‘The Longest Day in Havana’

By Sophia Pargas, Editor-in-Chief

As ten-year-old Mercedes Jacobs sat in the Havana airport in 1962, the wait was long and her clothes were heavy. Already classified as an adult, she was only allowed three dresses on her journey to Miami, Florida; the rest would be confiscated by the new Communist government, along with her house and most of her family’s personal belongings. In defiance of the system, her mother had sewn extra dresses within the fabric of Mercedes’ clothing, disguising them as petticoats. When her family arrived in Miami, they went immediately to a Woolworth’s department store to buy shirts and shorts to replace the dresses—just the first in many ways that the United States culture would prove to be different from that of Cuba.

Mercedes’ younger sister, Alina, only three-years old at the time,  has faint memories of that long and exhausting day. She remembers being “confined” in an airport and waiting for hours to get out—one of her three prominent memories of her fleeting time in the country. Though both sisters were young when they left their home and have different recollections of the transition, years’ worth of telling the tale has formed a collective memory. The sisters came to know the day they left Cuba through one another’s eyes, cherishing each other’s remembrances as their own. 

 “The longest day in Havana,” as my grandmother, Mercedes, so simply put it.

Even now, over 60 years later, the day has seemingly yet to end. Since Castro came into power and remnants of Cuba became lost to its people, there has been a never ending stream of Cubans escaping the island in any way they can. This past year alone, almost 250,000 Cubans have legally made their way into Miami. Even more overwhelmingly, thousands more are unaccounted for, fleeing their homes on rafts, makeshift boats, and stolen cargo ships—risking their lives to seek asylum, a testament to the conditions they continue to endure.

Though it has been decades since my grandmother left, the sentiment remains the same: Cuba is beginning to feel less and less like home to its people. It is a country seemingly frozen in time, an island isolated from the rest of the world. To most, the events of modern Cuba are merely up for political debate, with occasional headlines on tourism or migrations impeding mainstream media. To Cubans, however, both those who remain and those who fled, every second that passes without change is another bit of history that slips through the cracks of time. Until the day Cuban people feel safe and at peace with the state of their home, its citizens will continue to flee, their roots dying as they do.

Mercedes and Alina, their parents and brother, Ari, however, were among the “lucky” ones—abandoning their home did not consist of a harrowing trek on a homemade raft, but rather an agonizing thirty minute flight from Havana. 

Unlike most, their family left Cuba very shortly after communism began taking over the country. Mercedes vividly recalls the first signs of change in 1959, almost instantly after Fidel Castro took power. Signs quickly appeared over the doors of most houses in her neighborhood that read: “Fidel, esta es tu casa,” or, “Fidel, this is your house.” Whether out of fear or genuine loyalty to the cause, the significance was no less—the new government had set out to take control of Cuban people one home at a time, and were succeeding at doing so.

When news circulated that the government was entering homes and confiscating any food held in excess, Mercedes and Alina’s mother rounded up what they had and hid it in the house frantically yet strategically. She—a strong, defiant, and resilient woman who I always knew as Mima—hurled large bags of sugar, rice, and other goods into a shed behind their house. My grandmother’s mother, in desperation, threw extra goods over the fence to her Communist neighbor’s house, a sliver of retribution dealt in a moment of panic. Mercedes cried to her mother, pleading with her to “go to Abuela’s house next,” worried that her grandmother would not be able to hide the goods in time.

 “You’re a kid, so you remember those things,” Mercedes said. “They affect you in a way that you don’t know you’ll ever forget.”

The decision to leave the island came not long after the loud booms that Mercedes heard as her family walked back from a block party: the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, when CIA-supported Cuban refugees attempted to overthrow the Castro regime. After this, communism spread rampantly in both big ways and small:  grocery store shelves began to empty, familial tensions began to rise, and rumors circulated that the government would take money from citizens’ bank accounts and ship their children off to camps—the final straw for my great-grandfather. 

Unlike most, the girls’ father, Aristedes Jacobs, did not delay in his decision to leave the country nor did he consider the option of separating his family. Around this time, many parents sent their children to the States in the hope they would be later reunited in Cuba when the danger passed, a movement that came to be known as  “Pedro Pan.” Aristedes, or “Pipo” as I knew him, decided his whole family would leave together, or not at all. And he chose together.

The preparations to leave were quick, with growing communist presence in the country threatening to tighten policies at any moment. They gathered the valuables they had and gave them to a family nearby, unsure of whether they would ever be back to claim them. The family received their visas, and as soon as they did, they ceased to belong to Cuba—and it seemed as if Cuba ceased to belong to them.

“Once we got the visas, once the government knew we were leaving, that was it,” Mercedes said. “They go into your home and take possession of everything inside your house. My family went to stay at my grandfather’s house until we left.”

Though Mercedes and Alina’s extended family was large and very close, theirs was the only one who chose to leave Cuba at this time. Many genuinely believed in Castro’s vision of a new Cuba, and others simply hoped that the tensions would pass as quickly as they had risen. Nevertheless, the family of five said goodbye to everything and everyone they knew, unsure of whether they would ever be reunited.

I have seen my grandmother cry before, but the tear she shed as she described leaving her own grandmother behind in Cuba seemed to fall more slowly, gently.  In all of our conversations about Cuba, this is a detail she’d never previously shared—the heartbreak she once felt as she watched her favorite person in the world fade into the distance through a rearview mirror. This was the last time Mercedes ever saw her grandmother. Like many in Cuba,  Mercedes’ grandmother refused to leave her home, never giving up hope that the country would find peace once more.

As we left, I remember looking back, and I remember saying goodbye to my grandmother. That was the last time I saw her,” Mercedes said, pain taking a chokehold over her once strong and defiant tone, causing a break in her voice.  A single tear escaped her eyes—brown like my own—and she let it fall. “And I think she knew. She didn’t want to leave Cuba, so I think she knew that was it for us.”

Neither Mercedes or Alina remember the fleeting half-hour plane ride to Miami, or much of the whirlwind that ensued shortly after. The three siblings and their parents went to live with an uncle who had left Cuba a few years prior. The two families totaled 10 people and shared a two bedroom, one bathroom house with no AC—an uncomfortable accommodation made out of an understood necessity.

Over the years, Mercedes and Alina’s father and mother found ways to replicate their jobs of store owner and dressmaker, respectively. Pipo owned and operated small “bodegas,” and Mima became an independent seamstress, tailoring and sewing dresses for neighbors and friends. Their jobs were seemingly simple and anything but luxurious, yet their work ethic was strong and evident. 

All the while, the three children each acclimated to their new home at different paces. My grandmother found a community in Miami—her experience as an immigrant was shared by so many. While she struggled to learn English, her class was filled with Cuban students just like her—she cannot recall even having American friends. Her childhood was built around a “subculture,” as she calls it, of other immigrants trying to balance joy in their new home with holding onto memories of their old one. My grandmother never thought of herself as American; only learning to survive and develop American ways for her social and professional lives.

For Alina, however, the experience is much different. Having spent most of her life in Miami, Alina admits she often struggles with coming to terms with her Cuban identity altogether. She describes herself as Cuban-American, identifying more with Miami than her birthplace of Bejucal, Cuba. Alina is an example of a Cuban whose national identity was almost entirely lost, replaced by a life that was never supposed to be. 

As the sisters’ lives progressed, their feelings toward and memories of Cuba seemed to affect many aspects of their lives. Politically, they both feel passionately about issues such as Cuba/U.S. affairs, but fall on opposite ends of the spectrum.

Alina married a man who was not of Cuban descent, while my grandmother did, likely because of the different communities they each found whilst growing up: Alina fitting into more American social circles, and Mercedes Cuban ones. My grandfather, Antonio Pargas, is also a Cuban immigrant—the pair met while working at Sears.

Unlike my grandmother’s, his transition to the States was less a choice and more a force. As part of the extremely wealthy class in Camaguey, Cuba, my grandfather’s household was one of the first to catch the eye of the communist regime. After the revolution, the home was ransacked by the government, and the family knew it would not be long before they were forced out entirely. At just thirteen, my grandfather was sent to live in Miami with another Cuban family, his parents eventually meeting him and grudgingly building a new life together in the states. While my grandmother’s family eventually lost hope that they would ever return home, this was not the case for my grandfather.

“My father refused to become a citizen of the United States because he would not renounce his Cuban citizenship,” my grandfather said. “He always rented, he refused to buy a house. Every New Year’s Eve, he made a toast saying, ‘Next year, we will be toasting in Cuba. This will be the year we go back.’”

But the year never came, not for my great-grandfather and not for most Cuban immigrants. Many Cubans, my great-grandparents included, hoped to return, but refused to do so as long as a Communist government was in control. This is something their daughters hold onto even into their adulthood.

“I’ve thought about it a lot, and I don’t know if I could ever go back and give money to the Communist Party,” Alina said. “I would see that as a huge betrayal to my father, and I just couldn’t do that.”

All of my great-grandparents would die before ever getting to go back home, and with them died a piece of Cuba that my grandmother fears she will never get back.

“I always thought I would go back and see where my grandmother was buried,” Mercedes said. “The only thing I wish is that I could have shown all of you my parents, my grandparents house, where I came from. But at this point, how would we know where to go? There’s no one to show us. They’re all gone now.”

When raising her own children, Mercedes admits that in this way, too, her culture and identity had dwindled. She describes her four children as being “75 percent American” as they lived in more affluent neighborhoods rather than areas such as Miami’s Little Havana which tend to be socioeconomically lower in comparison. Sadly, my grandparents were forced to sacrifice culture for success in Miami. 

“We lived in a typical American culture,” she said. “Around the grandparents or maids, they spoke Spanish, but their culture was always more American because of where they grew up.” 

Today, only three of Mercedes’ four children can fluently speak Spanish, and they all remain in the predominantly Cuban-American city of Miami, Florida. 

“My upbringing may not have been as outwardly Cuban as my parents’, but that doesn’t mean I don’t carry the values of the culture,” Patrick Pargas said. “Being a second generation Cuban makes me feel stronger and more empowered in what I do. I carry that piece of my identity with me every day.” 

Though I, too, feel proud to be a third generation Cuban-American, I admittedly feel a twinge of “imposter syndrome” when mentioning this part of my identity. I have yet to learn to fluently speak Spanish and feel fraudulent and clumsy vocalizing my non-native accent. I often fear that, when the day comes to have children of my own, they will have no connection to our Cuban roots, and the diminishment will only continue throughout generations, especially when my grandparents are not here to tell us their stories themselves. 

I do, however, have a growing curiosity to learn about my family history and who and where I came from. In order to do this, I realize I must delve deeper into the memories of my grandparents, and the realities of the country they left behind so long ago. 

And now, 60 years after their departure from Cuba, there is seemingly no end in sight to the communist regime. When Fidel Castro died in 2016, the Cuban people flooded Miami’s “Calle Ocho,” waving the Cuban flag and dancing joyously as they did. My grandparents went to “Versailles,” a staple Cuban restaurant known for its delicious food as much as its history, and ordered mojitos to celebrate. Pictures show their smiles as wide and bright as I have ever seen them, a perfect encapsulation of a day my grandmother looks back on lovingly. 

“It was just such a wonderful day. It  was the best time of my life,” she said, cheeks rosy with excitement and eyes glossy with tears, happier than the last. “It was a time to celebrate our ancestors and the sacrifices they made for us.” 

Although the day was an exuberant one, the political implications of Fidel’s death were nonexistent. His role as dictator was filled by his brother, Raul, and has since been transferred to Migel Diaz-Canel. Nonetheless, the state of Cuba only worsens by the day. 

My grandparents painfully tell me stories of childhood dogs dying of starvation, children falling ill with no medicine or treatment, and even current news of the most coveted Cuban tradition, the sacrament of Eucharist, being ripped away as the people do not even have flour to bake unleavened bread.

Like many other Latin American countries, Cuba is an island seemingly lost to the rest of the world. Many do not know the struggles and torment that plague the country, nor seem to care enough to spark action. For those who left Cuba, this is frustrating, heartbreaking, and agonizing. For those who remain, however, this is a seal on a coffin of agony, disparity, and loss—one that must be addressed and ripped open as quickly as possible, bringing Cuban culture back to life. 

“As long as you have Castro or anything that comes from Castro’s government, [the Cuban people] don’t have a chance,” my grandmother said. “It’s been too many years; they don’t know any better. Right now people there are what, 60 years living with that regime? What can they remember? That’s all they’ve seen. And even if you lived there when you were small, you won’t remember what the good times were.”

“The Longest Day in Havana,” as my grandmother described it, has yet to end. It is an agony shared by all like Alina and Mercedes: two young women whose entire lives have been altered by the regime and who continue to mourn the country they once called their home. Though they have grown to know and love the States for the happiness, love, and family they have fostered here, they are nonetheless plagued by the torment of feeling as if their legacy was all for nothing. 

As seemingly nothing has changed in Cuba and its people continue to suffer, time remains frozen, and a part of my grandmother will always be the ten year old girl she was the day she left her home. The wait for a better Cuba remains long, and the memories stay heavy, weighing her down like the clothes she wore all those decades ago. Every week, every day, and every hour, a new little girl follows in my grandmother’s footsteps, leaving a piece of her culture, legacy, and identity behind her as she goes. And with every little girl who leaves Cuba, a piece of the Cuban spirit leaves with her, left to fight for survival in a new country where time works to diminish it altogether.