Immigrant Stories: Figuring out the trick to entering the U.S.
Immigrant Stories by Walter Gallacher appears on the fourth Tuesday of the month. Gallacher is a photojournalist and an independent radio producer. Anyone with an immigrant story to tell about themselves or relatives is invited to email firstname.lastname@example.org. To read past Immigrant Stories, go to www.immigrantcolorado.blogspot.com.”
Intro: Norberto Garcia is an account manager for Colorado Mountain College at the Spring Valley Campus. He told his immigrant story to Walter Gallacher.
Garcia: I was born in Cuba in August of 1962, two months before the Cuban Missile Crisis that October. My parents said that by that time there was growing resentment amongst many Cubans towards the Castro regime. Even before the U.S. embargo there was a lot of rationing. A lot of food just wasn’t available.
We were issued rationing cards and were allowed to have one steak a week, shoes every six months. Things were really bad. A lot of Cubans wanted the U.S. to invade.
At the height of the Missile Crisis the threat of nuclear war was so great, the Castro government was advising people to sleep near pools so when they saw the nuclear flash they could jump in the water for protection. Families were huddled together, and every night they went to bed wondering if it would be the last.
We were in the middle of it because the first place to go boom would have been Havana. Troops were everywhere, and people were told to stay home. Because of the fear there was a lot of repression. There was an “are you with them or are you with us” attitude that seemed to be everywhere. It wasn’t a good time to be in Cuba.
Gallacher: Were your parents persecuted?
Garcia: Well, my parents were against the revolution. At the beginning, when they were younger, they were more neutral. A lot of Cubans were for Fidel when he came in 1959, but then he started taking private property, and things began to change very fast. Lots of Cubans turned against him, especially when they realized they couldn’t leave Cuba.
If you asked to leave Cuba and immigrate to another country, the government would do an inventory of your house and your personal property and confiscate it. Your family would be moved to a little apartment where you had to stay until your time to leave.
When you left, you left with your pants, your shirt and a little bag with some clothing. You weren’t allowed to take anything of value. All of that now belonged to the State.
Gallacher: So they made it as difficult as possible.
Garcia: Oh yes, that’s why there were so many people trying to leave by other means. My dad’s brother was able to leave because he worked for a Swiss company and they helped him. He then claimed my parents. We were supposed to come to the United States but my dad chose Mexico.
Mexico wasn’t very friendly to people leaving Cuba because it was aligned with Castro. We lived in Acapulco, Mexico, for about 15 years.
Gallacher: Why did your parents choose Mexico if it was difficult?
Garcia: My father preferred Mexico because he found work there, and it was the same language. I think he was afraid to come to the United States. That is one of those things I still don’t totally understand.
My whole family was in Miami. My dad’s two other brothers had left in the Peter Pan program* when they were younger. They were sent to Miami in care of the Catholic Church where they were housed in shelters and sent to Catholic school. My grandparents preferred to do that rather than have their kids become drones of the revolution.
Fidel was saying, “kids can leave but adults have to stay.” He was making things as difficult as possible for people to leave. If you stayed it was difficult, and if you tried to leave it was even worse.
Gallacher: So when did you come to the United States?
Garcia: When I turned 18. I decided that I wanted to be with the rest of the family. I was tired of being treated like a person without a country. For example, when I graduated from high school, everyone else in my class got degrees right away. It took me about a year-and-a-half to get mine because of government red tape.
Gallacher: Because you were Cuban?
Garcia: Exactly, everything was difficult. So I went to the U.S. Embassy to apply for a visa, and they told me I needed to have a passport. At that time I didn’t have a Mexican or a Cuban passport. I was a person without a country.
So they told me I had to have something from the Cuban Embassy before they could do anything. The Cuban Embassy at that time looked like something out of D Day. The first thing I saw were two pillboxes and mounted guns. The spikes on the fences that usually face out to keep people out were facing in to keep people in.
My dad went with me, but they wouldn’t let him in. They took me to a room, and that’s where I stayed for four days, no explanation, no nothing. I slept there and ate there, and they took me to the bathroom, but that was it.
Gallacher: How could they do that?
Garcia: It was the way things were being done in Cuba, and I was a Cuban in the Cuban Embassy. They started asking me why I left Cuba and why didn’t I want to go and serve my country. Why was I a “gusano”? A gusano is a maggot, and that is what they called the people who left Cuba.
You see, in their analogy, when Fidel got to Cuba he busted a big infection, and all the maggots came out. Fidel got rid of all the “bad guys” and cleaned the wound that was afflicting Cuba.
They asked me why I didn’t want to be a “pillar of the revolution” and fight for Cuba. They said they were sending me to Angola to be a soldier in what Fidel’s “second revolution.” I was terrified.
There were usually five guys in the room with me, all in suits. They never touched me physically but they did everything they could psychologically to break me.
Gallacher: What were your parents doing during that time?
Garcia: I never saw them. I learned later that my dad was talking to the U.S. Embassy and trying to keep my mom calm. I think it was his work with the Americans that kept me from being sent back to Cuba.
Finally, on the fourth day, this guy came in and handed me some papers and told me I was free to go. But the paperwork didn’t look official and I realized, that even after this four-day ordeal, I wasn’t any closer to having my passport. My dad picked me up, and we went directly to the U.S. Embassy.
They wouldn’t let my dad come in with me. So once again I am feeling like a kid who needs his parents, and I am sitting across from the American consul and he is giving me all the reasons that I can’t go to the United States. He tells me that I don’t have the right papers and I am not “following the right procedure.” And he offers me passage to Munich or Amsterdam but not the U.S.
I feel like I am ready to pass out at this point.
Gallacher: So you’re stuck.
Garcia: Yeah, he is basically telling me I am a stateless person and there is nothing he can do to help me. I pleaded with him but he was very calm, very stoic. And just as I started to lose it, I had an epiphany.
I remembered this comedian, Alvarez Guedes, who told all these jokes about being Cuban, and he had this skit about emigrating from Cuba. So I turned to the American consul and I said, “I am Cuban, right?” and he said, “Yes, you are Cuban.” I said, “I am in the U.S. embassy in American territory, right?” and he nodded yes. “Well then,” I said, “I want asylum!” At that point, the guy starts laughing and says, “What took you so long?”
I didn’t know what was going on, so he explained to me that he couldn’t coach me on what to ask for because that would have been a violation of the law. He had to wait and see if I would finally figure it out. “All this time,” he says, “I have been waiting for you to figure it out. Welcome to the United States!”
So all of a sudden it’s a party, and he takes me out and people are applauding, and we go upstairs and they have a cake for me that says “Congratulations, Welcome to the United States.” I felt like I had just won the lotto.
Gallacher: So how long did it take for you to get out of Mexico?
Garcia: They granted me a humanitarian visa that same day, and the next morning someone from the U.S. Embassy picked my dad and me up and put us on a flight to Dallas and then on to Miami.
Gallacher: What were you feeling then?
Garcia: I didn’t feel like I was actually going to be in the United States up until the moment they stamped my papers and I passed through customs in Dallas.
*Operation Peter Pan was a mass exodus of unaccompanied Cuban minors to the United States between 1960 and 1962. Most of the minors were between the ages of 12 and 18, and over two-thirds were boys.
After the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, all flights between the United States and Cuba and Operation Peter Pan was shut down.
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