Reflection upon looking at my grandfather's youth soccer team photo in Cuba by Laz Aleman

Though there was no legal segregation in Cuba in the late 1930’s, not everybody was as open-minded or normal as my gramps - my Abuelo Ramon. Some people thought a certain colored person was not good enough to be on the soccer team that my grandfather’s stepfather owned.  My gramps, a righteously heroic man, put his foot down and said, “I don't care if you say that his family members work for mine. I am going to give him special treatment.  Not only is he going to be in the picture but he will stand on one of the cornerstones of the photograph.”  Gramps  is shown at the top left hand corner.  His afro-Cuban friend Bienvenido (which ironically means welcome in Spanish) stands to the right and dons my grandfather's privileged white Jersey (reserved for the Goalie and Captain, or in this case Co-Captain, of the team).

Bienvenido and my gramps, among others, founded an underground movement in Cuba called the ELN  (different from the leftist organization stolen in name by Castro and imported to Colombia).  As part of their resistance effort they stockpiled weapons and planned a coup.  On January 18, 1964, their D-day, Bievenido and 32 other leaders gathered to finalize plans for an armed uprising in which thousands of men would converge from all over, knock out the lights in Habana and do away with Castro. These events are confirmed by a copy of his prison sentence handed to me in 1999.  The sentence elaboratively describes the charges "An attempted armed coup against the Cuban government" and specifically lists the activities undertaken to support their charges, e.g. devising a plan for the attempted murder of Prime Minister Fidel Castro;  organizing an armed uprising, and such.  

A spy infiltrated the organization thus foiling the plan at the 11th hour and at the top floor of the Focsa Hotel. (Oh boy).  After more than 40 years of friendship, Bienvdenido and my gramps were going to be subjected to torture unfit for any living thing that breathes, particularly for fathers with kids at home. Among the many tortures my grandfather endured during his 11 years as a political prisoner in Castro's regime was placement in solitary confinement for one entire year - stripped down from all his clothes and repeatedly beaten and sprayed with water.  During those times when they finally got some sleep, soldiers would barge in unexpectedly, blindfold them, tie them up, and lead them outside - made them think that execution was imminent. As they'd hear the words “ready, aim, and fire“ - a blatant violation of the Geneva Convention. Within a nanosecond he was hit in the chest with bullets not aimed to kill, but comprised of a material that “felt as if cigars were being put out on his chest“ as described by Bienvenido.

After over a year in solitary confinement and the above-mentioned treatment, the American government stepped in through an operation initiated by "Lechuga." My grandfather's and Bienvenido’s lives would be spared under the conditions that a certain government would secretly deposit foods (and things of that nature) in a country that could export them to Cuba. It also entailed that they give up the last of the assault weapons left in Cuba at the time, which were hidden underground. When all conditions were met, they were rewarded with a decade-long tenure at a slave camp where, placed into rooms, they watched "so-called Americans committing atrocities abroad" while told that the “comrade” Russians are so good. Yeah right. This sick reeducation program was intended to brainwash the weak. My gramps managed to withstand it but he never did succumb to the indoctrination.  After 11 years of countless stitches, heartaches, headaches, name it they felt it, they were released. [As a kid, I overheard conversations between my gramps and Bienvenido (along with a few other high, profile, legit individuals) in which they share how Castro would integrate common criminals, (i.e., rapists, criminals, murderers, etc.) with honorable political prisoners (like them), as well as young teenage boys; another torturous tactic that hardened the strong-minded, which breaking the weak-minded into states of perpetual misery]. 

As a small child in Cuba I was subjected to things that today’s U.S. teachers would go to jail here for, such as pulling my hair, verbally abusing me, etc. My pedigree somehow found the resolve in me to stay what some would call a spiritual course. I was in kindergarten, and I'll never forget the day, when those ugly military jeeps pulled up to the last house now confiscated by Castro and told us you guys are no longer welcomed here. There had been a problem at the Peruvian Embassy and therefore potential “problems” were to be either exterminated or sent to the U.S. Overnight; my grandfather had to leave Cuba and leave behind his kids and grandchildren. My brother, my mother, his wife (my grandmother), and I (because that's all they would allow) were to accompany him and processed for deportation immediately at an Island called the Mosquito. (Conventional wisdom will tell you why they call it the Mosquito). 

As we headed towards the port on our way to board the boat that would send us away, we were called "Gusanos" or "worms" while thrown rotten eggs at. Many others were thrown rocks.  I will never forget those friggin’ Cuban soldiers telling me "what an evil country I was going to” or how my “father didn’t love me; if he had, he would keep you here with us, where you were born.” Even sadder was the reality of having to say good bye to my father. Thanks to their scare tactics, at nearly 6 years of age, my brother and I were really scared. 

On May 11, 1980 we went aboard an overcrowded 60-ft. long shrimp boat, with solely a bucket near the engine room intended to be used as a toilet. Because those damn waves (I welcome you to check the weather report for that day) were so bad, my grandfather had to tear his shirt and in an attempt to hold us together, shield us with the shirt to protect us from the harsh weather. 

Finally, several hours later we had arrived in the United States of America. A terrified little boy in a country that I was taught to believe was bad and evil, I had refused to get off the boat. It wasn’t until my grandfather ( a man of his word who never broke a promise) promised my brother and me that this country was as close to perfection as could be, and there was nothing to fear.

I was immediately handed clothes from piles donated by beautiful Americans from all walks of life. In Cuba I had a couple rags to wear so this charitable gesture had already peaked my interest. My gramps reminded me how in Cuba they would raid our house looking for undeclared meat (yes, you heard correctly): food. In Cuba you're only allowed to eat the measly portions of junk fed to you by the government. Consumption of anything else is a crime. I remember sitting at the corner listening to old men speak about the days when ham was served all over Cuba, making my mouth water; and how sodas from America in all colors poured from fountains like Niagara Falls. Not only were these American soldiers angelic, but their actions were burned into my mind and my soul. First they took me to pick from a mountain of clothes; the first article of clothing being a Green Bay Packer t-shirt. (Huh, loyalty huh?) Then after grabbing as many articles of clothing a boy can grab with his hands and feet you name it. This seemed like an opportunity I could not pass up. But I was reassured there would be plenty of clothes to pick from. “There's no hurry, let's get you some food.” And that same soldier (who’s in my eyes) wearing an emblem of an American flag on his shoulder that shined so nicely, asked me, “what do you want to eat?” Though his Spanish was broken, his message was whole as can be. I guess I was shell shocked in a good way, I responded “What food?" to which he replied, “Well we have sodas, ham sandwiches, and a lot of other goodies.” I could not believe my ears. How could this be possible? A stranger giving me clothes that I once dreamt about, and now offering food, like ham? No this was too good to be true.

But it sure wasn't. It was very true in deed. There I saw large containers full of different kinds of foods. In disbelief, I ran towards these containers and grabbed ham sandwiches: one to smell; one to eat; one to wear on my head; one under my arms. Just like the clothes, I grabbed as many sandwiches as a boy can carry. As soon as these angels saw my actions, they reassured me that I could have as much as I wanted. Other people remained in camps much longer because they were common criminals, unlike my grandfather. My grandfather was met by some men in suits who immediately and expeditiously led us out of there. We were relocated by the govt via airplane all the way to New Jersey. Soon afterwards came the culture shock.

This blog post was written and published by Lazaro Aleman in 2010.  


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