Book excerpt: Ninety Miles and a Lifetime Away: Memories of Early Cuban Exiles by David Powell

Editor's note: In his new book, Author David Powell, an attorney and former journalist based in Tallahassee presents interviews with refugees who left Cuba between 1959 and the 1962 Missile Crisis, as well as those who embarked on the Freedom Flights of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Their stories are the stories of Florida's history, told with personal insights, memories, and emotion that will enlighten readers and sometimes move them to tears. Below are just two examples.

From Ninety Miles and a Lifetime Away: Memories of Early Cuban Exiles by David Powell. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2022. Reprinted with permission of the University of Florida Press.

Miguel “Mike” Collazo -- Tampa, Florida

After waiting seven years, fourteen-year-old Mike, his brother, and his parents arrived in Miami on September 10, 1967. No one in the family spoke English. Since there were no relatives in the US to claim them, a stranger in Miami named Collazo did so. A good friend of Mike’s father who owned a sod-laying business in Tampa, Raúl Leon, helped too.

When we got there we were happy because we were in the United States. They sent us to an office to check us out, names and everything. They filled out all the paperwork for Social Security and where we were staying. Then they gave us a shot and sent us to a room with four bunk beds, and we stayed there until somebody came and got us.

 
Author David Powell is scheduled to speak with Historian Gary Mormino, Resident Scholar with the Florida Humanities Council, at the Tampa Bay History Center on June 15, 2022.
I will never forget: I cried. I told my father, “Now what are we going to do? Where are we going to live? Because we don’t have anybody here, no family.” We left everything: house, clothes, friends, everybody. He told me, “Don’t worry, you’ll make new friends. We are going to be alright.”

The guy who claimed us came to meet us. He was a real nice man. My father appreciated what he’d done. And the friend of ours, the one who got him to claim us, she was there too. We were allowed to get out for so many hours. She took us to her house to eat and then took us back. Leon came from Tampa to make sure everything was ready for us to leave. They gave us an airplane ticket to Tampa.

The first two weeks we stayed with Leon. My father started working with Leon right away, so he was making money a week after he was here. He used to do rolling to press the sod down. Then we rented a house in West Tampa. The rent was sixty bucks a month.

They put me in the eighth grade in West Tampa Junior High. Two teachers spoke Spanish. They gave you a test to see how you do, and I passed everything. But I only stayed there for a year. My father got cataracts; he got blind in both eyes. I had to pull out of school to help my mom because my brother was too young. My mama used to work in a factory that made clothes. She made like fifty dollars a week, so she needed help.

I went to work for Leon. I did it for about two years. I worked in the field picking up sod for a year. Getting up at three o’clock in the morning, going home 1:30, two o’clock every day, just to make eighty, ninety bucks a week, which was good in those times.
A friend got a Baptist church to operate on my father without charge. I went back and did eighth grade, and I did ninth grade. When I was going to tenth grade I decided to work instead of going to school. I told my father, “I prefer working,” which I regret. But I don’t regret it, because it made me a man, with responsibility.

Rafael E. “Ralph” Fernandez -- Tampa, Florida

Ralph and his mother left Havana in January 1961. His father, an engineer who directed the laying of telephone cables all over the island, had gone weeks earlier. The family settled in Puerto Rico but in 1962 moved to Tampa, where Ralph’s father got a job with the telephone company.

We had a cousin in Philadelphia. She had been in the United States prior to the revolution. She came to visit and introduced herself. She said, “I know a Cuban girl in Philadelphia who’s moving to Tampa, and she is the prettiest thing. She’s a princess. And now that I have met my little cousin, he’s going to be her prince.” She goes back to Philly and tells my father-in-law, Roberto Sanchez, who is a pharmacist, “I met the prince for the princess.”

They moved to Tampa three or four months later. This would have been in 1965, 1966. I had just turned fifteen. I was a year younger than my class, so I was in the tenth grade. I was dating a cheerleader, and I was set in my American ways.

Roberto is a sociable guy. He invited my parents to their house. The next morning I said, “Hey, did you meet the princess?” My dad said, “Let me tell you about that princess. That’s the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen. I cannot believe she’s fourteen. She looks twenty.” I was a real cheater and rat, so I called her, “Hey, you want to go out?” She said, “I’ll ask my dad.” He got on the phone and lit me up: “What kind of disrespect?”

A couple of weeks later we end up in some ball game at Jesuit. I tell my dad, “You see that girl in the stands? Who is that? Everybody’s talking about her. Nobody’s ever seen this girl.” My dad said, “This is Roberto Sanchez, and this is Rebecca.” I’m in shock because she did look twenty, and she was very pretty and super sweet. Her dad said, “My daughter cannot date. She’s chaperoned, but you can come with us to a little party tonight, a Cuban get-together.”

I’d never been to a Cuban function in my life. People with chaperones, the old ladies sitting around, all that. We went there, and she and I hit it off. On the patio there, I said, “Look at the stars. You and I are going to get married, and we’re going to have two little girls.” She looked at me and said, “Are you okay?” That’s when we began.

To purchase a copy of the book, visit the University of Florida Press.

Author David Powell is scheduled to speak with Historian Gary Mormino, Resident Scholar with the Florida Humanities Council, at the Tampa Bay History Center on June 15. Learn more about that event here. Learn more about Powell's other appearances around the state here.