In 1959 my father was visited by a commander of the Cuban Revolution to “volunteer” him as a civil servant to the nascent Soviet-Marxist dictatorship. With summary firing squads, routine tortures, life sentences handed out like candy without due process, beatings, and mandatory indoctrination of children as young as eight, my dad acquiesced to buy time to arrange my escape.
He decided to abandon me because he had a dream. His dream, as it later became mine, was for me to be given the greatest number of opportunities to be successful, to live where freedom was intrinsic to the social fabric, to enjoy the protections of a constitutional republic. These are lost dreams for Cuba, but reality in America.
After three years to plot my escape and obtain legal entry into the United States, my parents put me on a plane bound for Miami. I was six years old. There was no plan to settle me into the arms of family or friends. There was no plan at all other than the hope that Americans would care for me because “los americanos son buenos” (“the Americans are good [people]”).
In the ensuing five years, I survived being imprisoned in a convent where abuse was routine. After two years of living in this fifth circle of Hell, I was adopted by a large, Russian family where physical labor was mandatory. By then I was eight years old.
It took five years for my mom and dad to arrange for their escape from the island gulag while working clandestinely to gain legal refugee entry into the United States. In the meantime, there was no communication between us—a little boy not knowing about his mom and dad, the mom and dad not speaking to their little boy in a foreign land.
These years were of incredibly arduous sacrifice, mostly by my parents, who had to endure the weight of abandoning a six-year-old. But we endured, for we had a dream. Those five years, those critical development years, were lost to all of us forever. But we persevered, for we had a dream. The scars remain for me, as they remained for my mom and dad until their passing. By then, however, we had all realized our respective dreams.
There are thousands more “orphaned” Cuban children like I was. Despite varying ages upon arrival, from six (I was one of the youngest) to young teens, and with differing degrees of challenges during our forsaken years, we all had one more thing in common: respect for the laws and for the people of the country that took us in. Such was the respect that, much to our detriment, our parents dared not come here illegally even if it meant—as it did—delaying being reunited with their children, or worse, as did occur, being imprisoned, tortured, or even executed in Cuba while they awaited legal entry into the United States.
This respect was instrumental in facilitating our successes. In our new home we became governors, senators, congressmen, lawyers, doctors, professors, scientists, carpenters, plumbers, soldiers, sailors, Marines, Emmy award winners—all American citizens. Our difficulties, fears, obstacles and yes, even abuse during those interminable years were also instrumental in facilitating our achievements.
We children and our parents never shied from the struggles we confronted as broken families, since we accepted that what faced us was not somebody else’s fault. Similarly, overcoming these obstacles was not our hosts’ obligation. And it never crossed our minds to violate any law as a means to be given special privileges.
We overcame tremendous hindrances because we sought the benefits of America via legal means and as a result became successful. Why? Because, as Larry Ellison has said, “I have had all of the disadvantages required for success.” We never thought of ourselves as special or privileged, expecting some distinctive dispensation. We maintained our identity and culture while being readily suffused into the melting pot that was America.
Arguably our parents made a mistake. Who would abandon their children for years in a foreign country, without even knowing if they would ever see them again? Yet did that mistake entitle us to something special? Obviously not.
Today there are these “dreamers” whose parents made a mistake. More than a mistake, their parents have broken laws of the country in which they sought refuge. Do those mistakes, those illegal acts, entitle these children to something special? Some think so.
So these nouveau “dreamers” will invariably get a pass. They will be rewarded for their parents’ law-breaking and mistakes. Such says more about America than it does about the “dreamers” and their parents.
But it would behoove these dreamers to “pay it forward” what they are about to get. Whatever challenges they endured should be used not as reasons to perpetuate a class of victims, but as reasons to excel in their dreams. They should insist—no, they should demand—that their brethren and countrymen respect the laws of the country that took them in, that allowed them to live here illegally without prosecution, and that now will be giving them a great gift.
We can only hope they will act accordingly, for while America is seemingly indefatigable in its benevolence and patience, it is not limitless in its finances. If this special dispensation for myriad causes and disparate groups continues, there will come a time when the country that affords unheralded opportunities and liberties will be no more. And then no refugee, legal or illegal, with or without dreams, will enjoy what Americans and America has offered since its founding.
*Mario Sánchez is a data scientist for a private company. He was born in Cuba and joined the U.S. Marine Corps at the age of 17 during the Vietnam era, where he was part of a Special Forces unit. He went on to earn an M.S. and Ph.D. in computer science and has held senior executive information technology roles in corporate America. He lives in Miami.