By Michael E. Miller
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"When I broadcast that to Cuba," Perez says, "people went insane. It just went on from there. I'm talking to people on the phone who are giving me more ideas, people coming from Cuba are calling me, I'm getting letters."
She almost always does her calling from phones in the La Voz office and studio, the same phones she and her assistant use to keep up contacts on the island. Perez does not make calls while on the air because she never knows, of course, how many times she'll get wrong numbers or be transferred, kept waiting, or hung up on. Monthly phone bills run in the thousands of dollars, she reports.
Hanging alone on one wall of the CANF offices where La Voz programs are produced are two newspaper clippings within the same frame. There are two photographs of a group of Cuban men taken prisoner after a 1959 rebellion against the new Castro government. Among the men is 22-year-old Roberto Martin Perez, son of a colonel in Batista's national police. Perez would remain locked up -- shuttled from Isla del Pinos to Boniato to La Cabana to Combinado del Este to other prisons all over the island -- for the next 28 years. He, like other plantados (political prisoners who refused to be "rehabilitated" into good communists), suffered deprivation and torture, and, like others, he wrote poetry and accounts of his experiences in the tiniest of scripts on allotments of toilet paper smuggled out by departing prisoners. His name is prominent in a poem by another former political prisoner, Armando Valladares: "With bayonets/They lacerated testicles:/To Roberto Martin Perez they did it." (He had actually been shot in the testicles during a protest at Boniato.)
Ninoska Perez Castellon read that poem in 1981 and realized that Roberto Martin Perez was the son of a close friend of her family's in Havana. Her father had been a police colonel too. She remembered Roberto's father once bringing her a rabbit in a shoe box, but she didn't remember Roberto. She does vividly recall the upheaval that beset her family when the revolution triumphed. "I grew up in a world where everything was rose-colored," Perez says. "Then comes December 31, 1959. Everything turned upside down, and you're a kid trying to make some sense of it."
Since her father was a high-ranking officer in the Batista government, he left the country on a plane for New Orleans on New Year's Day. She and her mother, sister, and two brothers stayed in their home for the next several months while the revolutionaries confiscated their possessions; she remembers two men outside the house shooting each other over who was going to drive off in her father's new car. On Mother's Day, 1959, she went with her mother and grandmother to visit her uncle in La Cabana prison. After standing in line for about twelve hours, they saw Che Guevara drive up in a Jeep. "'There's no visits today!'" Perez recalls him shouting. "'And even if my mother was in there, there would be no visits.' My grandmother takes her umbrella and pounds on the Jeep, and she yells at him, 'That's because you have no mother!'"
After several years as a liberal arts student at Miami-Dade Community College and as owner of a boutique called Camille on Miracle Mile in Coral Gables, Perez found herself in a "process of rediscovering my roots." She became involved in protesting human rights abuses in Cuba. "I'd have people in the back painting signs for pickets and there'd be someone in the front trying to buy a designer gown," she remembers. She sold the boutique in 1978 and began freelancing for Spanish-language print and radio outlets.
By January 1987, when Perez helped launch an international campaign to free Roberto Martin Perez, she had her own hourlong talk show on WRHC-AM (1550), known as Cadena Azul. The program, dedicated to a variety of mostly nonpolitical topics, nevertheless helped publicize the plight of Perez, who was considered the longest-held political prisoner in the West. Through a petition drive, letter-writing campaign, and the efforts of an array of political figures (notably Panamanian leader Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, who negotiated with Castro), Perez was released in May 1987. Ninoska was among the group of relatives and journalists who welcomed him to U.S. soil. Less than four months later, they were married.
Ninoska subsequently wrote in an essay published in the Miami Herald: "From the beginning, love for us has been a mixture of ideals and attraction, desire and admiration. It has also been a process of learning through each other.... I have taught him the art of living in a world of electronic devices. He has taught me forgiveness. Recently I saw him embrace a man who was Castro's commandant -- the same man who betrayed Roberto 28 years ago."
At home in the Doral-area townhouse that Ninoska has filled with altar pieces and statuettes of saints and virgins from all over Latin America, the couple relaxes over cafe cubano even as the phone rings every ten minutes and Ninoska's mother and sister drop by. A tree-shaded lawn stretches out from the back patio door, but the family likes to sit inside with the cafe, talking Cuban history, remembering the deceits and conceits of Castro, recognizing heroes and martyrs, discussing the current situation on the island and in world affairs.