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It Was a Short Hop From Havana : Cubans Recall How They Bought Their Children a Future

September 04, 1987|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

It was October of 1962 and the United States teetered on the brink of war as its young President, John F. Kennedy, issued his bold ultimatum to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev: The Soviet Union must remove its ballistic missiles from Cuba immediately.

Khrushchev had backed down--a major victory for Kennedy, who 18 months earlier had suffered the embarrassment of the abortive United States-supported Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, by Cuban exiles hoping to overthrow premier Fidel Castro's fledgling Socialist government.

Cuba was a nation in political turmoil. Parents in middle and upper-middle classes, fearing the "nationalization" of their children, the daily violence and bloodshed, were buying a future for their children: a $25 ticket on Pan American's Flight 95, a short hop from Havana to Miami.

Families Separated

Daily, families were being split apart, some not to be reunited for six years or more. Those children were to become part of a new generation of Americans.

"It's very hard to send your children away, not knowing if you'll ever see them again," Alberto Hernandez said. An only child of parents who had a grocery store in the city of Matanzas, he was 13 when he arrived in Miami in March, 1962, armed with six years of English grammar and a great deal of false bravado.

The excitement of his first plane ride had quickly ebbed. Hernandez remembers his terror, lying in his bunk in the dark, smelly barracks where hundreds of Cuban children were sheltered under the federal government's refugee resettlement program.

Today, 25 years later, Hernandez, a Yale-educated lawyer, is senior attorney, international, for the Atlantic Richfield Co. Based in Los Angeles, he travels the world negotiating oil rights with foreign governments.

On Wednesday evening he and five other Cuban expatriates, all of whom had been forced to leave childhood behind when they were sent away 25 years ago, celebrated their anniversaries--and their success as Americans--at a party for about 75 friends at Carlos' N Charlie's on the Sunset Strip.

There was laughter, and there were tears. Their parents, some of whom do not speak English even though they have lived in the United States for a quarter of a century, watched with mixed emotions a slide show of home photographs that recalled happier days in Cuba.

At the party's end, organizer Rodri Rodriguez said: "It was bittersweet for our parents . . . a year in their lives they really didn't want to remember. It's kind of a sword with a double edge. As proud as they are of us, we are now children of America."

Vision Never Leaves

Lourdes Birba was 8 when her father put her on Flight 95 on July 27, 1962. She took with her three sets of clothing, one pair of shoes--and "that vision of my mother saying goodby outside the airport, which has never left me."

Her parents were to join her soon in Miami but, she said, "They couldn't get out because of the Cuban missile crisis."

She was to spend three years in a Catholic orphanage in Peoria, Ill., with 15 other young Cuban immigrants--"The orphanage didn't know what hit it"--before being reunited in May of 1965 with her parents, who had been able to reach Los Angeles by way of Spain.

Life in the United States was not easy for this wave of immigrants. Her father, who had been a captain in the Cuban Army, found work in a steel factory.

Birba is one of the success stories. At 33, with a master's degree from USC, she is a gerontologist at the USC Cancer Center, doing research that is targeting the Latino population. Her husband, Pedro, also a Cuban expatriate, is an architect in Santa Monica.

In 1959, the year Castro came to power, Greta Nodar said her father "saw what was coming and he wanted to save his family from it all." He would leave first, taking a flight from Havana to Yucatan, Mexico, traveling by bus to the border near Tijuana, his plan to cross and become a political refugee was stalled temporarily when he was caught and jailed.

In Havana, Joseph Nodar had been a noted sculptor; in Los Angeles, Greta Nodar said: "He started out washing dishes," regularly sending money home. Finally, in September, 1961, 7-year-old Greta, her mother and two brothers arrived in Los Angeles.

"It was scary for kids," she recalled. "I'm very sensitive to people who've migrated from anywhere, trying to fit in." Her parents had brought with them their Cuban mores and culture and she remembers the conflicts with their Americanized teen-ager--"What do you mean, I have to take the whole family when I go on a date?"

After eight years in promotion with Warner Bros. Records, the divorced mother of a 10-year-old daughter has started her own advertising company, the Hispanic Group.

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