Latina Pioneers

Tessie Salabert

I was born in the city of Havana, Cuba and I came to the U.S. when I was 11 years old. Up to that point, I had a very nice childhood, actually. We had a very nice life socially in terms of schooling. I was a swimmer, a competitive swimmer. [My family and I] weren’t considered the rich, but we weren’t considered the poor either. We were, more or less, the middle class, and [I thought] we had a nice life.

My father was a medical doctor and as such, he had to work very hard. What I mainly remember [about] him then is that he was always working. And my mother was what you might call a “housewife,” she was usually at home. We just had a nice life.

[In Havana] there was always some kind of protest going on here and there. I loved going to school, because there was always something going on. I remember fliers falling from the sky, and to me that was exciting it was like an adventure.
So how did I end up in the United States? Well, let me begin with a little bit of history. Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar was the elected President of Cuba from 1940 to 1944, and dictator from 1952 to 1959, before being overthrown as a result of the Cuban Revolution. Most of the Cuban people, including my family, were not happy with the situation because we felt he was not good for the country. I was only a kid, so I don’t remember the details of how that came about, but I do remember when Batista left the country because everybody was happy that we had freedom, that we got rid of this dictator.

So after Batista fled, Fidel Castro came in and everyone thought that things were going to be different. But he turned out to be the opposite of what the Cuban people were led to believe: he declared himself a communist, and when that happened, that’s when he started changing things in the country. He wanted the children to go and cut sugarcane out in the countryside. I wasn’t of age, because there was an age limit, but my sister [who was 13 years old] would have been involved. And I know my parents didn’t want her to go anywhere like that. [Castro’s people] would just take the children out of the family home, and we didn’t know exactly where they would go. And there were a lot of horror stories in terms of things that happened to the kids.

So when all that started, all I remember is that people started leaving the country. My friends were leaving; everybody was leaving.

And there was always some kind of protest going on here and there. I loved going to school, because there was always something going on. I remember things like fliers falling from the sky, and to me that was exciting, it was like an adventure.

So my parents said, “We’re leaving. We’re leaving the country.” First they started saying, ok, my sister has to get out, because she’s not going to cut sugarcane. And then everybody knew—I know my father knew—about an invasion that was coming [April 1961], and that was the Bay of Pigs. And everybody thought: 'That’s it, Cuba is going to be saved, and we’re going to get rid of Castro.’ Obviously, that didn’t happen.

So suddenly, all I remember is that we [just my siblings and I] knew we were getting prepared for “something.” Because we had to get permission, we had to go here and there: we had to get our picture taken, we had to get vaccinated. So we were getting ready [for a trip somewhere], but we didn’t know when or where we were going. Or at least, my parents weren’t telling us. I had in my mind that we would leave now [April] and would be back by September.

At that time, we didn’t know what was happening, or where we were going. I was a little bit scared, but I also felt it was an adventure. We were just kids, and I found myself walking around in awe, almost in a trance.

We left on April 10, 1961. I remember going to the airport that day and they took us into what was referred to as “the fishbowl,” because it was a building made of glass. Our parents couldn’t come, nobody’s parents were allowed. It was all just children, all waiting for the plane to leave. When we boarded the plan, there were lots of kids already there, inside the plane.

So then, I noticed that we were supposed to go to Jamaica because that’s what was written on our papers, but we were first making a stop in Miami. But when we arrived in Miami, everybody got off and nobody went to Jamaica. When we went through Customs, they told us that we were students, but also referred to us as "refugees." In Miami, I was still in awe, looking at everything, and everything was different, and everybody was speaking English.

Fortunately for us, we did speak English, we could understand because we had good schooling, I guess. We were taught English since early on in Cuba, so we could understand everything. And we said, “Oh, it’s not bad.” Now, my brother didn’t know any English before we left Cuba. He learned his English later that summer, while playing with kids after we left Miami.

It was then that maybe I realized we weren’t going back to Havana as quickly as we were told, but I don’t remember ever feeling that we weren’t going to get together with my parents again.

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★ Click here to listen to Tessie talk about her life in Cuba and how she and her siblings made their way to the U.S.


So when we arrived in Miami, we were taken to this place where the Ursuline Order of Nuns were taking care of the girls. And there was another couple, a Cuban couple, that would take care of the boys. The location was in the middle of nowhere. It was in Kendall [south of Miami]. I’m sure today it’s not really “in the middle of nowhere,” but at the time, it seemed like a long ride from Miami and when we arrived we were surrounded by a lot of trees, it felt like we were entering the woods.

Kendall was like a stopover—it was run by the Catholic Church, and that’s why the nuns were there. The plan was that this would be temporary and that they would be sending you somewhere else, because obviously you couldn’t stay there. As for me and my two siblings, I know they had to find a place where the three of us could go, where they would take both boys and girls.

My recollection is that Kendall was a building that had been given to the Catholic Church. But I don’t know what that building had been used for at the time, it was all one floor. When you first walked, there was what I think was the reception area. A little bit further down was the dining hall. And then, towards your right, there was a wing, which was the girls’ dormitory. And then on the left, the boys’ dormitory.

It was a compound because there were also other buildings in the area, where we had classrooms. We would have school in the mornings. There was a playground and also a playroom-type area, where we would go and just hang out. My guess is that it had probably been some kind of a training school.

As the days went by, we saw some of the kids leaving and then they would write to everyone saying things like: “[Our new home] is wonderful!” Kids were sent all over the United States, to places like Washington, Oregon, New Mexico, Washington DC, New York, Georgia, Tennessee. t.


So about one week before the Bay of Pigs incident, my sister, brother and myself ended up in Dubuque, Iowa. Once the Bay of Pigs happened, it became obvious that we were not going back to Cuba.

It was in May of 1961 when we traveled to Iowa. For us it was an ordeal, because from Miami, we had to go to Chicago. And the plane from Chicago to Dubuque was… I still remember it was the Ozark Airlines, and it was a small plane, one of those planes that had the tail down!

And when we walked into this small plane, we had to go and sit in a seat. And we said to each other—it was just the three of us then going to Iowa: “Oh, my God. Where are we going? This is such a small plane!” And we were a bit nervous about that.

And then I don’t know what the problem was with the weather, but we couldn’t land in Dubuque. So we landed in Waterloo, Iowa. And from Waterloo we traveled by car – like a limousine – they sent for us – from Waterloo to Dubuque.

While in Iowa, I ended up going to a foster home with a large family—they had nine children, and I was the 10th. But they treated me well, they were very, very nice. I was probably the one that made out the best. My sister was never placed anywhere, and my brother went to two different families, but I remember that they weren’t very nice. My brother was very young, he was only eight and they had to move him from his foster homes twice. It was at that point that my mother, who had left Cuba soon after we did and was waiting in Miami to be reunited with us, was finally allowed to come for us in Iowa.

I stayed with a family until my mother came, and then she got an apartment, and we moved in with her, and we stayed there until my father was able to join us.

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