chuck Hagel-type conversion on the value of religion in Cuba.)

This short book is not, however, a political polemic. It is really a remembrance of how one young boy viewed the changes taking place in his country before he left, followed by a detailed description of his family's journey to a new country, and how the family was welcomed to America.

The journey makes up a good part of the book. Today, many of us have vague recollections of Cubans flying out of Havana to Miami in the first years after the Castro regime came to power. But it was not that simple. Once a family became "Gusanos" (worms) in the eyes of the community for choosing to emigrate from Cuba, there was nothing automatic about applying for and getting permission to leave. Some families sent their children out first. It took several years before Canto's family received their departure papers, a process that involved their having to give up pretty much all of their possessions beforehand. The journey to Madison was not a one-shot affair either. From Havana, their plane flew to Mexico City, after stopping in Meridia. The plane's landing gear failed approaching Mexico City, and emergency vehicles were at the ready to deal with a possible belly flop landing. After a one week stay in Mexico City, the family boarded a plane for Kingston, Jamaica, a county of extreme poverty, from which the family could first apply for entry visas to the U.S.

That process took two months, and Canto's family of five lived in one room for the period, largely off of the donations of other Cubans who had preceded them along the way. Once in Miami, a week more of papers and processing preceded a multistop voyage to the cold northland, through Ft. Lauderdale, Cincinnati, Chicago, and finally Madison. In all, the departure from Havana to the landing in Madison took more than ten weeks in total. Those who have read of the underground railroad during the Civil War will find something similar in the story of how at each stop along the way, Canto's family was aided and assisted by Cubans who had already made the journey to America or to stops along the way.

Many of the most interesting parts of the book are recollections of what mattered to a young Cuban boy growing up in Havana, spending summers in the country with family, and then trying to adapt to his new home and country. One consistent theme, that should be unsurprising to anyone who has been a guest on Silvio Canto's radio program, is his love of baseball. You will find few people in the world who can describe every key play in a game they witnessed when they were 7 years old, back over 50 years ago. Not surprisingly Canto's attachment to the Cuban stars he had seen play in the Cuban winter league, made him a Minnesota Twins fan after he landed in Wisconsin in 1964. After all, that Twins team had 4 Cubans on their roster, including Tony Oliva, and played in the World Series in 1965.

Canto recalls the sacrifices his father and mother made after settling in Wisconsin. His father held two jobs -- one as a stacker in the University of Wisconsin library, the other as a bellman at a hotel. Canto's father was working nearly 100 hours a week, but at least in America, the family was able to benefit from all this labor, unlike in Cuba after Castro. Canto's mother raised the family's three children, and also did babysitting and other jobs to earn some income for the family. After a year in Madison the family moved to Milwaukee, where Canto's father was able to get work at a bank, managed by a former executive of the bank where he had worked in Havana, who had made a similar and earlier departure from Castro's "workers' paradise".

Canto paints a picture of a very welcoming community in Madison. His teachers and classmates were warm and considerate, and seemed interested in hearing the stories about the life he had left behind in Cuba. It did not take long for Canto to pick up the most important Wisconsin obsession -- a love of the Green Bay Packers, which fortunately did not carry over after he moved to Dallas years later. As members of Congress struggle with immigration reform and how to deal with those here illegally, Canto's story is of an immigration journey where the family played by the rules, entered the country legally, and was aided by private charity, rather than public assistance. Immigrants have enriched America, and Canto's book is a tribute to the country that welcomed his family and provided them the opportunity to work hard and live the American dream, or at least the dream that existed back in 1964.