My Story and My Call to Action
My family fled Cuba early in 1961 when I was 4. There were some worrying days, but with some luck, we flew out. We didn’t all arrive together, but eventually the family was reunited in Miami about a month later. Mother, father and 10 children––and little more than our clothes and photo albums. It was a tough go. My father took the only job on offer. It was in New York. For most of our 15 months in Miami, we seldom saw him. One day, my mother fell seriously ill, was found unconscious, and had to be rushed to the hospital. My four eldest sisters held down the fort for the next three days alone. They didn’t want us separated. The oldest was 15. They fixed what food we had and tended us younger ones. It was a frightening time, child refugees alone in a strange land, bereft of parents. Three days later, when my mother stepped slowly through the door, she was pale as a ghost. But we were all overjoyed.
We all lost weight. The refrigerator was often empty. The younger ones caught one childhood disease after another. Fortunately, we did have a functioning wringer washer in the shed. We could scour the neighborhood for two and three-cent bottles to cash for dryer change. That was just one of the ways my sisters found to scrape by. Sometimes we walked a long way to get a box of groceries at a church. One time, my father was home and walked downtown with my third eldest sister for another box of groceries. But the providers had shared lists. One box per family. So, they walked all the way back without one. My father had a nickel in his pocket. He bought a box of Milk Duds, and they shared them on the six miles back home.
Decades later, my eldest sister, who has always been a tower of strength, helping the sick during the AIDS crisis and driving a drug dealer out of her neighborhood in Kent, Washington, said to me, “I think the thing that scared me the most was whenever I thought that was the way it was going to be forever.” Then she burst into tears.
But it wasn’t going to be. A resettlement program flew us to Portland and our lives changed. We were put up in a small parish house with a full refrigerator. Home! My father found his first good permanent job with a Portland plywood company, they promptly sent him to Honduras. When home, he sometimes roared at the elders to study hard. We settled into routines: the school year, followed by summers picking berries and green beans with other Portland school children. I soon spoke to my parents exclusively in English. Five years after arriving in America, one of my beautiful sisters gave such a speech at the Memorial Coliseum that she was crowned Rose Queen.
The victory roar of hundreds of Jeff High girls seated behind us was chilling! Eventually, all but one of us graduated from high school, half from college, two served in the US Navy, and the youngest became a rare bird indeed, an Army Airborne Ranger, who also completed Green Beret training. I graduated from Lincoln High, Portland State, and eventually from Duke’s graduate English program. Looking for a job west of the Mississippi, I found one as a reporter at the Mail Tribune and came home to Oregon. Our children attended Medford public schools from kindergarten through high school. They made it to Harvard and Swarthmore. We are so proud of them! Timely support raised my family from desperate straits. We were lucky. But I’ve never forgotten what it’s like to go without. Oregon now faces an unprecedented crisis. We must do everything we can to make sure Oregonians get the timely aid they need, so they do not fall into despair. No time to count food boxes. People need direct aid of all kinds. It will be hard to get the world’s economy back to work. It will be infinitely harder if we don’t keep our people housed, warm, fed, clothed, educated––and back to work as soon as safely possible. That’s not charity. That’s just smart. It’s not going to be like this forever.