Readers respond to WP Magazine story of lost Cuban childhood

February 7, 2014

Emotional e-mails from readers in response to the story of Juan José Valdés searching for his lost Cuban childhood have been rolling in all week.

If you missed the story, click the link above, and we’ll wait right here. To recap, the piece in the Feb. 2 Sunday Magazine recounted how Valdés’s parents put him on a Miami-bound plane from Havana, alone, at the age of 7, in August 1961. Many parents made similar choices, fearing for their children’s future in revolutionary Cuba. Eventually, Valdés’s parents reunited with their son and settled in Wheaton. Valdés grew up to be the Geographer at National Geographic. As he approached his 60th birthday, the loss of his Cuban childhood haunted him more and more, and he decided to rediscover his past — if he could.

Reader Bruce King of Alameda, Calif., on his tricycle in Havana sometime before his family left in September 1960. (Photograph courtesy Bruce King) Reader Bruce King of Alameda, Calif., on his tricycle in Havana sometime before his family left in September 1960. (Photograph courtesy Bruce King)

Cuba is the only country where the U.S. government restricts the travel of its own citizens, but Americans can go on licensed cultural tours.

“Being 10 years older than he, I went through similar circumstances when I returned to Havana in 1999 after 37 years of absence,” wrote Rafael Cohen of Encino, CA.

Like Valdés, Cohen was too emotional to get out of the car on the first day he located his family’s former home. The next day, for moral support, members of his tour group escorted him to the front door.

“A very kind and old lady opened the door and let me in and proceeded to name all the members of my family when I lived there, stating that neighbors had always talked about us to her when she moved into the house after we left,” Cohen wrote.

A lamp stood in the same location where his father had placed it in 1957. Cohen asked a woman on the tour to take a picture of him next to the lamp.

“This lady started crying because it brought her memories of her father experiencing something similar back in 1989 when he returned to East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The experience of Juan José when he returned to his home is probably repeated many times by immigrants from all places who can forgive but not forget their past, but who can put hatreds aside and be able to reconnect to their roots, whatever country it may be.”

Susana Gomez, of Arlington, wrote that she was a “Pedro Pan” — the name given to the 14,000 unaccompanied children who were sent from Cuba in the early 1960s. She arrived with her younger brother.

“Yes, it was scary,” she wrote. “I was 13 years old and knew why we were being sent. He had just turned 12 and did not have a clue. Like other Pedro Pans, we focused on survival…. It is now that we are getting older that the dots [of memories] in the brain are connected.”

Conchita Tellechea, Port St. Lucie, FL, added: “I was also a Peter Pan child who has lived all her life with a lot of questions and pain. I came to the States in 1961 when I was fourteen and I have never gone back. My life is here where my children and grandchildren were born, in the country that welcomed me with open arms. But still there is a part of me that remains back in my homeland. There are a lot of questions and memories that have haunted me all these years.”

Virginia Schofield, of the District, cited the National Geographic wall map of Cuba that Valdés helped create: “It is in an honored place in our living room. It includes the tiny town of La Gloria, where I was born, and the town of Moron, where my grandfather’s Teatro Reguero has been restored, and Mayari, the town nearest to the farm where we grew up.

“I grew up without electric lights on a very remote farm owned by United Fruit. We were poor, but my parents played classical music at night. We lost no material goods, not even the money we didn’t have. We supported the revolution and left when we felt it had been betrayed. Every other Cuban I know lost money, property, sugar mills, land, hotels, houses, furniture, cars, cattle….[Yet] you could canvas the whole U.S. and find limitless examples of Cubans without hatred who love the place, even if they can’t live there again.

“I remember the crabs crossing the road, my father’s jeep crunching them. The sugar cane juice running down to my elbow. The beauty of the view from the bench in our yard facing Levisa Bay.

“So many of us are on that trek [back to Cuba]!…Why is it that we cannot escape Cuba’s pull?…Was it because we had to leave? I always wonder what my life would have been like had I stayed. I go back and I belong there more than here — for a while. Then I want to come back [to the U.S.]. Perhaps we are cursed to live in that third place in between.”

Carlos Eire, a Yale professor and author of the memoir “Waiting for Snow in Havana” about his Pedro Pan experience, took a different view. In a post on the Babalú Blog, he disagreed that expatriates should ever return while the government established by Fidel Castro remains in power: ”Of course, such a heartwarming tale of reconciliation with the totalitarian regime that wrecked [Valdés’s] homeland and tore his family apart caught the eye of the Washington Post….Yes, damn it: it’s such a beautiful thing, this reconciling.  And this is what every Cuban exile should do: forgive the Castro dynasty, leave plenty of dollars in their pockets,  and accept the fact that their fellow Cubans on the island deserve to remain enslaved forever.”

Much of the reaction echoed that of Rita Wilkie, of Williamsburg, who got in touch with Valdés by e-mail after the story was published and later wrote: “How is it that perfect strangers, people who have never met and probably never will meet, can reach back through time and connect because we are no longer who we were meant to be? Who else has had the earth fall away and remain 90 miles away?…We have survived, and done well, and we still have common ground….What needs to happen is that we need to open the border and allow Americans to travel freely to Cuba.”

Reader Bruce King in front of his family's former home in Havana during a visit in 2001. (Photograph courtesy Bruce King)
Reader Bruce King in front of his family’s former home in Havana during a visit in 2001. (Photograph courtesy Bruce King)

Bruce King, of Alameda, Calif., was born in Havana to a Cuban mother and an American father who worked for the Cuban branch of an American bank: “I was deeply moved by this article….When we left Cuba for the last time in September 1960, we did not dare say goodbye to anyone.

“On Christmas Day, 2001, Ada, my wife, and I decided to make a pilgrimage back to the old country. This is the closest I have ever come to using a time machine. I found my old house at [the Havana section called] Nautico from memory, still wearing the same paint which it had when we left. My favorite Havana department store, El Encanto, is now just a park, but Fin de Siglo is still there, though not quite as well-stocked as in 1958. Overall, Havana in 2001 was a freeze frame of December 1958. It made me think of a mansion where a wild, gigantic party happened many years ago. The party abruptly ended, and everybody walked away without cleaning up the dirty dishes.”

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