The U.S. welcomed me and so many other Cubans. We didn’t just survive — we thrived | Opinion

On April 14, 60 years ago, I arrived in the United States of America, or “el Norte,” as most of us Cubans called it. Shy, introspective and curious at age 10, I stepped off a plane at John F. Kennedy Airport in Queens, New York.

Six months earlier, we had fled our homeland, escaping Castro’s authoritarian government to join hundreds of fellow refugees in Madrid. But now, on a crisp spring evening, we joined my maternal grandparents, aunt, uncle and cousins in New York City. El Norte. My North Star.

My first view of the city: grimy fire escapes lining dark brick buildings. Ugly and dirty.

Soon after, I was warmly ushered into a cozy apartment on 86th Street near Broadway which, although small, would become home.

I felt safe, an alien feeling after my previous years on the island. My last memories of Cuba were marked by fear. Since my maternal grandfather, Manuel Hortelano Entenza, had worked as an officer in the Cuban navy under President Fulgencio Batista’s government, he was imprisoned and questioned at the notorious La Cabaña prison.

Once he was released and left the country, we became the pariahs of the neighborhood. We applied to leave Cuba, and were labeled gusanos, or worms. Walking to the grocery store became a dreaded chore for me. Neighbors would point my way and whisper that dreaded word: “Gusanos.”

My parents lost many friends who became “Fidelistas.” I was pulled out of school for fear that I would be indoctrinated. Every night I prayed that we could leave before anyone else in the family was imprisoned or worse.

Arriving at “los Estados Unidos” meant safety and freedom — even as I struggled to learn a language so different from my native one. Even as I watched my parents, both professionals, labor in manual jobs as landscapers and factory workers. Even as I faced a new form of ostracism by U.S.-born classmates in Union City, New Jersey, who would taunt me: Where is Cuba anyway? Did you have bathrooms in Cuba?

That kind of treatment only strengthened my resolve. I mastered English and developed such a passion for its intricacies that my father started calling me Shakespeare. If my parents had made great sacrifices to take us out of a communist state, I felt I could not fail.

The U.S. gave me the chance to study at an Ivy League school. I opted to study journalism, because what could be nobler than seeking the truth?

My new country has afforded me a future that my island nation denied me. I felt pride and hope when I raised my hand in a Jersey City courtroom in 1977 and pledged to be a citizen of this magnanimous nation.

In 1980, I watched as more than 120,000 fellow Cubans abandoned the island through a port called Mariel. The tyranny was expelling its undesirables once again. In that exodus, for the first time, I saw Black Cubans, gays and many artists among the refugees. Castro’s revolution seemed to be unraveling and I wanted to learn from these new arrivals.

I was lucky enough to be hired as a cub reporter for the Miami Herald and got to spend many hours with young artists, veteran journalists, political prisoners. I learned much more about my tortured island. And I developed a pride in how Cubans had survived such oppression. Not just survived — we had thrived. In the process we had contributed to the burgeoning success of Miami, this splendid city by the bay that continues to be a beacon of hope for so many.

As I look back on my 60 years in “el Norte,” I feel eternally grateful that this great nation opened its arms to us. Troubled and divided as we may be, it is still a great privilege to be a U.S. citizen, a privilege that I will never take for granted.

Barbara Gutierrez is director of communications and public relations at the University of Miami. She worked at the Miami Herald for 17 years in positions including reporter, city desk editor and executive editor of El Nuevo Herald.