EDITOR’S NOTE: In this second installment of my Bi-BLOG-Raphy© we will hear about Fred Beato’s story and specifically, his coming to America. (You can view the first installment here).
Ultimately, this story is told on one of the tracks appearing on the Beato Band’s upcoming album. It is simply called “Cuba B.C.” and it was written by Fred’s longtime and multi-talented friend, David Pack. But before we get to Fred’s story some historical background is in order.
Lying only 90 miles from the American mainland is the island of Cuba. The year was 1952 and it was then that Fulgencio Batista came into power as dictator. Generally speaking, times were good.
In that same year, on March 3 to be exact, one Fred Beato was born. For years the island flourished in the Caribbean sun and one need only look back on pictures from that era to grasp the beauty of that time and the way of life for many Cubans, particularly in Havana. The romanticism and lives and times from that period are analogous to the South prior to the Civil War.
However, there was growing turmoil and unrest and the political climate of the country was about to change. Darker days were quickly approaching. In 1956 a cartel urging revolution came to Cuba from Mexico. One of the revolutionaries in this group was a man by the name of Fidel Castro. This group was in fact a reformation of another revolutionary group called the “26th of July movement.”
Castro and others then landed in Cuba and they came under attack. Castro escaped with others to eventually reform and organize in the Sierra Maestra mountains. The fighting then went to Castro and this is generally regarded as the start of the Cuban Revolution.
After years of fighting, Batista fled the country and the ominous Fidel Castro took control.
On January 1, 1959, Castro had taken de facto control of Cuba and this radical change was accompanied by a historic shift in Cuban diplomacy away from the United States to Russia.
Tensions would eventually peak with the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. It was clear that since Castro had come to Cuba that the country would never be the same. The “old” Cuba was giving way to a stranglehold of political oppression of epic proportions led by Castro.
Recognizing the radicalism of Castro coming into power, previously, Fred Beato’s family as well many thousands of other families realized that danger was quickly approaching. Something had to be done to save the children of these families and between 1960 and 1962 a plan was implemented to remove approximately 14,000 children from Cuba in response to rumors that Castro would soon take the children and place them in military schools and training camps.
Fred Beato at Belen Jesuit prep school in Havana, Cuba.
Thus, for families that opposed the revolutionary movement relief was in sight but inevitably separation from parents and kin would became the weighty byproduct that accompanied this heroic decision.
Although logical and necessary, the parents’ act of consent was heartbreaking. It meant sending your child to another country to be placed with distant relatives, friends of friends, or foster care and to be seen who knows when. Nevertheless, Fred Beato’s family chose this direction and his exodus plan was conceived.
Now, at 61 years of age and 50 years after leaving “old” Cuba, Fred Beato reflects on these difficult times and the circumstances surrounding his coming to America.
Indeed, these events would be the impetus and inspiration for David Pack to pen the upcoming track entitled “Cuba B.C.”
Q: Fred, I have to ask you, it has been 50 years since you left “old” Cuba. Why is it now that your story is being told?
A: Man, that’s a simple but complex answer. I came to this country on Thursday, March 8, 1962, and my life has never been the same since then. But there does not come a day that I don’t think about how fortunate I was then and am now to have been given the opportunity to come to the greatest country on the face of the earth.
When I look back on my own experience in 1962, the mind-set of the new immigrant arriving in America in those days was one of total gratitude and 100% commitment to assimilate and to try really hard to become part of this great experience called “America.”
The message, “…Ask NOT what your country can do for you, ask what YOU can do for your COUNTRY,” really resonated with us.
It was about coming to your new home and trying your best to fit in and hopefully to be accepted by your new American friends and neighbors. You wanted to make a contribution to the best of your ability with your hard work and talents, in any way, shape or form.
In these times of unrest and frustration I want to tell my story to enlighten others to how fortunate they are to be here! As in my case, it was the place that welcomed us to Freedom with open arms when we had nothing to give and all to gain (as we sing in the track from our album, “Cuba B.C.”).
It’s important to point out that we came here with nothing. The regime took it all. We were not allowed to take anything with us to help make a start here. I feel that it’s time that we all begin to appreciate what we have and not to take it for granted.
This is the most noble, generous country on the planet. Trust me. I guess in the end I just want to say “thank you” to America. I also want to celebrate the real heroes of that time; the parents who bravely sent their children away; away from oppression and danger. This is a story that has to be told.
Q: What does the phrase “Cuba B.C.” refer to?
A: “Cuba B.C.” refers to that period in my life which took place in Cuba, “before Castro.”
Q: There is so much to this story. Where does it start?
A: My life as a kid in Cuba was wonderful. It was a simple but great life. I lived with my grandparents, my mother and my Aunt Nena, who were both widows, and my cousins, Louie and Regina, in a big house my grandfather owned in Havana.
My father died in 1953 when I was one year old, so I really don’t have any memory of him.
The man who raised me in Cuba was my grandfather. I adored him. He was a brilliant, elegant man who was very tall and had striking blue eyes. My father and mother were married by proxy. He was in Cuba and she was living with her parents in Spain. He was much older than her. He was a concert violinist that played in the Cuban Philharmonic in Havana.
My mother told me he had a love and passion for the violin, although he had to go to the University of Havana to become an attorney at law at the insistence of his father (my grandfather), who told him, “..If you are planning to have a child, you need to have a job that will support your family someday.” My father finished his schooling and handed my grandfather his law degree and told him, “I hope you are happy,” and continued playing his violin until the day he died.
In 1951 he won a scholarship with the Boston Symphony to attend their summer session in Tanglewood, New York.
I’ve been told he was a candidate to study to become a musical conductor. Leonard Bernstein was in his class that summer. He became seriously ill there and had to return to Cuba where he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He passed away months later in February 1953. He was only 40 years old.
I’m proud to say that my grandfather attended LehighUniversity in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where he studied civil engineering. He graduated in the class of 1908. He loved his school and talked about it frequently. He returned to Cuba and became the Chief Engineer of the city of Havana under President Machado’s tenure in the 1930’s.
So it was me and my grandfather and mother, and they both raised me.
In addition to his home in Havana my grandparents had a beautiful farm. He would take me with him to the farm every day to feed all of his animals. He loved nature and animals. He had brought in exotic plants and fruit trees from all over the world. The wild guineas would eat of his hand. We would bring fresh milk from the farm in these aluminum containers and at night he would make butter for our family and friends and fresh candy for the kids.
I remember playing a lot like any other normal kid and also hearing music all the time. Always.
In the evenings after dinner he would sit, dressed in his smoking jacket and play solitaire while blasting classical music from the speakers. The walls would actually rattle!
I had few complaints as a kid. I was just happy to live in a loving home and we were a very close family. I loved my mother dearly and my grandfather was as close to perfection in a man that I have ever seen. He had incredible character, ethics and very strict values. He was formidable, loving and my heart still swells with love and pride for him.
Whenever I felt lonely or insecure in those early years in America, my memory of my grandfather would give me strength and remind me who I was and who I belonged to.
Q: That all changed at one point though, right?
A: Certainly. When Castro came to power everything changed. Ninety percent of the country went berserk for Fidel Castro. There were demonstrations in the street. People were screaming.
In fact, stickers were posted on people’s homes that basically said, “Fidel, this is your house.”
Schools and churches would soon be closed and our whole way of life changed. Properties and businesses would soon be confiscated by the Regime as Castro announced that everything in the country belonged to the Revolution. It was like a big cloud moved over Havana.
Our way of life was taken away from me and my family. I can remember even simple pleasures, like chewing gum, for example, I could only get by mail when my cousins, who were already in America, would put a piece in a letter they would mail to me.
Fred as a boy in Cuba.
Communism was soon coming to Cuba and with it, the demise of the country.
It was also then that rumors began circulating that children were going to be sent to Russia. We heard that the schools were going to take their rosters and turn them over to the government so that kids could be chosen to be sent to Russia. We also heard that the intention was to take custody from the parents and give it to the government.
My grandfather then took me out of school and he told me I was no longer going. He was afraid I would be sent away. This is really where this idea for the evacuation of the “Pedro Pans” came about. Either way, it was very difficult for me.
In the end, I would be the last of the grandkids to leave Cuba and the last of our family to leave Cuba for quite some time. Remember also, that there came a point some time after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 that no one was pretty much allowed to leave Cuba so looking back, I was very fortunate, except that my grandfather, mother and Aunt Nena were left behind.
Q: When did you know that you would have to be leaving Cuba?
A: I remember it vividly.
I was seven at the time. My grandfather and I were in the front doorway of our home when Castro’s men entered the city on January 1, 1959.
They drove through the streets in front of our house, like Julius Caesar entering the city after conquering it, in a tank en route from Marianao to Havana. There were demonstrations in the streets with people dancing and yelling. It was scary, like the island had gone out of control.
I looked up and I saw that my grandfather had tears rolling down his face. So I asked him, “Grampa, why are you crying?” and he said to me, “Son, today communism has come to Cuba.”
In response I asked “what is communism?” And although I did not know what communism was I knew right then and there that I was leaving Cuba. I could sense danger.
A short while later, in 1961, the “Bay of Pigs” invasion took place.
I remember people saying they could see all the American ships from Havana harbor. After that fiasco Castro clearly
aligned himself with the Soviet Union and some people don’t know this but there was a growing concern that since the first invasion was a failure that a second one would be coming and this time, it would be successful. I was there for that.
Q: What was the growing sentiment about you and all these children leaving Cuba between 1960 and 1962?
A: Looking back there was not a great deal of anxiety at first. Some people did not worry about us kids leaving because there was a prevailing thought that Castro would not remain in power for more than six months. Many people did not also believe that Castro could remain in power because Cuba is located so close to the United States.
We just could not believe it. Others who had some wealth were not prepared to get up and leave their homes and farms and so forth. But that changed when the government began confiscating property for the communist party. So, my family applied for a visa. Mine came but not my mother’s or grandfather’s.
Not everyone could even get a visa by then.
Professionals like doctors or lawyers were not allowed to leave and it was common that some members of a family would not get a visa but others would. Think about that. If you had a wife, for example, a nine year old daughter and a two year old son, it might be that the two year old only got the visa. You would then have to make arrangements for that child to go to someone in the United States.
Or, it might be that only you and your wife got the visa.
And then what?
Families were literally separated at the seams. The visas were issued by Castro’s government in an arbitrary manner that purposely punished the families.
Q: As a child, what did you think was happening?
A: I was one of the lucky ones. My cousins, Louie and Regina, who had left before me, ended up in one of the Pedro Pan camps for a while before my Aunt and Uncle Bernal could come to get them.
I, at least, knew I was going directly to live with relatives who were waiting for me in the United States. Our aunt and uncle there, and their four kids, got out of Cuba and had been living in New York since the early part of the Revolution, and were relocating to Miami in the months before I was to arrive.
Like I said, many others just left and many wound up in foster homes and others in the Pedro Pan Camps that had been set up by the Catholic welfare. I thought I was going to a party. I thought I was going to play with my cousins who I hadn’t seen in over 1 ½ years and as a child, they had been the center of my universe!
In my mind, I thought I was going to Disneyland.
Q: Was your family against the revolution?
A: Absolutely! My whole family was anti-Castro from day one.
In fact, my Uncle Bernal, whose family we all lived with in America and who greeted me when I arrived in Miami, had been a congressman in Batista’s government.
On January 1, 1959, he had been sent to prison at Isla de Pinos, facing a sentence of many years in jail or possible execution for opposing the Revolution. His best friend had sided with the Revolution and it was him that made it possible for my Uncle to get of jail and immediately flee the country with my Aunt Mercy and their 4 children in 1959.
People like us who were against Castro were called “Gusanos,” meaning “worms,” by the Regime.
Q: Talk about that fateful day when you left Cuba and came to America. What was your trip like?
A: It was a strange day to describe.
I felt excited and nervous and scared all at once.
I was going on my first ride in an airplane!
I was going to see my cousins whom I had missed terribly!
I can remember getting ready at the house for my journey to America, my grandfather tying my tie for me and he kept repeating my name. I was wearing a new brown pinstripe suit and yellow tie (as David mentions in our song, “Cuba B.C.”), as did most of the kids. We wanted to make a good impression when we got to America with our new suits!
My grandfather said “Beato” (pronounced “bay-ah-toe”) over and over. I finally asked him grandpa, “why are you saying my name over and over?” He replied, “son, this is the last time you will ever hear your name.”
Sure enough, he was right.
When I did arrive in America my name was pronounced “bee-toe” and every other which way and it was never pronounced the right way again.
My grandfather did not go to the airport to say goodbye. He was heart broken as was my mother. Only my mother and my Aunt Nena took me to the airport. I remember her crying when she kissed me goodbye. She looked distraught and devastated when she hugged me for the last time. She was a widow and I was her only child, all she had left in the world.
It was a short flight from Cuba to Miami. The plane was very crowded as I remember it. In less than an hour we touched down in Miami. I remember as we took off people on the plane were screaming, crying, and yelling that we were “free” and when we touched down in Miami and the plane stopped and doors opened, the fresh air of freedom was exhilarating. People were crying “we’re liberated!”
Q: Do you remember your first day in America?
A: I was ten years old when I arrived in Miami on March 8, 1962, at about 11:00 a.m. or so, to be exact.
You have to understand something else: We were not allowed to bring anything with us when we left Cuba; nothing but our clothes.
Not even a wristwatch!
Everything stayed in Cuba because everything belonged to the Revolution.
But anyway, I was one of the lucky ones; I had relatives to come to. I was coming to live with my Aunt Mercy, their four kids, and, Uncle Bernal, who also then took in my cousins, Louie and Regina, who had previously come to America. Unfortunately, my cousins had
to spend about five months in a Pedro Pan camp before my aunt and uncle arrived in Miami to pick them up.
So, continuing on, after the airport I was taken right away to the “FreedomTower” in Miami.
The “FreedomTower” was the former home of the “Miami News” and then it was used as a processing point for Cuban refugees by the U.S. Government. At the Tower I remember being greeted by this handsome retired marine with an American haircut called a crew-cut (I had never seen anything like it before!), who shook my hand and he said to me, “Welcome to America.”
He then handed me a box that had things in it like jacks, gum, toothpaste, and a toothbrush, just like David Pack sings in our song, “Cuba B.C.” After clearing the Tower, from there I was given to my aunt and uncle. I remember on the ride home to their house my uncle saying, “When you come to America, the first thing you have to do is have a hamburger, fries and a milkshake.”
So, our first stop was a “Burger King.”
I loved it. I also noticed the cars; the cars in America were so cool. As we continued home, my aunt said we needed to stop at the “A & P.” This blew me away. When I saw all the produce, meat and dairy products on display, I was overwhelmed. I finally realized I was no longer in Cuba.
Even today, at age 61, I still get that rush when I go to a supermarket. You have to understand that in Cuba things like groceries and necessities were no longer accessible or plentiful after the Revolution. With the departure of the American influence in Cuba, the country rapidly deteriorated in many ways.
I can remember a “soap” truck coming by in Cuba and all the women would line up to get their soap. The next week it might be the “egg” truck. So, this idea of a “supermarket” was tremendous to me!
And to cap it all off, we were leaving the store and I looked down and I saw hundreds of quarters on the ground.
I remember, screaming out, “Wow! In America they even have money on the sidewalks!” As it turns out, a Coca Cola vending machine had broke and it was spitting hundreds of coins out all over the sidewalk. Boy, was I having a great day! (Laughs)
Q: What does the term “Pedro Pans” have to do with this story?
A: “Pedro Pans” is a term that was affectionately given to the Cuban children who arrived in America between 1960 and 1962.
The thought was, as I understood it, that all the kids were going to a “never never land” like Peter Pan. We are a special group indeed and included in the “Pedro Pans” are such notables as Florida Senator Mel Martinez and Latin musician Willy Chirino just to name a few.
But I guess I should tell you about my cousin as well, Cristina V. Beato.
She left Cuba about a year before me and she wound up working under the BushAdministration in the department of health. In fact, she was one of the top policy officials with the U.S. Public Health Service. But most importantly is that we are all American Cubans, who love and cherish this country that took us all in.
Q: Was it difficult to leave your family behind?
A: I will answer you this way…Do you think that any parent today would put their child on an airplane to travel to a foreign country by themselves unsure as to when they will be seen again?
But yes, it was very difficult for me to leave my mother, grandfather and my Aunt Nena behind, and understand that children were separated from their families and none of us knew when we would see our families who remained behind again.
In my case I did not see my mother for another seven or so years and that was because after the Cuban Missile Crisis in1962 no one was allowed to leave Cuba unless, in all seriousness, they were leaving on an inner tube.
That was true by the way.
But other children never saw their families again, period.
What was very difficult was our inability to communicate.
My aunt and uncle made sure that we called Cuba to speak to our moms but it was very expensive and our phone time was limited to once a month for 5 minutes. Often, I would literally get one minute to talk to my mother. It was usually the same conversation with my mother saying, “be careful with the cars that you don’t get hit!,” or, “watch out for the sharks and make sure you don’t drown!”
To this day I don’t know how to swim and I don’t go in the ocean as I’m afraid of sharks. She scared the hell out of me!
After a while, for me, reality set in. This was no party and this was not Disneyland. I missed my mother and my grandfather.
This was really heightened when I came down with appendicitis. I almost died and I remember right then and there missing my mom terribly. I started to feel like I was living with relatives, not my mother and I needed her comfort and attention.
But this was not only me, it was all of us Pedro Pan kids. And some of these kids had a much tougher go than me.
Q: Besides you, other members of your family came to America at this same time, correct? Were their experiences like yours?
A: I did have other members of my family come here before me like my cousins. Louie and Regina left before me and they were placed in a Pedro Pan camp in Florida that was sponsored by, I believe, the Catholic Welfare. That was because my Aunt Mercy and Uncle Bernal had not arrived yet in Miami from New York with their kids to set up a home for all of us. So they waited in the camp for five months for them.
I was the last of all the 14 cousins to leave. My cousin Louie came here with his suitcase that his mother had lovingly packed for him with his good shirts and best clothes and it was stolen the first day he arrived in the camp. Every week my cousins would get the choice of a dollar as an allowance or a toy. My cousin Louie would take that dollar and he would stand in line every week to get on the pay phone to call my aunt and uncle to plead with them to come from New York to get him and my cousin Regina out of the camp.
Q: What was so bad about being in the camps?
A: People like my cousins were given usually three opportunities to take advantage of: Opportunities that were similar to
Basically, you could go somewhere in the country and live with a family there. Initially you could refuse but eventually you lost your choice.
Eventually, kids starting getting sent everywhere like New Orleans, Elizabeth, New Jersey, and other places.
In Louie’s case, there came a point where these scholarships were going to break up him and his sister. So imagine that. You are a young child in another country and the only family you know, your sister (in Louie’s case), is about to be taken away from you.
The separation of family all around was just difficult, very difficult.
Q: I know from talking to you that American political leaders at this time made an impression on you after you came to America, right? Talk about that.
President Johnson did a lot for the Cuban community. During his administration laws were enacted that gave residency to refugees fleeing Cuba.
But my best memory was of JFK. He made it a point to come to Miami to greet the prisoners of the Bay of Pigs Invasion. He had a heavy heart and felt tremendous responsibility fell on his administration for its outcome.
I was at the Orange Bowl when he appeared with Mrs. Kennedy and addressed all the Cubans.
That was on December 29, 1962. This was after the Cuban Missile Crisis which had occurred in October of that year.
Wow! What a handsome, charismatic man. I could not take my eyes off of him. I felt a love and connection to him and thought, “My president!”
And Mrs. Kennedy looked so beautiful. I remember Mrs. Kennedy spoke to us in Spanish. Regardless of your political views, I don’t think there will be another presidential package like that again. Together, the Kennedys were so impressive. President Kennedy’s assassination less than a year later devastated me.
Q: To finish your story at some point do you reunite with your grandfather and mother again?
A: Yes. In 1968 after the economy in Cuba had collapsed, things got so bad in Cuba that the Castro Regime gave permission for the elderly, the sick and others they deemed the undesirable “worms” who were “not worthy” for the Revolution to leave the country.
That’s what made it possible for my mother and grandfather and thousands of other Cubans to finally leave Cuba, leaving what few possessions that they had left in the world behind.
As David wrote in our song, seven years had passed and I was almost 18 years old by the time my mother saw me again. She had missed my entire childhood.
Q: This whole experience really changed your life didn’t it?
A: I have no doubt that it did. Had Castro never come about I would have followed my family’s footsteps which was rich in education.
And music really is my passion.
I think I would have studied music and seriously pursued music education. That didn’t happen and although I have no regrets I do look back and think about what would have happened if I was not separated from my family and I could have taken advantage of musical training.
EDITOR’S NOTE: In my next installment I will explore Fred’s eventual migration to California and the eventual start of the well known drum bag making company, “Beato Drum Bags.”
– K Bo