Cuban-American Immigrant Feels Lucky Despite Early Struggles


LAUREL, Md. (December 21, 2010) — After months of hard decisions and quiet planning, 7-year-old Ada Ghuman learned that she and her 3-year-old brother, Angel, would have to fly from Cuba to Miami alone.

It was 1961 and Ghuman's mother was planning to leave her husband behind to join her mother and older sister in New York. Two years after Fidel Castro's ascension to power, the country's capitalist system had dissolved. The family was leaving Cuba months after a botched U.S. invasion ratcheted up tension between the countries.

The Pan Am terminal was bustling as people trudged through inspection, piling jewelry and heirlooms onto their children to hide them from airport security.

But when it came time to board the plane, Pan Am staff stopped the Ghumans.

"You can't leave," they said. "Your kids can, but you can't. We're overbooked."

Even as Ghuman recalls the apprehension surrounding her mother's decision to send them to the United States alone, she now considers herself lucky to have had a relatively easy time finding her way in a new country. Unlike immigrants from many countries, she's never worried about being deported or renewing visas.

On the plane to Miami, the children heard more chatter about overbooking and people left behind.

"It was just surreal even for a kid, and it was hard to put in perspective what was going on. It was scary because my parents weren't with us," Ghuman said.

But they were comforted by two nuns sitting nearby who told the flight attendants that the children could ride on their laps. "They were very sweet, from what I remember," Ghuman said.

When they landed, their grandmother was nowhere to be seen. Her plane from New York had been turned around, and she couldn't get another flight until the next day.

"They gave us the little packs of Chiclets with the two pieces of gum," Ghuman said, chuckling a little. "I remember that little gift. Then this lady comes up and says, 'I'm taking the kids.' I said no, that's not my grandmother. I'm not going with her."

The children, Cuban refugees in a strange country, spent the night with the woman, a family friend sent by their grandmother. They reunited with their grandmother the next day.

Their mother arrived a couple days later, and within a year all three would be permanent residents of the United States, thanks to legislation passed to accommodate people fleeing Castro's rule.

Ghuman said she spent a couple of years feeling as though she belonged to neither Cuba nor her new country.

"It made me feel larger because I was part of everything, and in another way it made me feel like I was at a disadvantage because I was part of nothing," Ghuman said.

Her father stayed behind in Los Pinos, a suburb outside Havana, to make sure their home and property weren't turned over to the government.

A few years later the General Electric accountant found himself in the United States and working at a bakery in New York, where his wife and children had been living with his mother-in-law.

"We arrived in November, during one of the worst snowstorms," Ghuman said. "We were coming from the tropics and New York happens to be a very grey city. It was like, 'What is this? What is this place?' So immediately it was a loss. A great, big loss."

They lived with her maternal grandmother in a third-floor, two-room apartment on the west side of 50th Street. The neighborhood had already come to be called Hell's Kitchen; gentrification was years away.

Her grandmother arrived in the United States in 1959 and was among the first of what would become a growing population of foreign-born Cubans. According to the Census Bureau, there were 439,000 Cuban residents in the country by 1970; by 2000, that number had nearly doubled.

But for Ghuman, New York seemed a lonely, strange place.

The move to the United States forced her to part with a house in Cuba next door to her paternal grandparents, who had spoiled her and her brother.

That home, made of concrete blocks, had a carport, three bedrooms, a large kitchen, a dining room and a small living room. Ghuman and her brother had enjoyed their own rooms. A bicycle and swings sat in the yard.

Their grandmother's New York apartment crammed a kitchen, dining area and bathtub into the first room. The second room was a living room by day and bedroom for four by night.

"And there were fire escapes," Ghuman said, "I had never seen fire escapes. They went all up and down. In the winter a fire escape also became a refrigerator kind of thing because you were cooking all these foods and you needed the storage."

Ghuman attended P.S. 111, a few blocks from the apartment. For the first few months, she was lost among conversations in a strange language and saw math and art classes as her saving grace.

Within three months, she picked up enough to understand what was going on and made friends with some of the Puerto Rican students. At home she played handball and took trips to the park with her older cousins, almost all of them boys.

Ghuman wrote letters to her father and his parents, missing them dearly and wanting to know where they were. When her father finally moved to the U.S., he found himself having to start over in a different society.

The family moved from New York to Tampa Bay, hoping that maybe the warm weather would mend marital ties that were growing weak.

"I think when people come here their connection starts to frail. Not just with spouses, but with kids and with other family members. It just grows frail," Ghuman said.

For a second time, Ghuman's mother took the children back to New York, leaving her husband in Florida. After one more short-lived reunion, her father left to start a new life in California.

In 1971, Ghuman and her brother, then 17 and 13, again boarded a plane without their parents. They traveled to California to visit their father and his new family.

"He sent us the fare. It was an interesting trip because we got onto a 747 jet. It was one of the biggest planes with a second floor. We felt like we were on a different economic level," Ghuman said. "So it was really like a treat."

Their paternal grandparents met them at the airport. Ghuman and her brother hadn't even known they were in the country.

"So when we got to the house there was a new woman in his life, there was a child, there were our grandparents," Ghuman said.

Ghuman's father tried to persuade them to stay. After taking courses to finish his accounting degree, he had resumed his career and was living in a large house with a pool. He had a second car he offered to his daughter.

At the end of the summer, the siblings stepped off a plane in New York to reunite with their mother, who was in tears.

"She knew better than we did that he had a strong character, and she thought he might persuade us to stay with him. When we returned, his contact with us became minimal, because I guess he wanted it all or nothing," Ghuman said.

Years later they learned their father was awaiting surgery after a major heart. Later, they learned through an acquaintance that he had passed away.

That fall, Ghuman left New York for Washington.

"New York was beginning to feel like a place where I could go wrong," Ghuman said.

Her mother, reluctant to stop her daughter, sent her to live with her grandmother, who had already left New York.

Ghuman finished her senior year at Western High School, which would later become the Duke Ellington School of the Arts.

Except for short stints in Barbados and Florida, Ghuman has stayed in the Washington area to go to school and work. She considers it home.

She now lives in a two-story house in historic Laurel with a backyard, but no swings or bicycle. Her home is surrounded by trees and has a large front porch.

Inside, the rooms have been decorated with eclectic furniture, and fresh herbs and produce sit on the counter in her sunny kitchen. Splashes of bright colors appear everywhere, especially in her paintings. She works from a laptop at her dining room table while sipping on a mug of orange-spiced tea.

Her early difficulties with English had made art class a refuge where she could speak with brush strokes, sketches and colors.

She still paints, but she makes her living working from home doing administrative work for businesses.

Her house is decorated with her artwork.

On one wall in her dining room hangs a large canvas with three flamingos. In the adjoining hall is a large portrait of the Statue of Liberty she painted last year after talking to friends about the state of immigration in the country.

"I think there were a lot of issues going on when I painted it, and I just wanted to remember that there is such a statue," she said.

Her flexible schedule has been convenient since her mother moved in with her seven years ago and occasionally needs to be taken to doctors' appointments. Her mother loves to visit the local library and read Spanish-language novels. She still talks with Ghuman's aunt about what's going on in Cuba.

They've grown accustomed to keeping an eye on Castro from afar.

Ghuman said she's had an easier life in the United States than most immigrants. She hasn't had to live with the fear of being deported, continually renew visas to stay in the country or wait years to have her fate decided by immigration agencies.

At 18 she realized that she didn't like President Reagan's policies and wanted to be able to vote for one of his opponents. She admits, with a hearty laugh, that it wasn't the noblest reason to pursue citizenship, but she's glad she did it.

She spent about $50 to file an application and was finished with the process in a couple of weeks.

"The ceremony was in Rockville. I remember it was a very emotional day for me," she said.

Now, it costs $675 to submit an application for people under 75, and applicants often wait up to a year or more to complete interviews and tests.

She loves to travel, especially if accompanied by someone with whom she can share the memories. Lately, she has thought about visiting Cuba. Her mother refuses to accompany her, saying she doesn't want to ruin any of her memories.

"I want to breathe in the air, look around at the sights and be able to say I'm part of this somehow and absorb what's there," Ghuman said.

"I don't know if I'll get any great understanding from anything, but I want a visual, a sense and a feeling of the place I was born."

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