Written by: Vanessa Alvarez
Editor’s Note: This feature tells the stories of our writer’s immediate family that fled from Cuba.
President Donald Trump’s focus on Cuban-Americans in South Florida proved to be a successful force following election night, but many are questioning the reason behind this unexpected feat.
America quickly placed the spotlight on Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade County, Florida on election night after being a major contribution to Trump’s win of Florida’s 29 electoral votes. NBC News reported a drastic increase in support after 55 percent of Cuban-American voted for Trump in the 2020 election. According to NBC News, Trump’s support increased from 333,999 votes in 2016 to nearly 530,000 in this past election.
Trump spent much of his campaign trail in 2020 targeting Latinos in South Florida through releasing Spanish advertising and hosting rallies in predominantly Cuban-American communities. Despite these efforts, polls show Trump’s most effective effort was painting President-elect Joe Biden as a socialist.
True or false, the word “socialism” does not sit well with the Cuban-American community, specifically those who lived through or having connections to the Cuban Revolution and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro’s regime. Like many Americans, Cuban-Americans voted this election out of fear of returning to what they and their families once fled their homeland from.
Juana Jimenez, Rafaelina Alvarez and Marilyn Alvarez are three-generations of Cubans who fled their homes, families and livelihood as a result of the political and social climate under Fidel Castro. It is stories like theirs that give insight why Trump won over Miami-Dade County and Cuban-Americans across the United States.
Juana Jimenez grew up during the 1920s in Bauta, Cuba, but left in 1959 due to the rapidly deteriorating political and social climates. During her life in Cuba, she lived under the regimes of two notorious dictators, Fulgancio Bautista and Fidel Castro.
“They were both bad. Bautista was a dictator, but he never stole from the people. If you didn’t deal with drugs, you were fine. The people who had problems were the people who committed actual crimes,” says Jimenez.
Jimenez grew up with her father and siblings who owned a grocery store in Bauta. She recalls selling basic necessities at the store until Castro’s regime began, which marked the government takeover. Their store was stolen from their family and deemed government property as officials began rationing basic goods such as soap and food from the Cuban people.
When Jimenez left in 1959 alongside her husband and two children, she left everything behind. Her home was confiscated by the government and she was not allowed back to her homeland for nearly 20 years. She remembers noting a significant, negative change in the place she once called home.
“They [the government] put stores that were only accessible if you had dollars. Tourists could go because they had American dollars, but Cubans couldn’t go in because they didn’t have the correct money,” she said. “You couldn’t buy anything with Cuban money.”
Prior to the pandemic, Jimenez worked to ensure she could keep in touch with her family and the country she once called home. Similar to many Cubans, she once expected to return to a free Cuba, however, according to Jimenez, this idea no longer seems possible.
Rafaelina Alvarez grew up in the poor countryside of Batabano, Cuba where her father worked as a farmer for a landowner. She remembers her home being small, with two bedrooms for her parents and the five children, and one bathroom outdoors.
“You had to live with what you had. I remember in my young age, you had grocery stores and you could buy whatever you wanted,” she said. There were meat places where you could go and they would cut it for you. Later, after the socialist came, everything changed.”
Alvarez, like many Cubans, left in 1965 as a result of the Cuban Revolution and the devastating effects of Castro’s regime. She recalls the significant change in Cuba’s political and social climate beginning when she was about 18 or 19 years old. Alvarez says Castro’s promises to the Cuban people to improve the country left the rich to be poor and the poor to become more poor.
The Freedom Flights brought Alvarez, who was eight-months pregnant with her first child, along with her husband and several of his family members to the United States. She would stay for 13 consecutive years before being allowed to visit her family for the first time.
“We thought we may come back to freedom because we left all our family there. It’s been 61 years with this family [the Castros] owning Cuba… because that’s what it is,” she said.
Alvarez only returned to her homeland a handful of times, the first to visit her family. She recalls nearly crying when returning to Cuba for the first time after witnessing the devastation Castro’s regime caused her country. Alvarez made a heroic return to Cuba in the 1980s during the historic Mariel Boatlift mission.
Leaving Key West in April, Alvarez took a 29 day excursion to retrieve several of her family members who wished to immigrate to the United States. Within the 90 miles to Cuba, she recalls witnessing rough weather conditions and the rescue of five individuals fleeing Cuba by boat. Though she went with the intent of bringing her sister back to the U.S, Alvarez left Cuba with 270 new passengers, none of which were her family members.
“When they say socialism, you remember what is in your country and what is right now in your country.”
“When you would ask for your family, the government would first send criminals and people from asylums to the United States. Then, they would later send another boat with your family,” said says.
Alvarez’s experiences and hardships growing up in Cuba left her with a negative, fearful perception of socialism. She remembers visiting a variety of countries throughout the world after fleeing Cuba and never finding the sense of freedom she experienced in the U.S.
“When they say socialism, you remember what is in your country and what is right now in your country. Cuba is a poor country. There’s nothing there, nothing. Everything is destroyed,” Alvarez said.
A first-generation American, Marilyn Alvarez’s love and admiration for America’s democracy comes from the hardships her parents faced as Cuban immigrants.
The youngest daughter of Rafaelina Alvarez, who fled Cuba in 1965, she fears the idea of socialism and the potential threat it poses against America’s democracy. Her pride and admiration for the American Dream of prosperity, freedom and opportunity is fueled by the stories of brutality, regulations and fear her parents shared while growing up.
“Our whole lives we were brought up knowing what happened in Cuba, almost to the point that we didn’t experience it, but yet we did,” said Alvarez. “It was a constant pride and gratefulness for this country. We were always taught to be thankful that this country gave them another home and everything that they went through to get here.”
Alvarez visited Cuba once at the age of seven alongside her mother who had not returned to her homeland for 13 years. The two arrived in the country with basic necessities that were unavailable in Cuba such as medication and food. Alvarez recalls being stopped at the airport by customs who desired to search all their bags. She remembers standing there for “what seemed like an eternity.”
“They searched literally everything you brought,” said Alvarez. “They asked my mom what they needed from her bags and she said everything. I don’t know if the policeman took pity because it was just this woman and her kid, but they let us go.”
Alvarez’s first and only visit in the late 70s was marked by drastic differences she had yet to experience as an American. For example, to shower, she recalls her mother having to boil water to later use when bathing in a bucket. She also recalls her mother’s warning to not ask for anything more than what their family provides.
“I remember my mom telling me ‘when we go there, don’t ask for any more food. Whatever they give you, that’s what they have,” said Alvarez. “That’s kind of rough for a seven-year-old to understand.”
Alvarez remembers going to a cemetery during their stay and confusingly asking her mother the reason behind their visit. She describes the tall, concrete walls where the caskets were placed, which she notes was much different than what is seen in America.
“I remember asking my mom why we were there and she told me before she left Cuba, she promised her father she would one day come back to see him,” she said. “He, unfortunately, died before she could do that.”
At just seven years old, Alvarez captured a glimpse of the poverty and the consequences of a lack of freedom that her parents spent years describing. This experience along with the many stories from her family shaped her perspective of democracy and allowed her to understand its significance.
“I think it makes me grateful to be an American and born in this country,” she said. “I think I’m lucky I was born here and it makes me have a deeper love for this country and its values.”
“I tell them ‘don’t you get it? Our families lived this’.”
Alvarez’s fear of socialism, like her mother, are shaped by the injustices innocent Cubans faced and continue to combat today. Her first-hand knowledge of the brutality her friends and family faced in their homelands makes her fearful of any talk of socialism.
“You have these individuals who lived it, saw it and know how it comes,” said Alvarez. “They’re identifying things today that happened when their countries were being overtaken by communism.”
One phrase Alvarez became accustomed to hearing concerned the capability of one person to end democracy. To that, she notes that one “one man brought communism to Cuba, one man brought it to Venezuela,” and it can, as simply, happen to the United States.
“I tell them ‘don’t you get it? Our families lived this,” she said.
Though her heritage lies in Cuba, Alvarez finds a return to the country as a betrayal against her family and close friends. The ongoing injustices and violence in the country kept her family from returning and are, seemingly, doing the same for her. Despite this, Alvarez feels her family’s hardships in Cuba added value to her life and pride as an American.