My father died back in December 2015. My mother died in May 2021, or one day after turning 92. Nevertheless, there is something eerie about January 1 for Cubans of my generation. My brother, sister, and I would always find a minute to hear another story of that fateful January 1, 1959, when our lives were turned upside-down. We don’t dwell in the past, but memories of that day would come up in many family stories.
The events of that day are not as depicted in The Godfather II. People did not rush to their boats. You didn’t have suicide bombers among the anti-Batista rebels. Most Cubans spent the early hours on the phone or following the news on radio and TV. My specific memory is watching my father on the phone and my mom listening to his conversations amid the breakfast she was feeding us.
Cuba became an independent country in 1902. You can divide the island’s history into two periods: the pre-Castro years and the current regime’s period in power since 1959.
I was born in the last decade of pre-Castro Cuba. My story is so typical of the other kids born in the 1950s. We were the grandchildren of immigrants from Spain or elsewhere. In my father’s case, his family came from Spain in the 1840s and settled in Sagua La Grande, a town in the central part of the island. On my mother’s side, they came from Asturias, Spain and settled around the island. They got off the boat with no money and became successful entrepreneurs, from owning a hardware store to managing several coastal restaurants. All of that was “nationalized” in the name of the revolution.
Our ancestors came to Cuba because it was a prosperous island, an attractive place for Spaniards seeking a better life, for Jewish refugees from Europe, hardworking Asians, and others. It was a young and vibrant country with hope and a future. In other words, the island of Cuba attracted people rather than drove its citizens away looking for a future.
It is really sad to watch Cuba today. The young escape and look for a better life, preferably in the U.S. The old get stuck and left behind.
• Between 1900 and 1930, the first three decades of Cuban independence, about one million immigrants flooded into the island, mostly European, and mostly northern Spaniards. This population tsunami also included Asians, Levantines, and Jews. These immigrants doubled the population of the island and changed its complexion, literally. Tens of thousands of immigrants continued to flow into Cuba every year after that, up to 1958. Immigration from the U.S. was comparatively slight, but in 1958 there were more Americans living in Cuba than Cubans in the [USA]. Emigration from Cuba was minimal during this half[-]century.
• Rates of immigration as high as this and of emigration as low require a robust and growing economy, and a considerable degree of political stability.
The regime is still in power, but it is dying minute by minute. The young look for a raft to get out. The old just die away.
To wither is to shrivel, fade, decay, or lose the freshness of youth. Cuba is indeed withering today.