The Venezuelan migrants who recently landed on Martha’s Vineyard after Republican Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida flew them there, reportedly without notifying the islanders or fully informing the migrants, reminded me of my own journey to this country and my family’s relocation 56 years ago. While there are stark differences between their situation and ours, what I find most compelling are the similarities.
In 1966, my mother, sister, grandmother, and I arrived in Miami as Cuban refugees. Immigration authorities told my mother that if we stayed in Miami, we wouldn’t get any federal assistance, but if we were willing to relocate to New Jersey or Louisiana, the federal and state governments would help us with housing and living expenses until we could fend for ourselves. Not unlike the Martha’s Vineyard migrants, we put our trust in those in charge. My mother wanted to know which state would provide the most assistance and where she would have better job opportunities to support our family: my 71-year-old diabetic grandmother, my 14-year-old sister, and 12-year-old me. New Jersey turned out to be the place. But it was February and we didn’t own winter clothes. The agent told us that the Salvation Army would equip us with coats, hats, and gloves. My mother negotiated a week’s stay in Miami before heading to New Jersey so we could visit relatives.
After we walked out of the immigration building and rushed to my mother’s brother, who was waiting to greet us, my mother told him we were staying for only a week. He became serious, and then said, “You should have never agreed to that. We Cubans take care of each other.”
But my mother didn’t want to be taken care of; she was a math teacher, conversant in English. She knew Miami was bursting at the seams. She was convinced that she had made the right decision.
In one week, we were on a plane to Newark, along with other Cubans who had chosen to relocate. Many already had family there. We were taken to a hotel that had seen better days and, as best I could tell, was only being used to temporarily house Cuban refugees. Room and board was funded by the Volunteer Relief Agencies, to which Catholic Charities was a major contributor. We had a room with a very noisy heater, two beds for four people, and cafeteria-style food. My mother was given the name of an agency that would help us find an apartment not exceeding a preset rental budget.
She went out every day in the cold to check out possible apartments identified by the agency. It was a stressful process, but finally, she found a place in East Orange. We were then assigned a case worker and started receiving welfare. That September, we moved to Maine where my mother had found a teaching position at a high school.
None of this was easy. Even though we had help and support from government agencies and nonprofits organizations, I could see the strain on my mother as she scouted through an alien city for an apartment. Searching for a job was another painful and discouraging experience. Finding a hospital that would accept my grandmother when she became sick was a nightmare. Even carrying the groceries to our apartment from the store without a cart presented unforeseen challenges. My sister and I — budding teenagers — experienced different challenges. It were as if we had been sent to the moon without a space suit. After a week in New Jersey, I was convinced I would never see the sun shine again. I got nose bleeds from the dry air. I missed my friends. I could not stomach the instant potatoes, powder milk, and powder eggs. The bland cafeteria food at the hotel was alien to my taste buds. I begged my mother to let us return to Miami. But no. She woke up each morning voicing some variation of her new mantra: What a great country this is! We come here with nothing and we are given food and a place to sleep. No questions asked. No, this is incredible! I would like to do something in return. Maybe I could clean or cook or sew...
It was in East Orange where we had our first Martha’s Vineyard moment. My mother visited a nearby Catholic school, and after she told them we were Cuban refugees, they waived tuition for my sister and me, and donated our school uniforms.
Generosity from strangers continued unexpectedly. When we arrived in Maine, the school staff collected clothes, cooking utensils, and boots for us. One teacher loaned my mother a sewing machine so she could make alterations to our new wardrobe.
Extra help came as my mother struggled to teach math with limited knowledge of the English language and my sister and I could not make sense of classes in any subject but math. And when a teacher saw my mother teaching herself how to drive, he came to her rescue. We became their adopted family.
Those were the memories that stood out in my mind when I read about how the Martha’s Vineyard residents stepped up to welcome the Venezuelan migrants. Many accounts focused on the generosity of the residents, and while that’s indisputable, it is my experience that if fear and politics are removed from the equation, people in this country have an immense capacity to treat those less fortunate with kindness and respect. If anything captures the American spirit, this is it. Politics has turned ugly, but personal encounters tell a different story. My mother was right all along, this is a great country.
Marina Villa lives in Andover and is author of “Leaving Castro’s Cuba: The Story of an Immigrant Family.”