The House of Welcome


Abuela and I celebrating my 1st birthday

Miami signified a new beginning for many Cubans -- a safe haven. They knew their motherland no longer provided a sense of security and hard decisions had to be made. For some, they left willingly with a small suitcase of a few belongings without money, valuables, or tangible memories to accompany them. For others, it came at the cost of fleeing in the middle of night riddled with uncertainty about the next days out at sea. Then there were those who were subjected to the merciless labor camps at the sugar cane fields, providing a cruel way to earn their passage on one of the “Freedom Flights” bound to South Florida.

This was the generation of Cuban exiles that I came to know in my childhood in the 1970s and ‘80s. The one that could recount the stories of a Cuba before Fidel Castro, before they felt they had no choice but to leave behind their history. They built Miami on their painful pasts, and with newfound hope found ways to flourish in the community. Growing-up, I do not recall my parents and maternal grandparents having outward displays of nostalgia or melancholy. I do remember them transmitting positivity about our lives and future. I now know that they existed between two worlds, one that could have been and one that happened to them. My grandparents are no longer here, and neither are many of those that took that leap of faith to cross the Florida straits the decade following 1959.

My mother as a toddler 

There is one story of a person I do want to share, before it gets lost in the narrative of time. Prior to Castro leading Cuba on a path of heartbreak, this person settled in Miami several years before, as an adventurous newlywed. She worked as a seamstress then for a Miami Beach-based bathing suit designer, and from the few photos I’ve seen, had quite a stylish flair. My memory of her stands as an elderly woman, a face worn with age spots, arthritic hands, a slow gait, and an increasingly unkempt home that kept us from sitting comfortably inside her family room and restrained me from using the bathroom. She fed every stray animal in her neighborhood and held out hope that her rose bush would someday flourish. Her bursts of laughter pierced with joy, her observations were comically shrewd and recollections of her younger years in Miami illustrated a time when it was nothing more than a place for snowbirds to take cover for the long winter months from the northern climate. Everyone called her Candita, though that was not her birth name. I did not know this until I wrote her real name for my wedding invitation because I never ever heard anyone calling her Petrona.

Every Sunday afternoon, as a child, my parents would take my brother and I to pay Candita a visit. She would receive my father, her favorite nephew, with a warm embrace and a fresh brew of Cuban coffee. I barely recall her husband who died before I turned eight. He was several years her senior and instrumental behind their decision to move to Miami in the early 1950s. Shortly afterwards, they bought a house located north of Miami Senior High School, between 22nd and 27th Avenue, in a neighborhood that would later come to be known as Little Havana. I found these visits a boring chore because for a child, there was no yard, toys or mischief to get into. I was relegated to sitting obediently on plastic-lined sofa couches inside a room where collectible porcelain figurines sat on glass curio cabinets in every direction my eyes landed.

My father as a young teenager in Cuba
It was in this house my father came to live after he left Cuba in 1967, as did his brothers before him. It was of modest size and archetypal for South Florida homes constructed back then, one-story that squarely fitted on a neat parcel of land. After 1959, Cuba for Candita never felt far away. My paternal grandfather encouraged each of his young sons, when they came of age, to escape in the middle of the night rather than endure the mandatory military service of the Cuban regime. My father had two older brothers, who at separate times made it safely to shore in what came to be an atypical coming-of-age ritual for them. Candita and her husband received them with a world-wide welcome, giving them a place to get settled-in so they can begin anew. They left behind their parents and siblings, not knowing when they will see them again. At one point, my father chased the dreamscape of New York and after enduring a cold winter, returned to Miami and to her house. It was there that in 1970, my parents held their wedding reception where a white meringue layer cake was sliced in a celebratory tradition gathered around family and friends. 

Her open door policy of taking in the tired and poor extended to beyond her and her husband’s immediate family. Inside her Little Havana homestead she acted as a mother of exiles to many by welcoming her siblings, their children, her cousins and their families, friends, families of friends, connected to her bloodline or not. Some she took in suffered the wrath of tyranny first-hand, battered by a place that no matter how hard one tried, it seemed impossible to overcome the atrocities of its authoritarian rule. 

In the beginning of the early 1960s, it was the immediate family that at first started to trickle through the doorways of this Miami home. There was her husband’s sister and spouse; Candita’s brother with his wife; the niece and her toddler son; the cousin with her spouse and their two children; my uncles; my father; Candita’s other brother; another sister, the once-removed cousin. Many of them arrived with children in tow and little else except for a few changes of clothes and the shoes on their feet, and those circumstances were only for the fortunate. 

The next wave of Cubans that flowed through her residence was in 1980, during the Mariel boat lifts. For the duration of seven months, Cuba emptied its prisons and opened its borders to anyone else who wanted to leave the island, but not without repercussions. In the end, over one-hundred-thousand Cubans joined relatives in the U.S., with the help of the Cuban-American community who coordinated efforts for boats to arrive at Mariel Harbor. They not only picked up family members but were also forced by Cuban officials to board criminals. The government simply no longer wanted them on their hands and did not care if vessels were dangerously overloaded. So in huddled masses yearning to breathe free they went. My father’s uncle and his family came in this manner, as well as several of his cousins, including one that was released from prison who suffered from mental ailments all his life. Candida took him in, provided him with shelter, and did not seem to mind if he overstayed his welcome for more than a year.

Following the next decades, Candida continued to receive recent arrivals from Cuba even as her health slowly declined. The 1990s brought about the flotillas and rafters who risked their lives to make it ashore with nothing more than inflatable tubes. Whether they were distant cousins or friends of relatives; or friends of friends; her place remained open to those homeless, tempest-tost needing a place to land on their feet to begin afresh. For nearly 50 years, Candita with her humble abode in Little Havana, made this possible for so many generations of Cuban exiles.

She was well into her mid-90s when she passed away in 2017. As I grew and became more independent, my weekly visits stretched out to longer intervals. Even after I moved away from Miami, I continued to see Candita whenever I was in town, and eventually would also take my sons there. In her later years with her health failing, her last months were spent in hospice care, weaving in and out of lucidness. On one occasion, I went to spend some time with her at the care facility, and I stepped into her room witnessing my father, spoon in hand, sweetly urging his aunt to take a bite. In the end, her funeral services were sparsely attended, a consequence of outliving your contemporaries. The white casket that she picked out long ago, decorated with a rose motif, was propped up onto the burial vault, her coffin stacked on top of her husband’s, Bienvenido.

Did she realize the importance she played in the lives of those seeking refuge from an island nation that extorted so much of their humanity? That is difficult to determine and I do not think she would have allowed herself to feel the weight of such a recognition, like that mighty woman with a torch. Candita herself may have not been a Cuban exile in the traditional sense, but she embodied a spirit of compassion as deep as her love for her birthplace. Just as the Statue of Liberty did for the millions who entered her New York harbor over a century ago, Candida provided a steadfast assurance that those who passed through her doors finally have what they were seeking, freedom.

Lady Liberty 
In this blog, extracts from the poem, The New Colossus written by Emma Lazarus in 1883 in honor of the Statue of Liberty, were used as a tribute to many unsung heroes of the Cuban-American community. Here is the complete poem:

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she

With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

A native daughter of Miami of Cuban heritage, Grace feels fortunate to have grown-up where her cultural roots were celebrated and where she was able to embrace and learn about many others that called this city their home. She currently resides in the south of France with her husband and sons, and writes about her expat experiences, the nuisances of parenting and her childhood on her blog, You can also find her on Instagram @gswis

Copyright (2021) Grace Sanchez Wisser – All Rights Reserved


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