My Father: Cuban By Birth, American At Heart

Papi and Mami

by Joshua on September 12, 2011

A The Daily Garriga classic!

I have always been intrigued by my father’s political beliefs. Papi, as we love to call him, combines a fiercely conservative social ideology with unflinching liberal economic positions that some might say border on socialism. Papi has strong values and he refuses to compromise in order to fit into any political system. His beliefs are driven by the complex story of his life and by the purity of his convictions.

Papi survived and even supported Fidel Castro’s revolution in Cuba in 1959. This was a time when the Cuban people were fed up with the corruption and brutality of military dictator Fulgencio Batista’s regime and many supported Castro’s revolution. Papi volunteered to join the Pinar del Rio militia, under the leadership of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, anticipating an invasion by U.S. Marines. After Castro’s eventual victory, hope disappeared and a harsh new reality settled in. The new Cuban government routinely suppressed civil liberties and Papi began to speak out against Castro’s government. He was quietly arrested and sent to a labor-reeducation camp for political dissidents.

Back then the Cuban government was transitioning the country into a socialist system. Citizens were expected to volunteer for the job they preferred.  However, there were two types of jobs that were always difficult to fill – construction and farming. Most people didn’t want to perform these backbreaking tasks in the sweltering Cuban heat. So, the Cuban government set up labor camps to get the unpopular construction and farming jobs filled. These camps were then populated with individuals deemed a threat to the Revolution. The idea was that hard work would sell people on the wisdom of the communist ideology.

Well, it did not work on Papi and after two years in the labor camp he fled the island to Spain. It was in Spain that Papi’s worldview began to solidify as he witnessed a similar repression of civil liberties by Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. Papi quickly realized that his values and outspoken nature could get him killed or imprisoned in Spain, so he left for the Dominican Republic.

In the 1960’s, the Dominican Republic was still recovering from the trauma of the thirty years of iron fisted rule by dictator Rafael Trujillo. The country was in political chaos and civil liberties were routinely abused by the various political factions. Just as in Spain, Papi realized that he did not have a future in the Dominican Republic and he eventually immigrated into the United States, through Puerto Rico, with high hopes for the future.

Although the U.S. promised the type of economic and social mobility that Papi craved, he was disappointed by the high levels of poverty, crime, and institutional racism he found here. It was especially difficult for a young immigrant who didn’t speak English and had to support a family that would eventually grow to eleven people. However, a major benefit the U.S. offered citizens, more than any other country my father had ever lived in, was the opportunity to engage the government and even to protest without fear of being killed or imprisoned without due process. So, Papi decided to permanently settle in the U.S., eventually becoming a citizen.

Papi chose the U.S. because here he could openly speak out against injustices as he saw them. He could also advocate for the paternalistic social system and the maternalistic economic system that he desired. Papi was able to live his values through revolutions and labor camps; through dictators and political unrest; through racism and poverty. Even though his environment changed many times, Papi never did. Although Cuban by birth, Papi is as American as anyone I have ever known.

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