I belong to a group of people who came to America at the expense of all we had. My family left Cuba. We owned a car and a home. We had a good life. And we left it all behind. That’s what political refugees do.
“Freedom isn’t free,” is an adage seared into my mother’s memory. She kept repeating it in her head as she stood at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport in the winter of 1962. That’s when Fidel Castro’s Milicianos—his militia men—rifled through her clothing looking for family heirlooms and anything of value. Those leaving weren’t allowed to take anything with them, but my Aunt Mimi and others defied them by sewing a handful of jewelry and other belongings into their dresses and, in some cases, even their undergarments.
We came here to the US, and all we had were those handfuls of smuggled memories.
But it’s hard to live on memories alone and that made our new life here a struggle. While we appreciated the surplus meat and government cheese (yes, we really did get a monthly block of cheese that we ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner and it tasted exactly like Velveeta), it was hard for all nine of us to share that small two-bedroom dwelling in the inner city.
And while it was tough not having our home and all of the other things we left behind, the hardest part was not having my big brother with us. Months before we left Cuba, Rudy had been snuck out of Havana by the Catholic Church and sent to a convent in Arizona. That made our “cockroach house,” as we still call it, a sad and small place, too small for me not to hear my mother every single night, crying into her pillow, praying to be reunited with her son.
Republican Senator Marco Rubio has his own story of how his family left Cuba. Rubio’s bio claimed his parents fled Cuba, “after the Castro take-over.” It’s an inspiring American story—a son of political refugees becoming a US Senator. But that’s all it is—a story. It’s not reality.
Unlike mine, Rubio’s family left by choice, not necessity. Unlike mine, Rubio’s family left before Castro even took over.
Rubio says he just, “got a few dates wrong.” That’s how he excuses his falsehood about when his parents fled Cuba. With that story, he convinced Americans that he was the son of political refugees, implying that it somehow made him different from the other Hispanics who he attacks regularly—the ones in Arizona, Georgia and Alabama that he and others want to detain, arrest and kick out. How dare they come here looking for work and to better their lot in life? Marco Rubio made us believe he is different from them when he’s not.
Marco Rubio owes an apology to my parents and the hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans who actually did experience the hardships of being political refugees. Their stories are real. And the dates and times associated with their flight from Cuba are etched in their memories, often to the minute. It’s not something they “just get wrong.” Ever. Unless they want to get it wrong.
But they are not Rubio’s biggest problem. This seemingly likable young man with Tea Party backing will likely be forgiven in Miami. His real problem is that the GOP has national plans for him, and national elections aren’t won in Miami. They are won across the country where Mexicans and other immigrants, who make up the vast majority of the Latino vote, may not be as forgiving.
Would you be? Latinos across the country who see themselves as economic exiles, or whose parents came here as economic exiles, say Senator Rubio has continually attacked them. Now, they learn that he is, in many ways, no different from them. He too is the son of economic exiles. His story is their story—one he must now embrace or change. Again.
This piece originally appeared in The Huffington Post