Juan de Leon, a neat, squarely built man in his 50s, looked at his Social Security card, carefully encased in plastic. "This is the office I want to go to," he said in Spanish. "It must say somewhere here where the unemployment office is," he added, scrutinizing the card in the hopes that it would reveal its secret.
It has been two years since de Leon boarded a crowded boat in the Cuban port of Mariel, joining 124,788 other Cubans in a pilgrimage to the new world of the United States. Beleaguered federal Immigration and Naturalization Service officials at Key West did not know what to call the unexpected arrivals. The term finally assigned to de Leon and his fellow refugees reflected the confusion: "Entrants/status pending."
This month Congress will attempt to deal with that confusion in its review of the Simpson-Mazzoli bill, which proposes granting the "Marielitos" a permanent legal category so they can remain in this country. But the legislation is unlikely to do much to clear up the confusion in de Leon's mind as he struggles with life in the suburban wilderness of Montgomery County.
It was early on an unexpectedly cool summer morning this month when de Leon once again readied himself for an excursion to his local welfare office. He did not know about the upcoming congressional review of his status, nor was it particularly relevant to the current problems of his life.
Together with his roommate and fellow refugee, de Leon painstakingly neatened his dank, dark basement apartment. His roommate, a jumpy and uncommunicative older man, does not take credit for the apartment's colorful decoration. He was a frequent resident of Cuba's mental hospitals and jails since early childhood, and is having an even harder time than de Leon adjusting to his new life.
It was left to de Leon to invest meticulous energy and resourcefulness in their new home. Ribbons of carefully looped colored toilet paper are tacked across the ceiling. In lieu of a lampshade, an empty detergent carton is suspended from the central light fixture. Empty soda cans have been glued in geometric patterns to the wall. Clearly, it is not the home of a man without hope.
But de Leon sometimes finds it hard to keep his spirits up. A visitor is asking him unpleasant questions about money. The mathematics of his life are devastating. The state of Maryland gives him a check for $181 a month, $151.50 of which goes for his half of the monthly rent. The remaining $29.50, he explains with no trace of irony, provides his "supplemental needs: soap, toothpaste, aspirin." He gets an additional $70 worth of food stamps.
"Chica, I hate communism, but I have to tell the truth," he finally says. "I lived much better in Havana. I had a three-bedroom apartment with a balcony, provided by the state, a television, five radios, my camera." De Leon worked as a waiter captain at a beachside cabaret, and freelanced as a portrait photographer.
Relative prosperity may shine in his memory, but there is no doubt of his hatred of Fidel Castro's Cuba. He is proud of having spent time in a Cuban prison after the Bay of Pigs attempt to overthrow Castro. He is certain that, given the chance, virtually all Cubans would desert the island. "Only people with a slave mentality can live in communism," he said. "There is no freedom for anything -- one's children belong to the state, one belongs to the state."
After delivering himself of this credo, he pulled on a cap and drew himself up, ready to face the world.
His wife decided to keep her job in Havana, rather than accompanying him to the United States. "I'm getting old," she told him. "What would I do there?"
As do the lives of the other 1,000 or so Mariel refugees living in the Takoma Park area of Montgomery County, de Leon's life revolves around The Spanish-Speaking Community of Maryland Inc., better known as "La Comunidad." This local service agency processes and channels state benefits, orients newcomers and operates English As A Second Language programs.
Like other refugee-oriented government programs, the agency is feeling the pinch of funding cutbacks. Next year funding will disappear altogether for basic programs such as the English school.
The Cubans' official status as "entrants" means that federal funds earmarked for refugee programs are not available to them. "You've got to realize that we're in a Catch-22 situation," explained Duke Austin, chief spokesman for the INS. "A refugee is someone who faces persecution if he returns to his country. But Castro won't let these people back into their country, so what do we call them?"
A few days ago, de Leon arrived at La Comunidad, half a block from his home, too late to catch the agency's daily shuttle to the social services office in Silver Spring. De Leon had to go there because in July he had been treated at a hospital, and now he was being personally billed for the amount. He knew it would take several days of paperwork before he could get the bill transferred to the agency.
"Sometimes weeks go by and there are no papers to fill out," he said resignedly. "Other times they keep you running from office to office for days on end." He decided to try to catch up with the La Comunidad social worker and her vanload of charges at their next stop, the unemployment office.
He knew a bus went directly to the unemployment office from the Silver Spring metro, but he had no idea of the address.
Two bus drivers did not know what office de Leon's interpreter was referring to. A third berated her for asking stupid questions. After persistent questioning, de Leon and his improvised interpreter arrived at the Wheaton Plaza unemployment office shortly before noon. Dozens of unemployed were standing patiently in line when de Leon found his social worker, who had heard of no new offers for him.
Juan de Leon is not an exception: What statistics are available indicate that most Mariel arrivals are still dependent on state cash and medical benefits. "That is not necessarily a reflection on them, or on their right to continue receiving such benefits," said Colleen Brady of the National Conference on Social Welfare, an agency that handles many resettlement cases. "It reflects the fact that not enough jobs are available now, and that the Cubans' cultural and language limitations make their entry into this society difficult."
Carlos Garza, a placement worker at the Wheaton unemployment office, agreed. "The language barrier is a tremendous handicap when you can't even follow simple instuctions in English. There are dishwashing jobs for some, but they're less and less available. And then, these people have difficulty holding on to jobs. I keep seeing the same ones come back here."
There are other reasons why Marielitos aren't getting hired, and de Leon knows all of them. "I have learned that Americans don't like to hire older people," he said. "They are afraid we'll get sick, and they also calculate that in relatively few years they'll have to start paying us retirement benefits. So the young refugees have a better chance. But the real problem is that people think of us as crooks and perverts and murderers. And I'll tell you . . . they're mostly right."
Absolutely wrong, say the Hispanic concern groups. But the fact is that as many as 20 percent of the Cubans allowed to leave Cuba in 1980 (including de Leon's roommate) had some sort of prison or mental record, according to estimates by immigration experts. Many were considered political prisoners by the INS, and freed from temporary detention camps almost immediately. But an undetermined number of those released were common criminals, and in communities from Silver Spring to Miami they are held responsible for the sharp upturn in local crime statistics.
One of the problems facing the drafters of the Simpson-Mazzoli bill is assigning a role to the 1,300 hard-core Cuban criminals, categorized by the INS as "excludable on arrival," still being held in Federal prisons. The less dramatic but far more prevalent question is what to do with the thousands of former prison inmates now out on the street.
"These people have tainted us all," said de Leon.
Hang Nguyen, resettlement director for Washington's Catholic Charities, resettled 80 Marielitos, most of them former prison inmates. "It would have been difficult for them to readjust to life outside prison in Cuba," she reflected later, "Instead they were thrown into this country, with rules and laws and institutions different from anything they ever knew."
Irene Herrel, the Hispanic affairs adviser to the Montgomery County government, remembers persons who were placed in up to 15 different jobs. "We had cases of people who did not stay on the job for 20 minutes," she said.
While de Leon is bitter about the other Marielitos, and the damage he feels they have done to his own reputation, ironically, there is a chance he will finally land a job this week -- as a keeper for insane Cubans at a new, specially constructed facility at St. Elizabeths Hospital. "But I know I won't get it until I can understand the language," he said.
English, de Leon knows, is the stubborn barrier he must overcome if his life in this country is to acquire hope. Accordingly, he attends language classes every evening, seeking the key to the thick unyielding door that has defeated so many of the refugees.
He looks forward to his language lessons, because they represent an opportunity to learn and a time to socialize with other Spanish speakers -- a break from a life that de Leon calls "deaf and mute."
At Montgomery Blair High School, the hallways buzz with activity after 8 p.m. La Comunidad coordinates a Spanish language program in which the Cubans are taught separately from the growing number of Central American arrivals.
The Cubans must learn, along with their English, skills involved in coping with capitalism: punctuality, checkbook keeping, traffic laws and keeping up with the rent. As they learn, they also adjust their expectations about life in America.
Remberta Silva, a friend of de Leon's, sat with him during a class break, laughing at the memory of herself. "In Cuba we heard there were computers in the street here. All you had to do was walk up and punch the right number, and money came out."
A round friendly woman with tightly curled hair, she now thinks the dream life will elude her and her husband, who like de Leon brought unneeded skills to this country -- cutting and fitting window panes. But she holds out hope for her two adolescent sons, who are in high school and doing well in English.
Like de Leon, she tends to avoid most of her fellow refugees, finding them unreliable and rough. Like him, she welcomes opportunities to talk with outsiders.
At the end of one such talk recently, de Leon fell uncharacteristically silent. He had been reflecting on the skills and wiles of Fidel Castro. By opening the floodgates of emigration from his socialist island, de Leon said Castro had, in a single masterstroke, embarrassed the United States; gotten rid of the most "undesirable elements" in Cuba; created a rift between the new arrivals and the older, well-established Cuban community in Florida, and, by emptying his jails into the Mariel refugee stream, poisoned the "healthy elements' " chances for success in their new environment.
For a few minutes, de Leon looked almost glum. Then his laughter started -- a startling, infectious, roaring laugh that allowed him no breath to share the joke with others. Finally, between chortles, he got the words out. "Why, that scoundrel, that wicked scoundrel Fidel! You have to hand it to him. Look at what a joke he played on all of us!"