Nelson Figueras: 'Embracing Her Was an Emotional Moment That I Shall Never Forget'
Nelson Figueras on revisiting his first home in the U.S. and reuniting with his foster family.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this blog post are solely those of the interviewee. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
PBS: When you first arrived in the U.S., both you and your brother were initially placed in a public housing project of small family homes converted into dormitory-style accommodations for children taking refuge from Cuba. During your journey, we see that you visit Pedro Pan Place for the first time since you resided there.
What was that experience like for you?
Nelson Figueras: Emotional, sad, nostalgic, happy. These are the range of feelings that went through me being there.
Seeing [Pedro Pan Place] for the first time after so many years brought clarity to memories of an eight-year-old child. In my memories the place seemed bigger, the street wider, and very different from what I now saw. It brought me back to where we lived. I found the actual house and recalled the bunk beds in the kitchen of the house, and what life was like then.
I recalled what I felt when reality had caught up with me. Alone in this place sitting, crying because I was missing my mother and grandmother. Remembering their faces pressed to the glass wall of the Pecera (fish bowl) at the Havana airport. This image still makes me sad. They were trying to be brave. They were smiling with a happy face that was full of tears in their efforts to keep us from being afraid and happy.
It brought memories of all the preparation for this trip. An adventure our first time flying on an airplane. This fantasy faded like the image of Cuba disappearing as that plane went through the clouds. On that day I remember finding myself alone and crying, sobbing.
Walking around I recalled going to the classes in the school, totally lost not speaking English, not making sense of anything that was being taught, but at the same time a happy moment being in school.
Locating what was then the infirmary brought back memory of standing in front of window talking to my younger brother. He had been taken there because he had chicken pox or measles this was the only time we were separated.
I was glad to have come back. This visit filled in the blanks to memories which were missing the details. Still it was hard as it brought back the sadness which still haunts me even at 66.
On a happier note, it gladdens me when I see my grandchildren, in particular, Henry who at present is the same age that I was when all this took place. I thought of my own children and how hard it must have been for my mother and father to have had to come the decision which brought us here. Prior to this I was resentful of this experience. This experience has caused me to rethink and understand how right they were.
"I think of all of us who seek freedom and a better life."
I am fortunate. When I think of children seeking asylum now and how harshly they are being treated, being separated from their families and vilified I realize how fortunate we were. I think of all of us who seek freedom and a better life. The situation in Cuba is now repeating itself in Latin America.
Lastly it has made me happy to be able to share this experience with my children, and grandchildren.
PBS: Can you tell us what the environment was like during that time?
Nelson: The camp I remember was divided by the street which is now named Pedro Pan Way. Girls were housed separate from the boys. We were housed in small 50s-style ranch homes. I remember all the rooms were fitted with bunk beds, even in the small galley-like kitchen. The bunks were placed against one wall with kitchen cabinets on the facing wall. I remember the cabinets were used as storage. While I don’t remember who the kids were, I do remember that the other boys called us the Santiagueritos. We were from the eastern most province of Cuba, the province of Oriente and lived in Santiago the capital of that province.
One of the two bedrooms in the home was occupied by adult couples. They were sort of the house mothers.
Our day was not very structured. We were taken to a nearby park where we played ball, and played on the playground. Meals were taken at the mess hall and consisted of Cuban-style food. Sometimes there were movies at night. Overall we were happy. We all wanted to remain there because we all thought our parents would be coming soon. I recall being taken out to visit with a family who lived in Miami. But I still do not know who they were. My 9th birthday was celebrated on one of these visits.
There were times when we would be taken by bus to a beach not far from the camp. We knew it as El Charquito, the Little Puddle. The beach was a large circle that was not open to the ocean. It was made from a moat of sand surrounding the large ocean pond. I remember passing the Coral Castle and the Serpentarium which was unmistakable due to the large statue of huge Cobra at entrance.
On these outings we would have lunches in bags. I remember not liking the baloney sandwiches nor the Fritos that were usually in the bag with a fruit.
We were relatively happy. As time went by, boys would leave and new ones arrived. We were dispersed to foster homes, boarding schools and orphanages. But everyone wanted to stay near Miami expecting families to be reunited at any time. Days passed - it seemed like eternity. On seeing that other boys were leaving I think I asked that we were also sent somewhere.
"If ever there was a never never land, I would say this came close to the idea."
The camp was the length of long blocks - girls on one side, boys on other. Two-story buildings held the school rooms and there was the mess hall. At each end of the street, there was a chain link fence and on one end there was a building that was an office. That is where we arrived from the airport. The couple of times we were taken out of the camp I think we were picked up from this building. If ever there was a never never land, I would say this came close to the idea.
PBS: You later make the trip to Sunnyside, WA where you lived with the Maltos family. Can you tell us more about what you were feeling as you walked through the house you had once lived in?
Nelson: On arriving in Sunnyside as we were driving into the town and just shortly after getting off the highway, I spotted a building that I sort of recognized and then the church. That was the moment that I first found a recognizable landmark. I was excited because I remembered the building from times we would walk from home to the movies downtown. I got out and looked at the church and the building. I then spotted the school. I pondered about the school because while the building placed across from the field seemed familiar to me, it was changed. I went to the car to retrieve an old photo that I had. It was of my brother’s class in front of the school. The classrooms opened to the playground.
In retrieving the photos I looked at a picture taken in front of our home in Sunnyside. I had looked at this picture many times before but had never noticed that in the picture, faintly in background you could see the house number. Recalling how we would walk from home to movies I headed in the direction that I thought we used to come from.
I had been looking for the house that back then faced a large open field. This was the one detail that sort of threw me off. Reflecting on the fact that things change and that the field might not be there anymore I searched for the house number and discovered a house with the number but [was] different than what I remembered.
I was nervous and excited. Looking at the chimney I thought it could be the house but where the garage was, [it] looked like an addition. I remembered that our house had a large chimney and fire place in the living room. I felt strongly about the possibility that this was the house.
Hesitating now, as I am a bit timid about knocking on a stranger’s door, I asked Holly who was with me if she thought it would be ok to knock on the door. Nervous and hesitant I did ring the bell. A man came to the door. I told him that I thought I might have lived there before. I asked him if he minded that I come in. Realizing that they spoke Spanish too I spoke in Spanish an entered the living room. I saw the fireplace and was more encouraged at the idea that this was the home I lived in. I stepped further in then I told them what I remembered the placement of bedrooms bathroom.
"The day of the reunion as I walked down a hill bordered by fields of lavender and the sound of bees, I found Lilia my foster mother and all my fears were gone."
They acknowledged that I was right. Then the kitchen. This was the home that I lived in with Lilia, Joe Maltos and their three children. I was home it was very emotional to visit a place that was home. I reminisced about my foster mother cooking and the Mexican food that we enjoyed. We spoke of Enchiladas and how our foster mom made them and became one of our favorite things to eat. I asked this family if they knew the Maltos and if they knew where they might be living. I was happy because it was a happy time there. It was home and family. I was happy. Memories of school, [my] third grade teacher Mrs. Horton and so many other things filled my head and heart.
PBS: Now that you have reunited with the Maltos family, what’s next?
My life has changed. Heading to this reunion I was afraid of the possibility that they might have passed away. I didn’t know how old they were. I also thought what if they have no interest in revisiting the past or questioning my motives for finding them after so many years. Perhaps they are asking themselves why now, after so long? This last thought worried me because I thought they might not be interested in meeting again. The day of the reunion as I walked down a hill bordered by fields of lavender and the sound of bees, I found Lilia my foster mother and all my fears were gone. Embracing her was an emotional moment that I shall never forget.
We talked for a while and then my three [foster] siblings joined us making it a family reunion that has changed my life. I felt their warmth and kindness. [They welcomed] me making me feel that I was home after a long absence. Words can’t express how enriched my life has been from this experience. I regret not having spent more time with them.
"I feel that even though we are divided by distance we are close within our hearts."
Since the reunion we continue to learn about each other’s lives. We speak by phone, we text daily, we share Facebook. In short, I have a family who never forgot me. I was amazed to learn that my foster mother, who is in her 80s, goes to the gym every day and participates in the governance of the town she lives in as a council woman. I am so very happy for this opportunity. My life has been enriched. Once I was an orphan for a time. I no longer feel that way.
We are planning visits with each other and keep in touch daily. I feel that even though we are divided by distance we are close within our hearts. Family is a wonderful thing.