Professor Robert Rois shares his story as a Cuban-American political refugee.
By Dede Ogbueze, Staff Writer
When Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement overtook the US-backed Cuban government in 1959, hundreds of thousands of Cubans were forced to flee the island by way of boat and airplane. Among this first wave of Cuban refugees was Robert Rois, who is a Spanish professor at Valley College. Professor Rois was a boy when his family left Cuba, but his journey to the United States provides an extraordinary insight into the oft-forgotten tales of the Cubans who left behind their homelands and journeyed into new opportunities.
DO: Can you tell me a little bit about your background, where you were born, and what time period?
RR: I was born in Havana, Cuba. I spent the first 10 years of my life in Cuba, and we left shortly after the revolution. We were part of the first wave of political refugees who left Cuba in the 60s. I am told that 847,000 Cubans left at that time, and the island, at that time, had a population of 6 million. So that’s about 15 or 17 percent of the population, so there was a considerable number of people leaving at that time. We couldn’t leave through the American embassy, because the United States had broken diplomatic relations with Cuba. So there was no American embassy. We went instead through the British Embassy. And we went to Jamaica, which at that time was a British protectorate. Once in Jamaica, my father petitioned for a visa to enter American territory. We had relatives in Puerto Rico, so, at that time, we went to Puerto Rico. We arrived there in April of 1961.
DO: How long was your stay in Puerto Rico?
RR: In Puerto Rico, we stayed two years. My father was trying to find work, but couldn’t really find adequate work. There was a very great influx of Cuban political refugees in that area. So, with that in mind, my father left two years later and came to the United States. He tried several states and he settled, eventually, in San Francisco. Then he sent for us and we came to San Francisco. I went to high school in San Francisco. I went to UC Berkeley, which was nearby. And I eventually ended up in southern California where I did graduate work. So I’ve been here ever since.
DO: How was your life before the revolution?
RR: We had a relatively wonderful life, actually. We were well off, and we loved Cuba, even though my father’s side of the family were all from Spain. In fact, my grandfather loved Cuba so much that when my father tried to get him to make some investments in the United States—because they both had a real estate company—he refused, because he loved Cuba so much. Actually, in 1958, a year before the revolution, my grandfather became a Cuban citizen. So a year later, the revolution came and they took over his property and he also left. And, while we were in Cuba, we heard about the Bay of Pigs invasion. That’s when the flights out of Cuba were canceled, so we were lucky, in other words, to have left when we did. Because after that, people started leaving any way they could: by boat or any other means.
DO: As the revolution unfolded, did you witness any violence, or was it the political and economic unrest that forced your family to leave Cuba?
RR: Well, it’s difficult to describe. I was a child. I was about eight years old and I remember hearing it on the radio because the forces of Castro were at both ends of the island and they were converging into Havana. So you heard on the radio that the forces were coming, and the former government was corrupt and they left and took the national treasury with them. So, they basically left without a fight, so there wasn’t a great deal of struggle. And yet they had a great deal of armaments and they took over all the tanks and other military equipment of the previous government. Castro’s men had long hair and some of them had braids, and beards and it was like the hippies taking over the government. So as a child, I remember feeling a certain sense of admiration for them. I collected little cards, you know, instead of baseball cards, as a means of indoctrination. The new government gave out cards with the faces of all the people responsible for the administrative turnover.
DO: Has your view on Castro and the revolution changed significantly over the years?
RR: No, I don’t think my views have changed. I’ve had to piece together little bits and pieces of what the revolution was about, because I was a child. One interesting fact, is that one of Castro’s generals was called Camilo Cienfuegos, who was loved by the people, and in those little cards I remember reading that he was a barber before he joined the forces. When I was at Berkeley, one of my roommates was a Mexican guy, and I went to have lunch occasionally with his family. His father once told me that he got to know one of the leaders of the revolution. And he asked me to name a few names, so I did, and then he said, “That’s it! Camilo Cienfuegos!” So he actually got his hair cut at Camilo Cienfuegos’ barbershop. Apparently, Camilo Cienfuegos had left Cuba displeased with the government. In other words, he was sort of an exile before the revolution. I think he was in New York first, and later on, he settled in San Francisco for a while. My friend’s father told me that he was always talking about going to Cuba and taking over the government from the corrupt dictator, Batista. And everyone thought he was just a barber shooting off at the mouth, until one day, my friend’s father came to the barbershop and saw a sign that said it was closed. This was about 1956, and a few years later, he found out he was a general in the revolution.
DO: When you came to the United States, how did the media portray relations between the US and Cuba?
RR: Well, I was an adolescent when I came to this country, and at that time, my main concern was to learn English. That was my most pressing need, and I remember that I could not understand the spoken English even though I could write it and read it. So that was basically what I was most concerned about. I didn’t really see myself as much different from any other immigrant who had come to this country seeking freedom and a better life. As a child, I didn’t see myself as much Cuban-American as I did just another immigrant. And I still feel that way.
DO: When you came to America, did you feel pressure to assimilate?
RR: Well in some ways I felt alienated. As I said earlier, I did not know the language so that did not help. I was alienated for some years and in some ways I’m still alienated. It’s a very, very difficult experience to overcome—the feeling of being an immigrant. Especially if you are a political refugee. In other words, you are in some ways a second-class citizen.
DO: Did that affect the way you adjusted to life in America?
RR: Well, I’ve always been sort of a high-strung person so, no. My family was too proud to be on welfare, for instance. I remember in San Francisco when we settled there in the corner on 24th and Mission, the heart of the Mission district in San Francisco. We lived in a five room apartment. My parents rented three rooms and me and my siblings lived in the other two rooms.
DO: You said your father owned a real estate company, right?
RR: In Cuba he did. Here, he became a teacher. At first he was doing all kinds of work. We laid carpets in San Francisco for a while. He knew he could get paid by the yard because he also was a tailor, as was his father. I come from a long line of tailors. He was also working with a private firm learning tax laws. Eventually, he became a taxman. He actually went to school and got his teaching credential and was a teacher in San Francisco for 18 years before retiring.
DO: Did he inspire you to become a teacher?
RR: Well, no. I was still trying to learn English by the time I got to Berkeley. I was interested in architecture, and I went to the math department and I was intimidated. All the kids were kind of straight-laced and I was, at that time, in the hippie days; I had long hair and whiskers, so I felt out of place in the math department. I found that studying languages to be more debonair and that’s how I got into Spanish, and English and Latin.
DO: How long did it take you to complete your schooling?
RR: I was at Berkeley on and off from 1968 to 1978, and in between was the armed forces. I served in the armed forces for this country—I was in the National Guard. In 1972, I did six months active duty, and when I came back, I spent five years in the reserves. In 1978, my mother fell ill with cancer and eventually died, so I came to UC Riverside where I did a few years of graduate work. They sponsored a year abroad, so I went to Paris for a year, where I learned a little French. And from Paris I applied to UCLA, where I was granted one of the most distinguished of the national fellowships—the Dorothy Danforth Compton fellowship. I was there for three years as a fellow, and I received my Ph.D. in romance linguistics and literature. And that was in 1990.
DO: Is that when your career in education began?
RR: Well, yes. Even before then, because as a graduate student we teach classes as TAs. In the 90s, I eventually got a job teaching for four years teaching Spanish and French at a small college in Minnesota. And then, I got too sick. They have very harsh winters there, so I came back in ‘97. I went to China looking for work in ’97. I spent four months in Taiwan, and actually got a job at Tamkang University but at the last second, I found out that the dean at the university refused to sign my contract. So I could not renew my work visa, and I had to come back to the United States late in ‘97. In ‘98 and ‘99, I was not working that much. In 2000 I started working for a community college in Santa Clarita called College of the Canyons. And I eventually landed in the Los Angeles Community College District. So I have been teaching in community colleges since then.
DO: What year did you start working for LACCD?
RR: I started working for the LA Community College District in 2002 at LA Trade Tech downtown. Later that year, the PACE program gave me a two-thirds position at Los Angeles Valley College. I have been at LAVC since then, and I am incredibly grateful to the Los Angeles Community College District. I have had two operations since then, and both were taken care of through the district. So I can’t complain.
DO: Given your experience as a Spanish professor, what have you learned about other cultures in different Spanish-speaking countries?
RR: In San Francisco there were lots of Central Americans. Growing up, most of my closest friends were from El Salvador, so I feel I have a fairly cosmopolitan background. And during my time at Berkeley and UCLA I had several Mexican roommates, so I feel my Spanish is universal.
DO: How do you feel the US is handling its immigration issues now?
RR: I actually feel that one of the most important aspects of immigration law, having been an immigrant I realize, is the whole issue of vaccinations and health requirements to enter a country. I feel that that is one of the most important reasons to have the immigrants be documented when they enter the country. And in the current political climate, that is not discussed at all. They talk about anything but what I consider to be the most important issue.