Turning Hardship into Opportunities

BY: JACKSON LARANGO

Interviewing. Something foreign, strange, but yet respectable. I have always admired journalists such as Dateline NBC’s Chris Hansen, TODAY’s Ann Curry, and CNET’s Molly Wood. For years, I enjoyed watching and reading their pieces, valuing the in-depth interviews with influential and sometimes controversial figures. When I heard we would be interviewing a refugee for Literature of Witness class, I was excited, nervous, and intimidated. Interviewing was supposed to be left to the professionals, asking controversial questions and exposing truths. Day after day, I wondered if I could live up to the challenge and do at least half as good as the professionals. Little did I imagine how difficult yet rewarding interviewing could be.

My shy and introverted character led me to ask the question at the dinner table one night. “Hey mom…,” I began to ask in my quiet and nervous voice. “Do you know any refuges I could interview?”

“Of course. My friend Louis was forced to leave Cuba,” she remarked. “I haven’t spoken to him in years, but I’m sure he would be happy to speak with you.” My mom and Louis had been coworkers for many years, helping each other move up the professional ladder. She mentioned he was a successful real estate broker living in Miami, Florida.

That night, I wrote Louis an email asking if he would be open to an interview. I received a response the following morning. Louis responded with a simple, “Anything for the Larangos. Jackson, your mom was terrible in math.”

His response comforted me, and I knew he had a big heart. I was eager to learn about his history and meet one of my mom’s dearest friends. We set up an interview on Skype for the following Monday afternoon.

As I called Louis on Skype, I tensed up. Meeting a new person was already hard enough. Asking him touching and personal questions during our first meeting elevated my anxiety.

He picked up the call and was sitting in a bustling office. Louis appeared to be a middle-aged man, with perfectly combed gray hair and contemporary square glasses. A copier was running endlessly in the background, and a flat panel television displayed images of luxury homes. It was seven at night in Florida, and I wondered why he would still be at work. As I looked closer at the screen, I noticed some Keller Williams signs affixed to the wall. He quickly said hello and addressed my thoughts. “Jackson, I want to let you know I’m still at work in my real estate office. I’ve been a hard worker all my life, and it has helped bring me to where I am today.”

As we talked about ourselves for a couple of minutes, I noticed Louis closing his door and turning off the ringer on his phone. I knew he was a genuine and respectable man. He had taken the time out of his busy schedule to conduct the interview.

After an awkward silence, I blurted out my first question. “So you were forced to leave Cuba?”

“That would be right, sir,” he remarked. Louis explained his heart wrenching family history. His parents fled Poland in 1922 after Jewish persecution. To my surprise, he was born in Cuba in 1942. I had thought he was born in Europe.

“I thought I had it set in Cuba,” Louis explained. “My life was full of friends, family, delicious food, and fun activities. When I was just eighteen years old, though, I was forced to flee Cuba on my own and come to the United States.”

“Eighteen years old,” I thought to myself. “That’s just one year older than me!” I became very curious and wanted to know more about his situation.

He picked up a glass of what appeared to be iced tea. Louis explained that tropical iced tea reminded him of the delicious drinks his mother used to prepare in their beachside home.

“What forced you to leave? How did you relocate to a new country on your own at such a young age?” I rambled. I noticed my curiosity spinning out of control.

Louis explained that Castro’s regime and revolution in Cuba had started before he was eighteen. “I knew the day was coming,” he said, shedding a tear from his eyes. “I had been sent a letter stating I would have to enroll in the militia.  Our house had been taken over by the government, and they rented four out of the five bedrooms to strangers.”

I was shocked. People work hard to purchase a home for their family. I could not comprehend the idea of the government taking it and using it to house strangers. I wondered why his family did not go with him. Before I could ask the question, Louis answered it.

“My parents wanted to stay in Cuba. They weren’t in the best of health, and my mom was afraid to leave what was familiar to her. The persecution in Poland had already taken a toll on her,” he explained. Taking another sip of tea, Louis continued. “So I did it. I made the decision to leave and come to America.  The government had taken my room and all my family had worked for.” Louis elaborated, describing how the government had also taken the assets of his father’s small business. With little money left, Louis knew he had to find a new life, even if it meant leaving his family behind.

As Louis described his decision, I had been wondering how he was planning on making it into the United States. At the time of his departure, Cuba and the United States had failing diplomatic relations. “After making your difficult decision, were you certain you could obtain a Visa or US citizenship?” I asked.

“Luckily for me, I had relatives living in New York. I barely knew them, but they booked a flight out the following morning,” Louis recalled. He explained that his parents knew it was right thing for him to do. They assured him he would be fine and would be able to visit shortly. “As the plane went down the runway, I realized this was probably the last time I would see Havana for a very long time.” Louis paused and froze in his seat.

For a couple of minutes, I thought we had lost our Internet connection. I saw tears start to drip onto the hardwood desk. This memory affected Louis dearly, and I even felt my eyes start to water. The atmosphere was indescribable. I could feel his hardship from thousands of miles away.

Louis continued, describing the details of his transition. He avoided speaking about his parents. “I received a green card two months after coming to the United States. It wasn’t easy. It took countless hours of persuading. Eventually I obtained my US Citizenship,” he recalled. After a couple of years, Louis moved to Florida, hoping to get into the real estate business. “My family had worked so hard for me in Cuba,” he remarked. “All I wanted to do was earn enough money to help bring them to the United States as quickly as possible.” Diplomatic relations were slowly failing between the two nations, and Louis knew his parents should leave. Louis summarized the next couple of years. He ended up meeting his wife Judy, who coincidently, was also a Cuban refugee living in Miami. He spent months studying for his realty exam and passed with a perfect score. Louis built the business up, and even opened up his own office.

I was amazed at the life Louis had been building for himself. However, I continued to dwell on the fate of his family. Again, without me having to ask, Louis continued.

“Jackson. This next part I’m about to tell you was the hardest period in my entire life. If I get too upset, I may have to stop,” he said tensely.

“What could have happened?” I asked myself. “There has to be a reason for him revealing his emotional past.”

“My father passed away in 1975. My mother phoned me from her cramped living quarters. I was unable to go back to Cuba, as the United States ceased all relations at that point. My father was buried, and his own son couldn’t even come to the funeral. My father… He was my father. My best friend. My idol,” Louis stated heavily.

Again, a heavy silence filled the virtual conversation. The sun was almost completely set in his office window. He turned away from the computer screen and looked out towards the lake behind his office. His assistant opened the door and said she was leaving for the night.

It was hard to absorb what he had just told me. I could not even imagine what it must have been like to miss a parent’s funeral. After a few moments, I got myself back together, and Louis turned back towards the camera.

Naturally, I thought about forgiveness. After all of this, could Louis forgive? Castro’s regime had torn his life apart and taken him away from his father’s funeral. As he looked back up, I asked, “Would you forgive Castro?”

To my surprise, Louis answered quickly. He blurted out, “Of course I would, Jackson.” He came to this realization two years after his father’s death. “This regime changed a lot of people’s lives. But what can we do about it now? I realized I had to move on. I had a life ahead of me with my beautiful wife.” Louis went on to mention he had no regrets. Despite his situation being extremely emotional, he knew his father would have approved every aspect of it.

His response reminded me of Eva Kor. Her film Forgiving Doctor Mengele had touched me, and I greatly respected her opinions. Louis also seemed to take this path, interested in moving forward. Yet, even with this unique and mature path, how could he identify with his Cuban heritage? As he took another sip of his iced tea, I asked the question.

“Jackson, I am a proud Cuban. I’m not saying what has happened is great or justified, but it is my heritage. Havana is my life. It is where I grew up, ate my best meals, enjoyed socializing with my friends and family.” He paused and took down a stuffed animal. He explained that it was his favorite childhood toy. “I will not simply erase a part of my life because someone else tried to ruin it. So to answer your question, yes, I identify with my heritage.”

I was moved by his simple, insightful, and revealing response. Louis had found a way to focus on his positive memories. I knew I was speaking to a genuine and friendly individual.

As the clock slipped to eight o’clock, I knew I should try and wrap up the interview. He had a wife and three kids to go home to. At this point, I was deeply absorbed in his history, and it was hard for me to choose my final questions. In a few seconds, I decided I would ask about his perspective on the lack of foreign relations with Cuba. Again, his response was intriguing.

“It is time we move on already,” he asserted. “There is a new, younger, more educated population in Cuba that is eager to do business with America. With some encouragement from similar situations, I think they have the potential to rebel against Castro’s son,” he stated. “Some Cubans believe we should never give Cuba the benefit of the doubt. But what does this accomplish?” he asked. There was a long pause, and he asked again, “But what does this accomplish?”

“Absolutely nothing,” I replied.

“There you go. Absolutely nothing. We can’t erase our past. It will be with us forever. Can’t we at least enjoy the good times?” he pondered. Louis revealed he had not traveled back to the country since his departure. The United States State Department issued Louis conditional citizenship, preventing him from traveling back to Cuba until further notice. He is looking forward to the day he touches down in Havana. “Sixty years and I can’t even show my kids where I grew up,” he remarked. “Something has got to change.”

I agreed and reflected on what he had just said. It all had made so much sense. My own frustration level rose. Louis deserved to see his homeland. As I finished up writing down my final words, his cell phone rang.

“Yes, hello honey… Yes, I’m still at the office, just finishing up with Jackson… Okay, see you in a little bit.”

With that, I knew I should wrap up the interview. I thanked him profusely and gave him my contact information one more time. “Keep in touch,” I said. “This was a powerful experience, and I hope it was not too hard emotionally.”

As I finished my last words, he remarked, “Anything for the Larangos, Jackson. My friends and family are my life. And don’t forget to ask your mother about her horrible math skills!”

With that, we said our goodbyes and ended the Skype call. I reflected on what I had just learned. Louis is a great parallel to Eva Kor. He had the maturity to move on and forgive his perpetrators. Also, his unprecedented determination serves as a valuable life lesson. He left his family behind, starting a new life in America. Yet, he made the most of it. Louis was not able to make it to his father’s own funeral because of something completely out of his control. His experiences put my life in perspective, and his actions are encouraging.

That evening at dinner, my mom was eager to know how the interview went. Before I revealed everything I had learned, I mentioned her math skills. She shrugged her shoulders and laughed, replying, “Oh, Louis… Always has had such a sense of humor.”

I knew my relationship with Louis had just started. Little did I know an English assignment would turn into meeting such an extraordinary new friend.

 

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