— “From Hell to Paradise,” The Mavericks, 1992
Ernestina Lamadrid lay on her Miami deathbed in late September 1999, her family huddled around. She summoned her only son, Joe Perez-Jones, and her oldest grandson, 33-year-old Frank Martin, to her side.
There she made Perez-Jones and Martin promise they would never go to her native Cuba as long as Fidel Castro was alive. By accepting that vow from the two, Lamadrid made certain the pain and suffering Castro’s Communist government inflicted on her family four decades earlier never would be forgotten.
“They lost everything they owned in Cuba because of the new regime,” Martin said of his late grandmother, speaking recently at Colonial Life Arena following a game by his South Carolina men’s basketball team.
Martin’s talk of Cuba and his family’s migration from that country in 1961 was prompted by questions about his opinion of President Barack Obama’s Dec. 17 order for the United States to begin the process of normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than 50 years of embargoes.
“If what Obama is doing is genuinely going to help the people of Cuba, then I think our government should be commended,” Martin said. “I just hope there’s not a political twist in this. I hope it’s a legitimate thing. I’m all for anything that helps that country become free again.”
While there is more uncertainty than certainty about future relations between the two countries, Martin’s mother, Lourdes Martin, is firm that her feelings toward her native country will not change any time soon.
“I hope I can go to my country one day to visit,” Lourdes Martin said this past week by telephone from Miami. “But not as long as Castro is there. I would never go back when Castro is there. I don’t think I would ever put my foot in that country as long as he is there.”
— “From Hell to Paradise”
Those who departed Cuba in the early years after Castro’s Communist revolution of 1959 remember and treasure the dates like they would birthdays or anniversaries. Lourdes Martin, then Perez-Jones, was 15 on Aug. 26, 1961, when she and her mother boarded a Pan-Am flight to Miami from Havana.
Her belongings consisted of the clothing she was wearing along with the two or three outfits she stuffed into a suitcase that could not weigh more than 20 pounds. Cubans were not allowed to carry cash, jewelry or anything of value into the United States.
Five days earlier, her brother had taken a more indirect route to Miami. Because he was wanted for service in the Cuban military, young Joe Perez-Jones was not allowed to leave the country. So his father smuggled his son to Venezuela under the guise of being a tourist, then directed him to the United States.
Reunited in Miami, the Perez-Jones family flew to New Jersey, where they met up in the Newark suburb of Kearny with an aunt who had migrated years earlier.
Jose Perez-Jones, Frank Martin’s grandfather, remained behind in Cuba, thinking Castro’s communist regime would be short-lived. He was a prominent banker there — the manager of the Trust Company of Cuba — who had provided a wealthy lifestyle for his family.
The family lived in a beautiful two-story house with a two-car garage in Havana’s swanky El Vedado neighborhood. Mom did not work, and Dad used his month-long vacation each summer from the bank to take his family to the United States, traveling up and down the Eastern Seaboard.
That all changed dramatically when Castro seized control of Cuba.
Two months after his wife and two children departed to the United States, Jose Perez-Jones followed after recognizing the bleak future for him in Cuba. He and his wife left behind their parents, whom they never would see again.
Times were tough in New Jersey. The family faced harsh winters for the first time in their lives, and the parents had to settle for any job they could get to support their two children.
Dad went from managing a bank to serving as a bookkeeper for at a Manhattan bank. Mom, working for the first time in her life, endured 12-hour shifts in a coat factory, where she sewed sleeves and buttons on jackets.
“I cried almost every day because I was in a classroom where nobody spoke Spanish,” says Lourdes Martin of the parochial school that she and her brother attended. “I was the only Latin, Cuban girl at school. My brother was the only Cuban boy in his class.”
Lourdes Martin graduated from high school in June 1964, and seven months later, married Francisco Martin, whom she met in New Jersey after he had migrated from Cuba in 1960. The couple moved to the Little Havana section of Miami in October 1965, and began their own family with Frank born in 1966 and a daughter, Lourdes, born three years later.
— “From Hell to Paradise”
Lourdes and Francisco Martin divorced in 1976. She raised her two children as a single parent, with plenty of help from her mother and her brother, who by then also lived in Miami.
Since then, the family has come to symbolize exactly what the land of opportunity means to those who migrate to the United States.
“There is nothing like the United States,” Lourdes Martin said. “If you come here and you really, really want to make it, and you work hard, you can really do it. You can really make it. The Cubans who came here in the 1960s are a great example of that.”
Lourdes Martin first worked as a paralegal in Miami and, eventually, owned and operated her own real estate title-closing company. Her proudest moment came in 1984, when she purchased a house for her family that included a swimming pool.
Lourdes Martin’s brother, Joe, became a longtime senior vice-president for Seaboard Marine, an ocean transportation company serving 40 ports in 20 Caribbean countries.
Her daughter, Lourdes O’Keefe, dabbled in acting in New York City. She now is a substitute teacher at a Brooklyn high school. She and her husband also run a pizza parlor and a Mexican restaurant in Brooklyn.
Frank Martin earns more than $2 million a year in his third season as the USC men’s basketball coach.
“Those opportunities don’t happen in every country in the world,” he said. “Very few countries give people from another country the opportunity to move their families forward the way this one has.”
Frank Martin wants those same opportunities to some day be available in Cuba, as well.
Only then would he be willing to visit his family’s native homeland.