Cubans Find "Success in Exile"

Young Teresa Martinez with her father, Luis Vasquez
Teresa Martinez with her mother and sister, in Cuba
LAKELAND (2011-12-24) -

Teresa Martinez's Spanish-style house in Lakeland, with its lush tropical foliage, wrought-iron gates, and courtyard fountain, reflects her ancestry. Martinez has been an exile from her homeland of Cuba for more than 40 years, but she hasn’t stopped missing the island.

“When I dream, I’m always in my house in Cuba," she says. "It was beautiful, big home with a patio in the middle where we could even ride bikes, and Roman columns...and my family around me. It was just a very, very nice life.”

She recently published “Success in Exile: Five Decades of Cuban Stories”. The book details the struggles and the achievements of her parents and their friends, many of whom ended up in Polk County. Martinez is a leader of the Hispanic community in Polk County, and an entrepreneur who translates Spanish for businesses, hosts a Spanish TV show and is a Polk State College trustee, among other activities. She says she wanted to convey what it was like to leave her home, her extended family, and her language.

“One day I said, how would it feel to me now that my kids are teenagers, like we were, to pack up and leave and start all over again. It seemed to me like huge sacrifice. That’s when I said, 'I’m going to write that book'."

When she was a teenager in Cuba, her father, Luis Vazquez, was a pediatrician with a large private practice. He says he couldn’t accept the communist ideology.

“I like freedom," Vasquez explains. "I like to have my own decisions, my own property, and that’s all.”

In 1962, Vasquez told officials he wanted to leave the country. That's when government agents sealed the door to his medical office and made his possessions state property. Eight years passed before he was able to leave Cuba, but in 1970 he and his family landed -- homeless and penniless --in the U.S.

An uncle in Miami took them in, and in short order, Vasquez regained his medical license and took an offer from a Polk County hospital. Martinez was 16 years old when the family moved to Bartow.

As a teenager, she had a tough time at first in the small town.

"I didn’t understand the southern accent," she says. "The culture was different...Dating, for example. It was normal here, but in Cuba at 16 my parents would not allow me to go out alone with a boy. In Cuba, we had chaperones. My mom wanted to go with me!"

But even with all the challenges, Martinez says she and her family felt welcomed in Polk County. They say they never felt any discrimination.
She compares the Cuban experience with the current, heated immigration debate:

“As Cubans, we didn’t come as immigrants. We came as exiles, which is very different. My experience as a Cuban, as opposed to someone from Mexico or other countries where they have to get a green card and get legal papers to work was that being political exiles, immediately -- even today --you can work."

Like other families she profiles in her book, Martinez is intensely patriotic -- and grateful to be in America. She says she wants to see the same opportunities extended to others, who may be now working here illegally.

" I believe this country is so generous, and I see all these people that are willing to work hard," she says. "They go out there in those fields and leave their fingertips out there, working really hard. Why not give them an opportunity?"

Martinez visited the island in the 80s and was able to see her grandparents before they died. She also visited her family home, which, like most of the island, had fallen into disrepair. She says she supports the Obama administration's decision to resume flights to Cuba, and she'd like to go back. But now that she'd written this book -- critical of Castro's regime -- she doesn't think it would be safe.

The book "Success in Exile" inlcudes paintings by the Cuban artist Carlos Luna, and is available at amazon.com, at the Polk Museum of Art and at successinexile.com.

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