"Fleeing Europe to Cuba...and the U.S."
About the Author
Fleeing Europe to Cuba ... and the U.S.
MY FIRST MEETING WITH VIRGINIA took place at my own home in Newport News, Va. I had spoken with her the day prior in order to confirm the time of our first interview: “I'll just come to your place. My dog will just bark if you come over here, and we won't be able to get anything done."
Sitting at the kitchen table reviewing my lines of questioning, I finally heard a car pull into the driveway, followed by the ringing of the doorbell. I welcomed her, offering her something to drink: she declined. Was this indicative of discomfort? A desire for this session to be over quickly? I couldn't tell.
The house was completely silent as I decided where exactly I should start. Name, age, occupation, birthplace, family, address. These were quickly taken care of, with the exception of family. When I asked about it, she started with what I already knew: a husband and two children. I asked about extended family, and she simply laughed at me, saying “Oh hell yeah, but you don't have enough paper to handle that”. I took that for what it was and moved on, asking her to tell me about her past.
As I ask these questions, her gaze shifts from me to the window. It doesn't return to me for the rest of our conversation. Virginia was born in the city of Havana in Cuba, but the journey to the United States did not start there. Her family has Jewish roots, and has been traced back to eastern Europe: “Poland, Russia and Turkey – my grandparents wanted to move to the United States, but they were not able to get through Ellis Island. Luckily, a family connection was able to get them sent to Cuba, rather than back across the ocean.”
The gears in my head begin to turn – this is an immigration story, one in which the protagonist ends up in a well-off suburb. Has the story I am seeking already been found this early on? I am jerked back to reality by a term I had never heard before: “Jewbans”. Apparently, that is Virginia's chosen term for the Jewish-Cuban community her family was in during their time in the country. I crack a smile, and we continue towards the present.
We finally reached the point in the story where Virginia was actually born – this presents me with an opportunity to ask a big question: considering your status as an immigrant, what country do you consider to be your homeland? “I'm American. I don't have any family left in Cuba, so there is no reason for me to hold any attachment to the place.” The question I thought might not have a clear answer is taken care of in mere seconds. This came as quite the surprise to me, but I can still see the logic behind it. However, this is not to say that she doesn't hold fond memories of her time in Cuba.
Even though she was only there for 6 years or so, she tells me that she distinctly remembers the beaches, and recounts a memory of her grandfather: “he worked out in the harbor – where we had come from, there were no black people. Sometimes, a boat would pass through which had a very young black sailor – my grandfather was enthralled by him, more specifically his hair. Eventually, he worked up the courage to offer the young man a nickel just in order to touch his hair!” A strange smile spreads across both our faces – but I understand that the man was just curious about things and people he had never seen in his entire life.
I get the impression that this brief introduction has been enough for the day – the interview was not ended by my accord, however. Rather, Virginia's tone changed to one of finality and started to pick up her car keys, proceeding to stand up and walk towards the door in a very resolute fashion. As she got back into the black sedan she arrived in, I thanked her for her time – and we scheduled another meeting. Considering that the first session didn't even get past the age of six when she immigrated from Cuba to the United States, this story is nowhere near over.
Community to Community
As Fidel Castro’s power in Cuba began to develop, Virginia’s family began to become uncomfortable. It was decided that another attempt to immigrate to America was in order. This time, it was a success. Virginia made it to New York with her parents and siblings, while her grandfather stayed in Cuba. Unfortunately for him, things did not turn out well.
Castro’s rampant nationalization took almost everything from him. While the family was losing what they had in Cuba, those in America got off the boat to almost nothing. It seems like a lose-lose situation at first glance, but the family was now in the “land of opportunity.” Hopefully, this opportunity would end up working out in their favor. Images of cramped tenements and financial difficulties fill my mind as we continue on.
I inquire as to memories relating to her first experiences in America. She is quick to respond, which is a pattern I have grown used to at this point: “I remember my arrival in New York city - it was snowing that day, and I had never seen snow before.” This statement some anxiety in me: I’ve never been away from my homeland for an extended period of time.
I’ve always spoken the primary language, participated in the dominant culture. In this fleeting moment, I have a sense of the massive anxiety which her entire family must have experienced during their early years in America. None of them could speak English - the only languages at their disposal were Spanish, Russian, Polish and Ladino. To attempt to make a new life in an environment like this—it takes a great deal of bravery. Bravery that I’m not sure I would have had myself. With this in mind, we continue our journey in the past.
Moving into a tenement, Virginia distinctly remember the refrigerator. More specifically, its contents: a few slices of American cheese. I smile to myself, finding it amusing on multiple levels. Overall, the early experience seems terrifying—a mediocre (at absolute best) apartment, sixty dollars per week as income, and only a few slices of cheese in the refrigerator. However, Virginia told me that these circumstances were actually an improvement. Take sugar, for instance. It had been an extremely rare commodity for the family up to this point, and now they were presented with sugar bowls in almost every restaurant. They would sneak spoonfuls of this sugar, in awe of this new country. Opportunity indeed, I think to myself.
Things did pan out for the family. Virginia was able to go to college in New York for an initial cost of fifty-two dollars per semester. I balk at this figure—even when I take inflation into consideration, it still seems absurdly low, as does the $102 per semester in her junior year. Here I sit across the table, completely aghast at the tens of thousands of dollars I no longer have, that I have spent on my own college education.
Virginia’s bloodline traces back to Israel, and she had the opportunity to study abroad there. As soon as I heard the words “study abroad,” I had a solid idea of the direction she was headed. The memories of her months spent studying in Israel seem just as prominent as those in Cuba, or even those in America. She absolutely loved being there, and it played perfectly into her desire to see more of the world.
Greatly impressed with the culture and community of the country, she seemed delighted to tell me more about her experiences there. Even with the language barrier, the people who lived there were quite friendly. She gives an example of hitchhiking, which consisted of “Hey, you going that way?” Smiling, Virginia recalls passing through a desert and hitching a ride. She and her companions became separated hitchhiking. Her friends rode in one truck cab, while she rode in another. She remembers having a great time during the trip, but when she got back to her friends at their destination it was revealed that they had the exact opposite experience. They were convinced the man they had hitchhiked with was deranged.
That incident notwithstanding, the aspect of Israel which was most striking to her was easily how friendly the community was to soldiers. They was no shortage of them, but nobody seemed uncomfortable due to it. I found this to be a very stark contrast with the United States, where citizens often are at odds with those who are armed. This dynamic was apparently not present in Israel, and the impression it left on her has remained for almost 40 years.
Virginia gives the impression of having had a mostly positive experience in her journey both around the globe. Starting off as an immigrant with a very uncertain future, she has moved from Ellis Island into the suburbia into which I was born. The land of opportunity indeed. This opportunity is given to some, but even more people have to earn it. Virginia definitely seems to fall into the latter category. It seems that this country has been kind to the both of us. ◊
"Fleeing Europe to Cuba...and the U.S."
story by Kyle Champagne
Virginia's family was turned away at Ellis Island when trying to emigrate when she was six.
A story of courage of a family fleeing Europe in the run-up to WW II and of a resilience that got them to the United States, but with a stopover in Cuba.