I’ve been in the Sunshine State where we were holidaying along the Florida Keys. We were thankful for the daily electric storms and heavy downpours to relieve the high temperatures and blazing sun. I enjoy relaxing as well as the next person but it was also an opportunity to do some research and extend my education.
Sunset off Key West
We spent a day in Key West, the furthest point of the great United States of America. The sunset from Mallory Square was spectacular. We gazed out at the ocean as it turned a vermillion red. Next stop Cuba. For several years Key West was the home of the author Ernest Hemingway and his second wife, Pauline. We went on a guided tour of the house which still contains Pauline's ridiculous chandeliers imported from Europe. We stood in the upstairs loft of the annexe where he penned many of his greatest works. Hemingway was a man's man who loved to fish and hunt and watch bullfighting when he lived in Spain. He spent hours on the seas between Florida and Cuba. This week I read To Have and Have Not, which relates episodes of derring do as boat owner Harry Morgan sells his services to the highest bidders needing a charter from Cuba to Florida and then kills them in cold blood on the high seas. In one memorable scene, Hemingway describes the fish circling the boat to enjoy an unexpected feast of 'ropey carmine clots and threads' leaking into the water after a frenzy of shooting on board.
Truth is often stranger than fiction and on a beach in Islamorada I met a man who lived through a Hemingway-like nightmare when his family fled from Cuba in 1980. Following an economic downturn and a run on the Peruvian embassy by people eager to leave the country, Castro announced that anyone who wanted to leave could go as long as they could arrange their own passage. Cubans who had relatives in the US hurriedly begged them to charter boats and send them to Meriel Bay where thousands of desperate men, women and children waited in tents and other makeshift accommodation to make their escape before Castro changed his mind. Among them was three-year-old Dennis Fernandez (the age his son is now) who remembers being bundled onto a craft which was not the one his aunt in Miami had paid for and sent, but who cared! In the melee it only mattered that you got a place on board a boat - any boat.
The craft designed to hold about 50 people was dangerously overloaded. Dennis remembers that it was very dark and cold. They were on a shrimping vessel. The women and children were inside and the men were on the outside clutching on to the long arms which reached down into the water. Dennis recalls that at first there were many men sitting there and then after each huge wave there were a few less and then even fewer. He could see five men, then he could see three men, and then one... A terrifying experience for a little boy. The boat in front started to take on water and was sinking. Struggling passengers scrambled aboard the boat containing Dennis, his parents and his baby sister. In order to cope with the influx of more passengers everyone was instructed to throw luggage overboard. Dennis's mother arrived in Key West with both of her children safe but without the address of the relatives who were to vouch for them. They ended up in a refugee centre outside New York until her sister was able to claim them.
The next day Dennis introduced me to his mother who came to the US with nothing at the age of 30 and who has just retired as a medical officer at a cancer hospital and managed to put her daughter through law school and help her son to get started in the real estate business. She told me that when she arrived in Miami in 1980 she shaved off her long black hair and offered it as a thank offering to the life-size statue of Santa Barbara which still stands in her sister's garden.
It is estimated that between April and the end of October 1980 125,000 Cubans fled from Castro. The 'Merielitos' as they became known were initially welcomed with open arms by Jimmy Carter's government but tensions were heightened when it was discovered that Castro had opened the prisons and mental institutions and basically transported all his undesirables, along with the genuine refugees, to the US. In October of 1980 the flow of desperate Cubans was brought to an end.
From Key Largo to Key West, in every restaurant and shop there rings out the cry, 'You're welcome!' In this country which prides itself on freedom, for many this welcome was a matter of life and death. For millions of people from every nation in the world this has been the land of opportunity - the place to live out the American Dream. Coming from a part of the world where being miserable is our national sport, it was fun to soak up the US welcoming spirit as well as the sun.
We still couldn’t work out, however, when it's such a multi-cultural society, how everybody's granny was Irish!