Because of the recent headline news out of Cuba, I am reminded of what our small church did to bring a Cuban family to the United States in the late 1960s. At that time, there was a program that allowed churches to bring a number of Cuban families to America.
We had a retired lady at our church, whose name was Litta, who had already been in the VISTA program. She had served in Wynne, Arkansas, where she lived with a family and taught them, among other things, the necessity of using clean water. When she finished a year in that program, she took on the challenge of having our church bring a family from Cuba to live in our small village.
After the seemingly endless forms were filled out and approved, a Cuban family had permission to fly in to Port Columbus. And Litta was there to pick them up. No one else we knew could ever have pulled off such a complicated feat.
She had no idea what the situation would be when they stepped off the plane. And before she knew it, they were here. They did not speak English and no one in our church spoke Spanish. We had rented a house for them to live in, and all the furnishings were in place, right down to the forks, knives and spoons. However, the day they arrived, the stove that heated the house, quit working. George remembers trying to fix it, while the new family of five wrapped themselves in blankets to keep warm.
Their last name was Estaves. The father brought his wife, two small sons, and his mother with him. Mr. Estaves had to have a job here, but under the conditions, the only work he could get was manual labor. In Cuba, he had been a doctor, but since he had no license to practice in the U.S., he had to find another type of work. Somehow, we managed to get them some help with the language barrier.
I remember there were people in the vicinity who came in the evenings to help them with their English. When our weather got warmer, you could have seen their two little boys running around outside with no clothes on. That’s what they had been used to doing back in Cuba. However, that did not go over very well in their neighborhood here. It wasn’t long before there were 6 in the family, when they had a new baby daughter.
One of the rules about their being able to leave Cuba, was that everything in their home had to be in perfect working order. Not one light bulb could be burned out, or any piece of silverware be missing. I remember a discussion about the fact that they had to have keys for everything. It was one of their hardest problems to get the right keys for things that they weren’t used to locking.
Also, their car had to be in perfect running order and clean from top to bottom. They had to have their home in perfect order because as soon as they left, someone else would be living there.
Getting and keeping everything in order caused some delays in the plans for their arrival. When they finally flew out of Cuba that day, they did not know if they were ever be allowed to return. Their time here was both challenging and rewarding.
They stayed here, in their rented house during 1968, ‘69 and ‘70, but were very happy when they got to move to Miami, Florida, and live among other Cubans. Soon after getting to live in South Florida, Mr. Estaves got to became Dr. Estaves again, and his wife, Mrs. Estaves, got to became a doctor, as well.
Years later, in 1985, I took a year of Spanish at Ohio Wesleyan University. One of the requirements for passing the course was to give a 15-minute speech in Spanish. Fifteen minutes was a very long time for me to have to speak in another language. I had to tell a story with structure and have it be understood by the rest of the class, as well as the professor.
I was lucky that I remembered so much about the Estaves family and could tell their story in a lot of short sentences. Our professor told us that by the time we finished her class, we would be fluent in Spanish. I managed to be fluent for that one 15 minute speech, but that was about all.
Back on that cold day, 50 some years ago, when a lady named Litta worked so hard to make this move possible, it changed their lives forever. Now, I think how frightening it had to have been for them to come here, not speaking the language, not getting to practice in their chosen profession, and having to leave everything they owned behind in Cuba.
They sent letters back to us for a couple of years, letting us know how thankful they were for our giving them this wonderful chance to experience our freedom. But as usually happens, we lost track of them, but will never forget the experience of having them here.
Kay E. Conklin is a retired Delaware County recorder who served four terms. She graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University with a degree in sociology and anthropology.