George Gonzalez’s father was a Pedro Pan kid. Came over in 1961, after Gonzalez’ grandmother had been imprisoned by the Castro regime for possessing counter-revolutionary documents. Gonzalez’s mother fled Cuba in 1965, after the government confiscated her family’s ranch.
Like all the kids growing up in Little Havana in the 1970s, the traumatic details and timelines of the leaving became integral to his family’s story, to the narrative of exile. Children thereabouts knew how and when their parents fled Cuba, and where they were resettled by U.S. authorities. To places like New York or New Jersey or, like Gonzalez’s parents, to Chicago. And how they eventually found their way out of the great cold back to Miami and the community of fellow exiles.
“Everybody had their stories. They lost everything. They fled repression and political upheaval. They came here with nothing. They rebuilt their lives,” said Gonzalez, professor of political science at the University of Miami. These narratives became, at least to the Cuban exiles, what set them apart from the others, the economic immigrants.
Gonzalez, 42, is two years older than the child of another Cuban immigrant family, Marco Rubio, for whom the family narrative was not so clear. Last week, the St. Petersburg Times and, a day later, the Washington Post published stories documenting that Rubio’s parents emigrated from Cuba in 1956 (with his then six-year-old brother), three years before Castro took power on New Year’s Day, 1959. The 1956 arrival seemed in conflict with Rubio’s official Senate website biography (changed Friday after the newspaper stories), which said, “Marco was born in Miami to Cuban-born parents who came to America following Fidel Castro’s takeover.” The bio put out by his Senate campaign in 2009 stated much the same thing.
Over the weekend, old interviews surfaced on the Internet with Rubio talking to a Tampa television station, with NPR, with Fox News, indicating, or saying outright, that his parents came over 1959. In a 2009 campaign speech in northwest Florida, covered by Herald reporter Beth Reinhard, Rubio said 1959. And there was that 2010 campaign ad with him declaring, “My parents lost everything – their home, their families, friends, even their country.”
Rubio responded angrily to the questions about his exile credentials, particularly to the Washington Post story, which propelled this peculiar Miami story into the national conversation, entangling Rubio’s family bio, and questions about his veracity, into national Republican politics. The Post story in particular suggested Rubio might have purposely evoked 1959 for the political cachet that comes with unambiguous exile from the Castro regime. “An outrageous allegation,” he called it, in a column for Politico.com. “If The Washington Post wants to criticize me for getting a few dates wrong, I accept that. But to call into question the central and defining event of my parents’ young lives – the fact that a brutal communist dictator took control of their homeland and they were never able to return – is something I will not tolerate.”
Miami’s Cuban community closed ranks around their favorite son, their political star, declaring there was no meaningful distinction among Cubans who left in 1956 or 1959. That the whole imbroglio was the stuff of low-down politics, just short of slander. “They’re rallying behind him,” Gonzalez said. But, he said, within the exile community, there’s another conversation. “Inside exile baseball,” he called it. “I guarantee Cubans all are talking about this among themselves.”
Gonzalez said the Cuban exiles are undoubtedly debating with one another whether Rubio might have fudged his biography. Or whether, despite growing up in a place where everyone talked about their families’ exile experience, he was simply confused. Or was it that his parents had been murky on the details?
“Not to vilify Rubio in any way, shape or form, but it just doesn’t seem plausible,” Gonzalez said.
Most of us, outside the cultural idiosyncrasies of Miami’s exile community, would find the story of Rubio’s parents plenty inspiring, no matter the timeline, or the nationality. Coming here with nothing, working what jobs they could find, pulling themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps, raising a son who would become a United States senator, bright and handsome and articulate and often mentioned as a potential vice presidential candidate.
But maybe a Cuban-American candidate with national ambitions might have needed that magic date, 1959, to inoculate himself against some of the xenophobic weirdness lurking lately within the angry fringes of the Republican Party.
For the rest of us, there was never any need to fudge the dates. A U.S. senator raised by a poor, hard-working immigrant family would have been a great American story, Castro or not, 1956 or 1959, no matter the definition of “exile.”