Long Journey Home

On the night Tony Gonzalez comes home with the body of his grandmother, Bayamo's dusty main street is lit only by the dim glow of the funeraria sign. The time is 9:30 p.m., well past the usual Thursday bedtime in this rural Cuban town. Yet more than 200 people are waiting.

First a red van pulls up to the funeral home, and the people surge forward. Then a second car arrives, and from the throng someone shouts, "There he is!" The passenger door swings open and out steps a man in a yellow T-shirt and shorts, 32 years after his parents sent him to America.

"Nene!" cries a woman in the front as she rushes toward him. For an instant Tony does not recognize his sister. Maria Eugenia's black hair is dyed blond. She was nine years old when he saw her last. And he was just fourteen.

As they embrace Tony pulls off his glasses. His eyes are filled with tears. His sister clings to his neck. "Por fin," he says. At last. And then the crowd behind Maria Eugenia pushes forward and Tony seems to disappear, consumed by his hometown and a search for the boyhood he left behind.

For more than 40 years the story of Cuba known by most in the U.S. has been told through the tears and memories of those in Miami. Indeed as the revolution pulled the Cuban people together under the banner of socialism, it drove many families apart.

Of all those affected by upheaval on the island, none suffered more than the children separated from their parents. The best-known of those uprooted from their Cuban childhoods were the more than 14,000 Operation Pedro Pan kids, flown from the island between 1960 and 1962 in a plan devised by the U.S. government and the Roman Catholic Church. But between the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the Pedro Pan flights ended, and the Elian Gonzalez affair, thousands of other unaccompanied children have been sent into lonely exile.

Mariano Antonio Gonzalez -- called Tony in America and Nene by his family and close friends -- was soon to be drafted into the Cuban military when his parents decided to send him to the United States. Tony's grandfather and namesake, Mariano, was a prominent sugar grower in the eastern province of Oriente, an early supporter of the revolution who welcomed Fidel Castro into his farmhouse and gave him and other rebel comandantes food and money as they came and went from the Sierra Maestra mountains.

But by the mid-Sixties the once-vast Gonzalez farm had been whittled down to about 450 acres, and the elder Mariano's feisty son -- Tony's father Antonio -- had become an outspoken opponent of the communist regime. Over the next 35 years Antonio would be arrested several times and spend nearly nine years behind bars.

The decision to send the eldest of their five children into exile was a torment for Antonio and his wife Lesbia. "Bastante dificil," she says. But at a time when military service could last for five years and Cuban foreign adventurism was rampant, they thought it best.

Before Tony Gonzalez left Bayamo in the fall of 1969, he gave most of his clothes and his shoes to his best friend Pepin Montero. "I'm going to live with my aunt and uncle in New Jersey and see snow," he told Pepin. Tony was excited about the trip but thought he wouldn't be gone long. After all, no one felt more rooted to Cuba or more entwined in the web of his family and its history than Nene. Everybody knew he would come back.

Adis Maria Sosa died in Miami while visiting her family. One minute she was sitting with Tony over breakfast, talking about her return home, and the next minute she lay down in bed and just stopped breathing. She was 94 years old.

Until his abuela died, Tony had been wary of returning to Cuba. Although more than 25 years went by when he did not see his parents, they telephoned on his birthday and wrote letters on occasion. But they did not urge him to visit. Lesbia and Antonio seemed satisfied that Tony was living a good life.

And Tony did make a life for himself. He spent his first year in America with his aunt Jorgia (his mother's sister), her husband Oscar, and their two young children in Elizabeth, New Jersey. When the family decided to move to Miami in the summer of 1971, Tony came too. But when Jorgia and Oscar struggled financially they decided it would be better if Tony went elsewhere. They contacted the Rev. Bryan O. Walsh, who ran the Catholic Church's Cuban Children's Program here, and asked if Tony could join the Pedro Pan refugees who were still without their parents. In the fall of 1971 Tony moved into a dormitory at St. Martha's Church and began the ninth grade at Archbishop Curley High School.

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Mike Clary

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