An American woman’s memories of communist Cuba
copyright the Chronicle January 7, 2015
Editor’s note: Maria Hormilla is the paternal grandmother of Natalie Hormilla. This interview reflects but a small portion of her experiences in Cuba.
by Natalie Hormilla
Ask Maria Hormilla of Cranford, New Jersey, what she thinks of the United States normalizing relations with Cuba, and she answers with a question.
It’s a move that comes too late to repair the damage done to her and her family, and to people in her home country after Fidel Castro came into power in 1959, she said.
Mrs. Hormilla emigrated to the U.S. from Cuba with her young son in 1968. That was seven years after her husband came to the U.S. and nine years after Fidel Castro’s communist government began the reforms that forever changed Cuba.
She was born in a very different Cuba than the one people know now.
“You could go anywhere, do anything in a free way,” she said. “You were free.”
She was born Maria Yabor on October 27, 1937, in Victorias de las Tunas, in the eastern province of Oriente.
Victorias de las Tunas was like a small, friendly city, she said.
“The families all knew each other,” she said. “My grandparents lived there, my mother also. My family was a very large family.”
Her mother was the oldest of nine, and her father, a twin, was tied as the oldest of ten.
Her grandparents on both sides were immigrants who made livelihoods as entrepreneurs in Cuba. Both her grandfathers had made their living selling goods and, with hard work, had become prosperous.
Her own parents, Victoria and Antonio, were middle class people, both born and raised in Cuba. Antonio was a shoemaker.
When Mrs. Hormilla was about eight years old, her mother decided that she wanted to go back to school to finish her piano degree. From there, she began working at a kindergarten, and she eventually opened her own piano teaching school from their home in Victorias de las Tunas.
Much of that changed after 1959.
Instead of making shoes by hand, Antonio was mandated by the government to roll cigars in a new cigar factory, the first of its kind in that town.
“The government took over the stores, and it was actually a supermarket that was not too far from my house, and they made that a cigar factory,” she said. “So he rolled cigars.”
The kindergarten program at which Victoria taught was discontinued.
“Then she started teaching people who didn’t know how to read and write. That was mandated by the Castro government.”
Victoria was able to continue teaching students in her home, though.
“For some reason they didn’t make her stop.” “There were fewer people taking the classes because their parents couldn’t pay it and also people were leaving Cuba, but she did continue.”
But before any of that happened, the young Maria Yabor went through a major life change: She met and married Julio Hormilla, the son of a Spanish immigrant who arrived in Cuba as an orphan at the age of 12.
That young man, Amador, made his life’s fortune as a businessman in Cuba.
“He started at the bottom,” she said, working as a clerk at an uncle’s store.
He went on to deal in different businesses, including in milk distribution.
“When he had the milk businesses, my husband was a little boy, like four or five, so it must have been in the 1930s, and that was the Depression,” she said. “In those days, they brought the milk to the house, they didn’t sell it in the stores. They would leave the milk at the front door of the house.”
By the time Mrs. Hormilla met her future father-in-law, he was well established as the regional head of a big insurance agency.
“He owned the building and everything,” she said.
Mrs. Hormilla delights in telling the story of how she met her husband, Julio.
“I was supposed to go to a party at the Lion’s Club, and a cousin of mine was planning the tables,” she said. “She put me with [Julio,] who I didn’t know. When we got in, Julio was at the front of my house with my uncle, so there we met. And then Julio came to pick up my mother and me to go to the dance.
“That’s how we met. He was waiting for me at the door of my house. Isn’t that something? And when he met me, he asked me right away, he wanted to become my fiancé. He asked me not to pay attention to any other guy, and I said, What? Are you crazy?”
The couple was soon engaged and married on July 12, 1957. Shortly thereafter, they moved to Mr. Hormilla’s hometown of Holguin, which was also in Oriente.
Within a year, Mrs. Hormilla was expecting a child. Around this time, the Cuban Revolution began to descend from the Sierra Maestra mountains in the Oriente province.
“In Oriente, there are very high mountains, and the Castro rebels were doing the [guerrilla warfare] in those mountains, because they would hide there and no one could find them, and they used to do things at night,” she said. “The revolutionaries, they used to call themselves. And no one knew they were communists. They wouldn’t say that.”
In December of 1958, the Hormillas moved back to Victoria de las Tunas.
“I wanted to give birth near my mother,” Mrs. Hormilla said.
“But the roads were closed because there was the war in Cuba, and it was very dangerous to travel, especially in Oriente where we were.”
Sometime that December, Mrs. Hormilla began going to the local clinic every afternoon, around 5 p.m., to spend the night. That way, she figured, she could ensure she would give birth there instead of at home, since travel at night would be too dangerous.
“And Castro took over on January 1, 1959, just nine days before your father was born,” she said. “That December 31, we went to the clinic, and the whole thing happened. He took over because Batista left the country. And that was a win for him.”
“There was a huge confusion in Cuba,” she said. “The people were very, very confused, because he was saying so many good things. He was promising the world, that everything was going to be so good, and people believed him, but things started to go bad and bad and bad, until it was the mass exodus from Cuba, especially the classes that were highly educated. They were the first ones leaving. And the people that were wealthy, they could leave. Other people had to wait, wondering what would happen next.”
From there, life changed drastically, she said.
“Let me tell you. First, we were living from the things that were in the warehouses that were already there. Then supplies started to fade away, to be depleted. Then the stores, you’d go to ask for something, and the big word was we don’t have it. We don’t have it. That was the big word. The goods were not replenished at all, and nothing was done to do anything about it.”
Those goods included food, medicine, and clothing, she said. “If you went to the pharmacies, for example, for bandages, there were none.”
“Then he started to do la reformas,” she said.
In the first, the government appropriated all the farms, Mrs. Hormilla said. “They became government owned.”
Then, she said, the government appropriated homes that were considered to be a family’s second home.
“People could stay in their houses they lived in, but the other houses they owned became property of the government.”
Eventually, the government passed another reform, appropriating businesses.
Early one morning, a woman — an armed miliciano — came to Mrs. Hormilla’s grandmother’s front door in Victorias de las Tunas. That home was connected to La Victoria through a door off an open patio in the center of the house.
La Victoria was the largest department store in the city, Mrs. Hormilla said.
“A woman from the government came and asked for the keys to the store. She gave her the key. What could she do?”
Armed milicianos were lined around the store, which stretched to the corner of the block, she said. “And my grandmother couldn’t put a foot into that store again. Never again.”
Reforms were always passed at night, Mrs. Hormilla said.
“So in the morning, before anybody knew anything, he had put into action the plans, and he had the milicianos at the doors. No one saw this coming. No one knew. That was happening not only at my grandmother’s store, it was happening at all the stores in the whole city at the same time,” she said. “There were many, many, many others, and it was happening at the same time…And not only the city, the whole country. Everywhere.”
Mrs. Hormilla’s husband was able to come to the U.S. in 1961. She thought that she and her son would soon join him.
“Everybody was leaving,” she said, of the early 1960s. “People would leave their houses open.”
Mrs. Hormilla got all ready to leave Cuba. She had her papers and her plane tickets.
“And I was waiting to receive my notice that I could go and get my plane seats for me and your father. And then Kennedy announced the blockade to Cuba, and there were no flights. So I had to stay seven more years.”
Eventually, she got into the U.S. through Mexico in 1968, with help from another uncle. In the U.S. she was reunited with her husband, and they built a new life in New Jersey. She initially worked at a Dixie cup factory, and went back to college even though she had earned a bachelor’s degree in science in Cuba. Eventually, she became a software engineer for AT&T, a long career from which she is now retired.
But before all that were the years under communism in Cuba.
“It was suffering, suffering a lot,” she said.
People had to make do by bartering with each other, and buying things on the black market, even though people were jailed for those things, she said. People actually preferred to barter than deal with money. Because with money you couldn’t buy anything. The new government devalued the peso so much that money was effectively worthless.
“You saw people going with the money, the bills, and throwing it in the air,” Mrs. Hormilla said. “That money was not worth a penny.”
Food and goods were rationed, and people could only buy specified amounts of certain items, and only on certain days.
“You had to bring your libretta” to get any goods, she said, and stand in long lines to wait your turn.
A libretta, or a booklet, was given to each household and it said how many people were in that household, their ages, and any dietary issues.
“So you were entitled, when things came into the stores, to get certain things, like one loaf of bread, one pound of rice. It was very limited amounts, and that was supposed to be for the entire month. I don’t remember the exact amounts, but they were ridiculous. The children were supposed to have one can of condensed milk a week. It was almost water what I was giving him from that” she said of her son.
“Normally, people did not get beef,” she said. But since her mother was a diabetic, she was entitled to one pound per week. Instead of eating it herself though, Victoria gave that beef to her grandson.
“I remember my father going in the middle of the night to be in a good position” in line whenever a ration day came up. “Because otherwise he would not have gotten anything that was good, it would have been a very bad part of the cow.
“And the only grains were split pea,” she said. “You could not buy black beans or red beans, only split pea. People used to hate the split peas, because that was the only thing they were eating for years. And in a place where black beans grow!”
“And you had to bring things to put things in,” she said of ration days. “People would bring pots and things because there were no containers, no bags.”
It was common for families who could to supplement these rations with things purchased on the black market, or even food raised in the backyard in secret, Mrs. Hormilla said.
“Sometimes you could exchange something for a little pig, and have the pig hidden in the backyard. And raise it with whatever you had, grass. That’s the way you had to deal with those things.”
Mrs. Hormilla’s family was lucky in that they had a big backyard with trees, so they were able to keep chickens in secret, too.
“But what happened also was that the Russian ships would bring something that did not exist in Cuba. They brought a type of rats that were really big, and that inundated all the cities, so those rats were eating the eggs and the little chicks,” she said. “So that was also a big problem, too.”
It wasn’t easy to keep extra food a secret, and the consequences were serious, she said.
“If they knew you were raising animals, you would go to jail. How many people went to jail because someone said they were buying pigs on the black market? People would go to jail for nothing.
“And each block in the entire city had a house where those people were in charge to control the block,” she said, of the milicianos. “They were supposed to watch your house, see who was coming in, who was going out, what things were you buying. If you got plantain or something, they were watching that.
“And my father used to buy coffee. But it was coffee that was not roasted, from someone that had a coffee plant or something like that. And what they used to do in order to toast the coffee so the smell would not go out, they used to burn tires…to mix it with the smell of the cooking, so no one could say there was coffee being roasted.”
After a time, Mrs. Hormilla began working as a high school chemistry teacher.
“What happened to one instructor at the high school, he was put to jail because he just mentioned to the kids that in the church there was a youth organization,” she said. “And he was in jail until the time I left Cuba. I don’t know what happened to him.”
“That was one of the reasons I was separated from the school,” she said. “I had a great success as a teacher there, but I would go to church, I would go even during the week. I would not say a word about God, nothing.
“But they believed that the example is stronger than the word. They tried to make me become, to join the communist organizations, but I refused, so they did not let me teach younger people anymore.”
She was assigned to teach adults.
When she was finally ready to leave, she could take very little.
“When a person was leaving and the rest of the people in the house were remaining there, they would come and do an inventory of your things. They would count whatever, sheets you had, the furniture you had…and they took it away.”
She was allowed to take 33 pounds of clothing with her, and little else.
“And I could not bring a penny in my pocket.”
She was able to leave with one ring of her son’s, made from Spanish coins, and a cheap watch.
“I was trying to get a ring that my grandfather had given me when I graduated with my bachelor’s. It was a diamond. They took it.”
“You get used to not having things,” Mrs. Hormilla said. “I remember when I got out of Cuba, and I was in Mexico City, I was looking at the things in the store. I was looking at the bananas and things like that, and you know how I was feeling then? Like they were not real. Like they were fake bananas, ornamental bananas.
“When I went to buy soap while I was in Mexico, I was not buying the detergent, I was buying the soap, because we had no detergent in Cuba. We were using bars of soap, the big yellow ones, and I was not buying the detergent, because you get used to things, and you forget. You see them as luxuries that are not needed. I was looking at things like as if they were not real. It’s strange.”
Mrs. Hormilla mostly didn’t seem to know what to make of the recent news regarding moving toward normalizing relations with Cuba.
“I don’t know if it’s supposed to be, or not,” she said. “Because I think people there are happy with what they have…the majority have decided to stay there, and they are happy with what they have, because that’s the way they were born….
“We were born in a different era. Things were completely different. Also, the mentality has been molded by the system. That’s what they know.”
The news also has many talking about the possibility of returning to Cuba, even trying to reclaim homes and properties. But Mrs. Hormilla won’t be one of them. Asked if she would ever return to Cuba, and she’s certain of her answer.
“No. For what? I am going to tell you something. My country is the United States now. The United States embraced me. I was able to study here, to work, to raise my family, and my country is the United States, not Cuba anymore, because the Cuba I was raised in doesn’t exist. It’s sad to say, but that’s the reality.”
contact Natalie Hormilla at [email protected]
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