This post is in response to Emily Holleman's Open Call: “Remembering the Bay of Pigs”.
I was too young to remember the Bay of Pigs invasion. I do know we were still in Cuba when it happened. From the stories my parents told us of that time period, I do know my father had left the military and he was struggling to keep his family business alive: Castro's socialism did not approve of sole proprietors.
In 1962, we came to the United States…penniless. We wound up in New York and moved in with my father’s sister and her family. In other words, four adults and four kids in a three bedroom apartment that was located over a storefront in Astoria, Queens, New York. After three months of living with them, my dad found a job and we moved into a two-bedroom apartment in a housing project in Astoria next to the East River and Astoria Park.
One day, three Cuban men showed up at our door. My parents were expecting them. After a few pleasantries, my mother motioned my sister and me to retire to the bedroom that I shared with my sister. Being four years old, I was content to look out the window and stare at the partially blocked view of Manhattan. My sister, three years my senior, was more intent on eavesdropping on the conversation between these strange men and our parents. There were was a long discussion. My mother was the last person to speak. The men left. We were allowed to go back into the sparsely-furnished living room. The tension in that room was like walking into a room full of highly-unstable nitroglycerin: you dared not snap your fingers for fear of creating a spark.
Years later, my parents would tell of that odd day with those strange men. In a nutshell, the three men represented an unnamed group that was trying to put together a group of former Cuban soldiers who served under Batista. They were to be trained for combat and a possible invasion of Cuba. The men were trying to recruit my father. All my parents knew of these men was that they were backed. By who, they didn’t know.
Over the years my parents speculated as to who the backers were. They could have been a paramilitary, counter-revolutionary group backed by wealthy Cubans exiles. They could have been backed by the CIA. They could easily have been Castro’s spies living in the United States trying to snare Cuban Nationals into a trap. They could even have been KGB agents. This was around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War. Paranoia ran high. Nothing was what it seemed; you trusted no one. The men remained a mystery.
What we do know is that my mother’s speech was the deal breaker. After much patriotic rhetoric, the men reminded my father of his outstanding military service, his fallen army buddies and those of his friends who had been arrested and shot in front of Castro’s firing squads or imprisoned for being enemies of the Revolution. They seemed to know a lot about my father. Yet, he always maintained that he did not know these men when we were in Cuba.
My father listened. His patriotic fervor rose. At that moment, he would have walked right out the door with those men except that my mother’s need for domestic stability cooled his nationalistic fever.
In a calm and diplomatic manner, she explained to the men that while my father was a patriot who fought against Castro in some of the most intensive battles during the Revolution; he was also a family man. When we were in Cuba, she understood and honored my father’s sense of duty. She honored it so much that she did not try to stop him when he was deployed.
Pregnant, she stayed home and took care of a small young girl and her father-in-law who had suffered a stroke. However, now that we were in a new and strange world, a place that was hostile to foreigners even though it was made up of foreigners, she did not want her husband to leave.
Besides, she said the first Bay of Pigs was a complete disaster. What guarantee did she have that this operation would be a success? Who would take care of her and her children if her husband were killed or imprisoned? The men fell silent. Not being able to honestly answer these questions, they left. For months, my father was angry at my mother, but overtime he realized that she had made the right decision for us all.
Also during this time, we were introduced to other Cuban exiles living in New York. A lot of them belong to a group of Cuban Nationals which we were asked to join. Eager to reconnect with old friends or just wanting to meet other Cubans, my parents became members. I cannot recall the exact name of the group; I asked my sister, and she was not able to remember the name either. This group would hold meetings in various locations throughout New York City. We attended these gatherings. At the meetings, they held long and impassioned speeches. We heard testimonials from recently arrived Cubans about conditions in Cuba.
The group would get its members to sign petitions which were sent to Washington, D.C. The petitions were pleas by Cuban Nationals to get the United States to take action and sanctions against the Castro government. However, during this time, the United States was much more interested in stopping the spread of communism in Southeast Asia than in an island nation that was a mere 90 miles from it shores. Makes sense. The group rallied its members to take part in manifestaciones ( political marches ). Members were issued stickers and pins.
Sticker of an armed gusano with the Cuban flag.
The “gusano” or worm in the sticker represents the derogatory term that Castro’s people had for the Cubans who left their homeland. The exile-Cuban community took this symbol of shame and turned it into one of pride just like the “Yankee Doodle” song. The worm holds a rifle in one hand and a Cuban flag in the other. Over his head is the phrase “¡VOLVEREMOS!” which means “We shall return!” The obvious message was that exiled Cubans would return and take Cuba back by force.
Lapel pin with Cuban flag and the words Cuba and ANTICOMUNISTA.
The lapel pin shown here shows the Cuban flag and the words Cuba and ANTICOMUNISTA. Members were encouraged to wear this pin at meetings, demonstrations, and at all times if possible.
For me and my sister, these meetings were boring and tedious. If we behaved, my mother would reward us with a brazo Gitano: rolled sponge cake. Eventually, we got bored with the reward. My mother stayed home with us while my father attended the meetings. After a year, my father got fed up with the whole thing too. It seemed that the group was always asking for money, which we had little of, and very little was getting done.
At the last meeting he attended, a very fiery speech was given. It resembled a battle cry. Sitting next to my father, a very shaky old man who could barley stand on his own two feet raised his fist and cried, “I can still carry a rifle!” According to my father, the crowd fell silent. Some men snickered. Most didn’t know how to react. Someone from the stage applauded; it was followed by a less than enthusiastic clapping of hands from the audience.
My father who had witnessed his best friends get killed in action, who still mourned the loss of those friends, who suffered while his brother was being held as a prisoner of war by the Castro government, realized right then and there that returning to Cuba to regain what had been taken or left behind was becoming a pipe dream. He left the meeting and his dreams of ever going back to his homeland.
We never did find out if those three men were actually trying to start another Bay of Pigs type of invasion. Or if their dreams of freeing their country just faded away like dreams usually do.
Check out Meet Hebertico: A Cold War Hero. A companion to this post.
Text by Trudge164, Images courtesy of Trudge's sister