Giving Thanks for Being an American

By Raquel Stabinski-Leib

I waved good bye from my window seat in the plane. I saw the two bent figures in the lookout terrace of the Havana airport, and I gave free rein to the contained tears that had threatened for so very long to erupt from my eyes. My parents, my friends and my country, the entire fabric of my life was being left behind.

The year was 1960, and I was a teenage girl headed toward the unknown. I needed to escape the oppressive regime of Fidel Castro and thought of the United States as my only source of salvation. I was not left disappointed as America welcomed me with open arms, adopted me and treated me as one of her children.

I arrived in the fall, a season I had never experienced, and was immersed in the beauty of the palette of colors that dressed up the trees. Then, as the leaves began to fall from the branches as tears from saddened hearts, and I could not imagine them coming back to life in the spring, Thanksgiving Day arrived, a holiday I knew nothing about but seemed to be bringing so much joy to everyone.

This was my first Thanksgiving, and when I bowed my head along with my hosts and the other guests to offer thanks for the bountiful table in front of us, I promised myself that from that day on I would forever choose that newfound holiday in this great land to celebrate the freedom pursued by many generations in my family without success until we finally attained it in America.

My father emigrated from Poland to Cuba as a young man. He did not know the language, he had no formal schooling, and no money, but he had an iron will. He married my mother, the daughter of poor immigrants herself, and together they embarked on the path of betterment for themselves and their children.

After years of hard work and myriad sacrifices, as my parents’ business flourished we became well off, moved to our own home in the suburbs, bought a car, and my brother and I set out on the path of a privileged life.

Unfortunately, the internal political turmoil in Cuba during the ‘50s soon began to erode at our quiet prosperous existence. This was the time when Fidel Castro and his troops were battling in the mountains and hills of the Sierra Maestra in order to overthrow the regime of Fulgencio Batista and everyone in the country lived in fear. We were careful with what we said in the presence of strangers, and we stayed close to home since it was impossible to predict where or when the next bomb would go off.

Following Castro’s takeover in January, 1959, we assumed that our long awaited normalcy was just at the turn of the next corner. Unfortunately, we had put all our hopes on a man who would soon begin to show his true colors. The fear of voicing our opinions continued, and it soon became evident that in Cuba, freedom of speech was already extinct and that we had exchanged a dictator for a communist.

Then the day came when my parents decided they best send me to El Norte. It was a sad parting to another culture with a different language, but they were confident that in America a brighter future awaited me. Fortunately, they were proven right.

Needless to say, my teenage memories are an intrinsic part of my everyday life, something I can never forget. I am painfully aware that living in a country where an individual has no human, civil or legal rights is like existing in spiritual slavery, incarcerated within the unmerciful rules of a tyrannical government. Now, as an American, I count myself blessed that I no longer live in panic for my life, my property or the well-being of my family. I am certain that I will never have to leave my worldly goods and start all over again in a far away land.

Lest I forget the privileges that this country has bestowed on me, I have kept the promise I made to myself 50 years ago and have continued to celebrate on Thanksgiving the good fortune of living in America, the greatest country in the world. As I remember my past under bondage, I am comforted by the knowledge that my gypsy days are over, and my family’s wandering have come to an end. Most of all, I am thankful for the knowledge that history will not repeat itself on my children.

About this writer

  • Raquel Stabinski-Leib

    Raquel Stabinski-Leib

    Raquel Stabinski-Leib is a freelance writer and author. A collection of her works appears in LIVES, a Soundwriters Anthology. She is writing her memoirs as a little Jewish girl growing up in Cuba: Cuban soil, Jewish Soul.

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