When Castro Came to Coleman

The National Catholic Register is reporting on the state of the Church in Cuba:

In light of this, I am reprinting here a piece I wrote a few years back, on my family's ties to Cuba:

When Castro Came to Coleman

Coleman, Michigan, is a small town that really has no outstanding features. It is not a bad place; it is not a great place. It’s just a town. But it is a town that Fidel Castro visited.

OK, not really. Yet in that weird way of life, Castro had an impact on many people in Coleman, folks who’d never go to Cuba and perhaps never even give the Communist dictator much thought.

This story started when Castro decided he wanted to rule the island nation in the name of communism. In Cuba at that time (1959), there lived a man named Jose Blanco, Sr., and his family. One of Castro’s policies was that a person could own only one piece of property. The rest now belonged to the state. Mr. Blanco lost his business.

Another of communism’s plans was that all education be controlled by the state. Indoctrination of children began, and the Blancos saw the most important aspects of their lives slipping away.

In a glimmer of hope and courage, a young Irish priest, Fr. Bryan O. White, began what became known as Project Pedro Pan (Peter Pan). From 1960 to 1962, this plan flew young Cuban children (over 14,000 in all) to Miami, on the pretext that they were making visits with relatives. Once the children were in the United States, many did go to live with family members in the States, and others found homes through Catholic charities with foster families. For the parents in Cuba had put their children on these flights not knowing when or if they’d be reunited.

Here we shift to Coleman, Michigan. A Catholic couple there, John and Elizabeth, had just adopted a little girl. Their social worker, having cleared them for the adoption, asked if they would consider two foster children from Cuba. Elizabeth said yes and then called John at work for “permission.” His response? “When are they coming?”

Those two children were the oldest of the Blanco family, Jose, age eight, and Lourdes, age six. (An infant daughter, Beatriz, was to remain with her parents in Cuba.) Jose and Lourdes came to Coleman knowing only two phrases in English: “Miami” and “foster home.” John and Elizabeth didn’t speak Spanish, but everyone muddled through.

The wonder of this story is manifold. Two families, separated by culture and space, were connected in a common faith. One mother trusted another with what was most precious to her. Two fathers remained steadfast in doing what was best, not what was easiest. All of this because Castro came to Coleman.

John and Elizabeth are my parents, and Jose and Lourdes my foster brother and sister. With the perspective of forty years, there is no perfect end to this story. Castro is still clinging to power. Jose and Lourdes were reunited with their family after the elder Blancos managed passage out of Cuba after years of trying, but both families will tell you they were indelibly altered by the experience.

Mr. and Mrs. Blanco put their tiny children on a plane, with no idea of when they’d see them again. The parents were sure of the horror of communism, however, and were willing to make this Abrahamic sacrifice to ensure their children’s physical and spiritual well-being. My parents committed themselves to the enormous needs of two refugee children. In Coleman, my aunt, uncle, cousins, friends and neighbors enfolded Jose and Lourdes into their social network. The children learned to play new games, were teased, educated, disciplined and loved. Hearts were widened and lives changed.

It wasn’t all good. After three-and-a-half years with my family, a social worker decided to move Jose and Lourdes to another home, for reasons still not clear to all of us. Lourdes, especially, suffered from this move and blamed my mother, for a time, for not “fighting” for the two of them. My mom will tell you that losing those two children tore out her heart. I’ll give Castro credit for that, too.

It has been an amazing journey for two families: one of great emotion, of acceptance, abandonment, loss, grief and joy. The paths of two families, one in Cuba and one in Coleman, cross and parallel over forty years, bonded by the Catholic faith and by the vision of a terrible dictator. Castro never set foot in Michigan as far as I know, but he did come to Coleman, and two families, transformed by faith and fate, have never been the same.

1 comment:

  1. For many reason, this is an amazing story! Thank you for sharing it. I have an adopted child and thank God that tummy mommy chose life every day!

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