Trees Were Crying Too

Author’s note: This article is representative of the author’s recently published book “Defining Moments A Cuban Exile’s Story about Discovery and the Search for a Better Future” available at Amazon. The book has been the subject of presentations at the Jacksonville Historical Society, Bishop Kenny High School in 2013 as well as other groups and Universities in Massachusetts and Florida.


The Southern Genealogist’s Exchange Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 229, March 2014

by Jose Ramirez

As I reached the bottom of the stairs from the airplane on to the tarmac, I bent down and touched the ground that I had last done 33 years before. My head was swirling with too many thoughts that I knew I would never remember as my son directed me to the awaiting buses that would bring me to the terminal at the Havana Cuba airport.

What prompts a decision to return to one’s homeland after so many years filled with uncer­tainty, distant but sad memories and finding out that it was possible to return to what once was a forbidden fruit of sorts?

Reuniting with my aunts and introducing them to my son was a thrilling experience for all, and I soon found out that in their eyes not only I was the young boy they had seen many years ago but he replaced me as the object of constant attention. At the time, I thought my aunts were my only relatives back in Cuba. Sadly the city and the homes we visited were in a state of disrepair, the economical condi­tion was seriously and negatively impacted especially since Cuba had lost the subsidies provided by the Soviet Union, and the communist government that had been in power since 1959 remained a source of controls and limitations to the people.

A difficult and equally sad experience during our eight day trip was to find my former home occupied by the local police. This had been the home where my father had his rural medicine practice and where I had been raised with my two sisters. My son and I were able to enter the home, travel throughout the town and the farm that had been owned by my aunt and uncle before the government took it away from them. This part of the trip enabled him to see first-hand the many and special places that he had heard about for so many years. For me, the experience was most emotional and it was my son’s presence and assistance that enabled me to cope some­what with all that I saw and felt.

A timeout of sorts from all of this was found when we visited the beautiful beach of Varadero located a couple of hours away from Havana and about the same distance from my hometown. My family had owned a condo there which of course was lost like all the other property to the Fidel Castro regime during the early 1960s. The beach area was a frequent stop by European tourists with waters that had maintained their aqua/blue color, the white and fine sand and the lack of a ripple or waves which made for a wonderful beach experience. There we did not see poverty, everything had been maintained clean and the staff were welcoming. It felt like we were in a different country.

Leaving became an equally anxious experience but I felt like I had gone back home, and so I had.

Nine more trips would follow that first travel to Cuba through January 2013. My experiences and personal obser­vations and that which was shared by family and friends in Cuba were a source of much learning. During these trips, I stayed at local homes, ate what they ate and used as much of the local transportation as I could. My primary exception was to rent a car for two or three days when I visited my hometown and so needed reliable transportation given its distance from the city.

My elderly aunts’ health condition gave me a window into the health care system to those that live there. The lack of medication and reliable medical equipment, among many things, brought to light the shortcomings of a system that only caters to those who are “connected”. It was a sad experience to go to my local pharmacy and secure the twenty two pounds of medicine that I was allowed to bring knowing that it would not solve problems but would bring some relief for a short period of time. The black market for anything and everything you needed including, food and transporta­tion was always a thriving enterprise. It spoke volumes to me when, upon arrival, I could contact an engineer who, upon receiving my call, would be “sick” the next day and became my taxi driver charging a mere $20 US to drive me around the city for hours. He and I had lunch together and talked freely about the poor economic conditions affecting them. Over the years, I saw regulations changing to the extent that people could actually buy and sell properties, but it remained a difficult process which continues to this day. The ability to buy a cell phone for $30 became news in the U.S., but people asked me what do you do when the average monthly salary is between $10 and $20? This economic condition led to some bizarre findings, such as the woman I had known since I was a child who had not been to the beach for years. Her pension came to eight dollars a month and entering the beach premises would cost her half of her monthly income.

Over the years, dissident activity experienced an increase, although it was seldom published in U.S. newspapers until very recently. The repressive govern­ment does not tolerate a diver­gence of opinion and people seldom speak out loud in public for fear of reprisal.

The trips provided an opportunity to work with the local church, visit family and exchange information about life in the U.S. which was not normally read about in the government controlled media. One of the most significant findings during these trips was to learn that I had a number of distant cousins still living in Cuba. Meeting and spending time with them was a source of great happiness as they treated me as if we had known each other all our lives. They took me to sites where family members were buried, and where my father had worked as a young man. Exchanging genealogical related information provided the opportunity to reconnect in ways that I had not foreseen and would become a valuable source of information for my soon-to-be-written history of my family.


How different were these experiences to that one which brought me to this country in 1961.

Growing up in a town with approximately four thousand people in Cuba, about an hour and a half away from the capital, I lived what I considered an idyllic life. I seemed to know everybody and everybody seemed to know me. The fact that my father was one of three doctors in town, my uncle a well respected farmer of sugar cane and that my mother and aunt were involved in the local church certainly had a lot to do with it.

The primary employer in the town was the local sugar mill which had been built at the turn of the 20th Century with up to 2000 employees. Local farms like my uncle’s provided much needed employment and he had the reputation for paying wages during the “tiempo muerto” (dead season) when it was not possible to pursue agricultural work. Local clubs such as the Lions, the Spanish Society, and The People of Color, among others, provided the social venue for many dances and such activities. A movie house and the large gazebo in the center of the park (across from my house) delivered entertainment and the churches were the centers for worship and many social service efforts for the needy.

My family included my two older sisters in addition to my mother and father and a younger brother whom I had never met, who experienced an increase died as a very young child. My extended family was composed of my first cousins and grandmother in addition to my aunt and uncle. Family members on my father’s side lived in the capital city of Havana. Work, worship and local social activi­ties were where I found my family occupied. The family was apolitical except for local elections to help a friend running for office but that seemed the exception to the rule.

Things began to change as I entered my teenage years. Cuba was experiencing a revolution led by Fidel Castro a well known activist against the regimen of Fulgensio Batista a right wing dictator ruling the country. By this time, I had begun to attend a Catholic private school in the city where my father had built a house, going back to our town on weekends. My mother was with us during the week while my father stayed behind attending to his medical practice. Anxiety crept into our lives as bombs would explode in the city and in the rural areas sugar cane fields were set on fire by persons unknown. During that time, my older sister married a young man in the military (as his father had been) and they had a daughter. In the late 50s, my brother-in-law was jailed by the Batista govern­ment as he had become a sympa­thizer with the Castro revolution.

January 1, 1959, the Batista government collapsed (he fled the country) and Fidel Castro took power. Everybody seemed to welcome the change as democratic principles were promised and many people were released from prison including my brother-in-law. He would be commissioned as an officer in the army in the new regime under Castro.

Unfortunately, change began to take place away from that which was expected. During the first two years in power, the Castro government confiscated many foreign owned companies including sugar mills, banks and the like. During this same time, concerns about the philosophical change espoused by government officials had a definite leaning in support of communism. That first year saw my brother-in-law leave the country, soon followed by my sister and later my niece.

One of the most significant concerns came about in 1960 related to what was believed to be a proposed legislation that would in effect place the govern­ment in charge of the education and rearing of children. Many children would be sent to the Soviet Union for re-education. This was not lost to many Cubans of Spanish ancestry who had known of similar actions taken by the communists during the Spanish civil war and so this led parents to look for alternative ways to take care of their families.

My parents’ network of friends and relatives along with the actions taken by a priest in the Miami area opened the opportunity for me to travel unaccompanied to the U.S. It was the sacrifice and the love and care of my parents that enabled them to make the difficult decision to send me away for my own good, not knowing whether they would ever see me again.

A short stay in the Miami area convinced me that remain­ing there was not the best thing for me as I understood the need to continue my education and learn the language. As soon as the offer was made to leave Miami to a newly opened refugee camp, I volunteered to go. Arriving along with other teenagers to the refugee camp outside of Jacksonville I wit­nessed for the first time trees that seemed to be crying, just like I was on the inside. It did not take long for the population of the camp to grow as children continued to arrive from Cuba and dispersed throughout the country. The camp housed a maximum of ninety six children while we attended Bishop Kenny High School in Jacksonville trying to learn a new language, adjust to a new culture and learn how to live away from our parents and everything and everyone we had known before. Yet, it was an experience that led to my grow­ing up very quickly, instilling self confidence and learning to value the importance of being surrounding with people I could trust.

As the camp closed, and following a stay in three different foster homes, I graduated from Bishop Kenny with the 1963 Class and moved to Palatka Fl where I would attend St. John River Junior College. Working fulltime on the overnight shift and trying to maintain a full load at the school landed me in a probation status. The future did not bode well at this point and I decided to make another move, this time to the State of Nebraska where I would stay for six months working at a local hospital but yet unable to pursue my education. A call from my cousin in Cambridge MA prompted me to once again make another move which let to my reuniting with my cousins and live within the bosom of my family for the first time in four years.

The rest of my story reflects my ability to pursue and secure an education, develop a career, reunite with my parents and develop my own family leading to my decision to return to Cuba after a thirty three year absence.