Robert Held CTLatinoNews.com
For many of the people who left Cuba long ago, some of the difficult memories never fade. That is the case with Ana Martinez, who is now one of my relatives; her story is one that adds to the mosaic that is our family history. It is also one that illustrates the diverse backgrounds and perspectives of the Hispanics who make their way to the United States.
Ana was only 15 years-old when she left Cuba, but can still vividly recall everything that led up to her leaving. With Fidel Castro in power, life was getting tougher and tougher for the Martinez family in Cuba.
“I remember when I was a young girl my mom trading items while waiting in line with people. She would give them clothes that no longer fit my brother or I, and get other items we needed in return,” said Martinez who is now 60 and a resident of Bristol.
Martinez recalls one particular Christmas. “Members of my family would have to rotate spots in line for up to two weeks in order to get the presents we wanted. Back then, the stores would only get so many of each item and it was on a first come, first served basis. If you were unable to get it in time, your only other option was to try to barter with other family members or friends,” said Martinez.
Citizens in Cuba faced other difficult restrictions as well, Martinez tells our family. Families were given ration books and with these books each family could only buy certain food items and other supplies at certain times.
The breaking point for her family, she recalls, “Castro had been in power for around ten years at that point and had passed a law that all of the men in Cuba had to serve in the army starting at the age of 16, and my parents did not want Gerardo to serve.”
Her family decided it was time. They wanted she and her brother, Gerardo, to leave the country, in order to pursue a better life.
At first, Martinez and her brother tried to go to Mexico. However, the Mexican government did not want them to stay in the country, so that forced her family to come up with a new plan.
Fortunately, Martinez had relatives living in Hartford at the time who had the connections to sponsor them, and then obtain the proper paperwork for her and her brother to come live in the United States. Unfortunately, Martinez’s parents were unable to get into the United States until six years later.
During that time, Martinez and her brother lived with her aunt and uncle in Hartford. Living in a new country, as a teenager, was not an easy transition for Martinez. “When I first got here I hated it because most of my family and all of my friends were still in Cuba. When you are a teenager you think you know everything and I felt at the time that living there would be best for me, but looking back I realized how foolish I was,” said Martinez.
Another barrier Martinez faced was learning to speak a new language. Martinez had to take all English speaking classes, while subsequently learning the language at Hartford Public High School. “At that time they did not have ESL (English as a Second Language) classes so I had to pick it up on my own, which was very hard. My first year of high school here I failed English, but by my third year I was getting B’s,” said Martinez.
As a teenager, she had more responsibilities than most children at her age. During those years, her relatives had moved to Florida and left their apartment in Hartford to Martinez. Therefore, she had to cook, clean, and learn financial responsibilities on her own.
By the age of 21, Martinez’s parents were finally able to obtain entry into the United States through the same relatives that helped Martinez get here. For Martinez, it was another transition in her life. “When my parents got here it was definitely a change. It was tough because they were still trying to tell me what to do and discipline me like most parents do, but I had been on my own for so long that it was hard to adjust to having them here,” said Martinez.
Shortly after, Martinez married her former husband and had her two children, James and Melissa. She was also able to obtain work mainly in the medical field.
Martinez, graduated high school in 1973, and has worked at an insurance company, as a medical receptionist and has even been an EMT. However, she has found frustration in the job field because many companies have only wanted to hire her because Martinez is bilingual.
“I hate getting hired for jobs only because I can speak Spanish. I want to be hired for my qualifications, not for my language abilities,” said Martinez.
Currently, Martinez works as an office manager for a doctor’s office in Hartford where she does billing, coding, and schedules appointments for patients.
For all Martinez has been through, her daughter is certainly appreciative of the life her mother has lived. “My mother is the strongest, most independent woman I know. She’s a fighter and would risk everything to help her children, no matter the cost. Family is the most important thing to her and I am so thankful to have such an amazing story to tell my son about where he comes from,” said Melissa Cornish.
After 45 years of living in the United States, Martinez now positively reflects on her life here. “If my parents did not send me, I would not have come, so I could not have done it without them. Now, I would never go back because things were bad then, and I’m assuming they have only gotten worse,” said Martinez.
There are other aspects of living in the United States that Martinez also enjoys. “In this country you can say whatever you want, do whatever you want, travel wherever you want and eat whatever you want. You cannot do all of those things in Cuba,” said Martinez.
Robert Held is a writer with CTLatinoNews.com