Union City, NJ became the northeast destination for many exiled Cubans during the early 1960’s. Known as the Embroidery Capital of the World and separated from NYC by the Hudson River, it was a rock skip away from employment and opportunity. What came to be known as Havana on the Hudson offered an abundance of hope in the pursuit of the American dream. My family landed in Union City with a Dorothy-like thump shortly after Castro seized control of the island. The unfamiliar surroundings were snowy, frigid, and gray. We were not in Havana anymore.
Fidel Castro’s revolution succeeded in replacing one form of corrupt, dictatorial government for another, moving our island home from the Batista pan into the communist fire. My father and his brother were serving in President Batista’s Cuban army during the time of the revolution. Both were captured by Castro’s guerrillas in the infamous hills of La Sierra Maestra and incarcerated as political prisoners. Family connections were partly successful towards their release. My father was freed, but my uncle served close to 22 years as a political prisoner of Castro’s “liberation”. And the ever present fear that my father would again be sentenced as a political prisoner so long as he remained on the island compelled his family to expatriate him to America. My mother supported the decision believing that it wouldn’t be long before Castro was assassinated and in turn, allow for my father’s return and the release of his brother from Castro’s prisons.
NYC’s Central Park served as my father’s first address in America. Not the tony apartments overlooking the park, but a park bench that became his new home. It was February of 1960 and cold like my father had never experienced. At night, he huddled around a fire with other homeless men. Family legend has it that a Good Samaritan pointed my father in the direction of one of NYC’s luxury hotels where he could find work, food, and possibly, shelter. Shortly thereafter, the Waldorf Astoria hired my father as a handyman, no English necessary. The hotel employed my father, provided him meals, and indeed, allowed him to sleep in a large, barely used broom closet. Over time, circumstances greatly improved for my father. Now employed with access to food and with a warm place to sleep, he did however encounter one peculiar difficulty. The public bathrooms of NYC, circa 1960, were still segregated. Some were designated for Blacks and others for Whites. His resemblance, judged as not close enough to either one, found him unwelcomed in both.
After nearly a year of working at the Waldorf, my father scraped together enough money for 3 plane tickets from Havana to America. Castro continued to rule the island and a quick end to his oppressive regime seemed unlikely. My father was also able to secure an apartment for our arrival in a tenement building in Union City, NJ before rental signs stating “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Cubans” began showing up throughout the city. My mother, 3 year old sister, and me (15 months old at the time) arrived at our new home on December 30th, 1960. It was my mother’s 23rd birthday. We were greeted at LaGuardia Airport by my father, quite ecstatic at the time. When he reached for my mother along with two unrecognizable daughters at her heels and noticed that she was in tears, he tried to comfort her assuming she was crying out of relief to see him again. The truth was, she hadn’t even noticed him. My father had been standing against a window and what she was reacting to was the snow falling just beyond him. She could feel the cold, did not understand the foreign language spoken all around her, and terribly missed her family. With a happy birthday kiss and hugs all around, we went on our merry way to begin a new life in America. Our railroad style apartment had 2 bedrooms, a bathroom with no tub, rats as uninvited boarders, and so many cucarachas scurrying here and there that when we went to bed at night, we made sure to cover our mouths when yawning for fear that one might drop in.
It’s been said time and again that the ‘60s & ‘70s were tumultuous decades in America. There we were, strangers in a new land, barely speaking English, as the conflict of a divisive and murderous war in Indochina claimed the lives of countless Americans. Included among these fallen heroes were the older brothers of some of my childhood friends. We adoringly watched them from the front steps of our little world, never realizing their affectionate peck on the cheek before heading out to Vietnam would be the last time any of us ever saw them. War, Hippies in funny looking VW buses, civil rights marches that too often featured water cannons and bare fanged police dogs, assassinations, Woodstock, drugs, free love, and burned bras. It was more than the average American walking out of the 1950’s could easily digest, let alone newcomers to this strange and exhilarating land of freedom.
Assimilation in our new home progressed at a steady pace albeit with a few bumps and bruises along the way. As is customary with any ethnic group new to America, the older generation has a much harder and longer time assimilating. Some never do, but the younger generation catches on quickly. And some of the customs familiar to the newcomers eventually fold into the mainstream. Cuban food has become trendy cuisine for numerous NYC restaurants. Several of them are located near Central Park. Whenever I walk through the park and see one of its empty benches, I try to imagine the ghost of my father laying there. When I’m on the east side of Manhattan and pass the Waldorf Astoria, I thank the storied Good Samaritan in my thoughts.
Both of my parents are now gone, Castro remains in power, my sister taught me the meaning of unconditional love, and our younger brother, born in America, has proudly served his country. My years in between crying on the elementary school line because I did not speak a word of English and earning my Master’s in American Literature, were riddled with one stormy adjustment after another. It’s okay. I have made a new home for myself with my American husband, our 4 (multicultural) children, and 2 dogs. There’s no place like home.
Mayda (Tapanes) Bosco