The Old Immigrant

I met him on a playground by chance while visiting my daughter in Florida — an old man who had grown up in Cuba, under the rule of Fidel Castro.

“You have no idea what a paradise America is,” he told me after we’d chatted for a while. “I walked into a grocery store my first week here and I couldn’t believe it. Food! From ceiling to floor! In Cuba, cream was an expensive luxury. I can count the times on my fingers that I had cream.”

He paused and looks in the direction of his house, somewhere past the trees. “You can’t see America the way I do,” he said, “because you don’t know anything else.”

He was a fairly young man when he left Cuba, but for most of his life, he’d entertained a yearning to come to these shores. It was a calling, an incessant chatter that tugged at his soul. What he wanted was to be a full-fledged American.

He worked as an X-ray tech in a Cuban hospital until the paperwork came that would allow him to immigrate legally to the States. He said he walked out the hospital door with paperwork in hand and he never once looked back.

“I found true freedom,” he said. “In Cuba, there’d be an armed guard even at the playground. We had no idea what freedom really was.”

He worked two full-time jobs cleaning office buildings when he first got to the States–eight hours in each job working back to back–long 16-hour days. He picked up English on the streets until he became proficient enough to apply for a job as an X-ray tech at a local hospital.

One hospital gave him a chance and the new American spent the next 30 years showing his employers how grateful he was to come to work each day. He was 20 minutes early for every shift. He became the best X-ray tech in the hospital, known for his excellent imaging skills, always the favorite of the doctors he worked with.

He eventually became manager of the department and entertained offers from other hospitals even though his English wasn’t great. His employers looked past that and instead focused on his competence, on his excellent work record.

When his three children were old enough, he encouraged them to mow lawns in the neighborhood. Then he’d take 75 percent of their earnings and put it into their own bank accounts, so that by the time they were sixteen, they each had enough money to buy a good car. This way, he explained, they could get to their jobs or travel to their universities.

He did not leave their upbringing to chance.

He spoke like an old immigrant who knew the ropes. Having mastered the American dream, he was free now to look back upon his life with a hint of pride. And no one could blame him for boasting a little: he had survived Castro and abject poverty, lived through 16-hour workdays, struggled to learn English while still being gainfully employed, raised three children and lived long enough to bear witness to the fruits of his labor.

He was minding his granddaughter on the playground, retired now, and at an age where the stories tumble out of him because he’s old enough to have stories and he has time enough to tell them.

I saw no pain in his eyes, no deep creases on his face. He’d had a good life, he said, in partnership with America. She’d held his dreams in the crook of her hands and he’d worked hard to make something of himself. But he doesn’t take all the credit; he’s grateful to his country too.

He told me all three of his kids became X-ray techs, and one of his daughters married a man who took care of the plants at a big box store. One day his son-in-law came up to him and said, “I am going to own a string of nurseries of my own.”

“And that’s exactly what he did,” the old man told me. “I was skeptical at first, but today he owns three nurseries and has done very well for himself. But he was patient, and he learned everything he could at his first job just watering the plants.”

He looked off into the distance, surveying the neighborhood that he calls home. He’s a solid man, full of the sort of wisdom that comes from having done the right things his whole life, even when it wasn’t easy.

He told me someone broke into his car the night before but that they hadn’t gotten away with much.

I asked him if he thought maybe it was someone who needed money for drugs, as is so apt to happen these days.

“Oh, no,” he said. “People just don’t want to work anymore, that’s what it is.”

He got up to go, but he said something to me I will think about a lot.

“Dreams aren’t free, young lady. That’s what I’ve always told my kids. Nothing worth having is free.”