For everyday she attended school during her childhood in Cuba, Patsy Feliciano wore a red scarf and red beret, the color of a communist government that controlled her school.
Feliciano was born in Havana, Cuba on May 5, 1967 into a family who did not support the communist ethics of the government.
But she was also born into the regime of Fidel Castro, the Cuban president who, at the time, held power for about 50 years and transformed Cuba into a communist country by ripping many human rights that, Feliciano said, is hard to imagine if a person has lived in America their entire life.
Which is were she has lived since 1980. Now a USF diversity officer, Feliciano said she had a hard time believing what she was taught during elementary school in Cuba: the U.S. was an enemy.
During Castro’s reign, he imprisoned or executed citizens through paredn, or to the wall, meaning death by a firing squad, who disagreed with his decisions such as rationing food throughout the island country and taking control of private businesses.
Feliciano’s family was sometimes rationed just a cup of rice and a tomato – which were their monthly groceries.
“It’s hard to explain to people to imagine a place all run down, a grocery store on a corner and you have a couple of boxes with a couple of tomatoes and a bag of rice,” she said. “You have a little plastic cup and they will fill it with a cup of rice.”
Her mother worked at a toothpaste factory, which was eventually placed under government control.
“My mom worked for an American company that had been intervened by the Cuban government,” Feliciano said. “It was the Colgate toothpaste factory in 1959. The government took over the factory and gave it another name.”
For 13 years Feliciano endured the hardships Cuba brought upon her family.
Every day she would walk 15 blocks to school to be taught that the U.S. was an enemy that Cuba had to ban against.
“(In seventh grade) I was picked for things like going in front of workers and speeches because I could speak and memorize,” she said. “There were speeches that were written by the regime and thanking the regime for what they have to offer and for allowing us to be equal. You become a puppet of the government you have to look say speak what the government wants you to say.
“That is child abuse … My parents couldn’t say don’t teach my child any of those things.”
Feliciano and her classmates would begin their day with a salute and motto, a nod to Ernesto (Che) Guevara, a member in Castro’s 1959 revolution to take control of the government:”Pioneros por el comunismo seremos como el che (Pioneers for communism, we will be like Che).”
“It didn’t matter if you knew who Che was,” Feliciano said. “They wanted you to be like him.”
…todos estaban sufriendo por igual
…everyone was equally miserable
Feliciano’s stepfather – who she calls her father -began to work to overthrow Castro in the early ’60s but was caught before he acted. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison for planning to enter the streets with about 500 rebels to protest against the government.
Of around 500 caught, 400 were killed through paredn. Feliciano said her father survived by sheer luck.
“They didn’t have what we have now, all of the social tools and the media to be able to share this with the world,” she said. “So at the time that these things were happening in Cuba … nobody outside of Cuba really knew what was going on. The things that were happening in Cuba were not the image that the Cuban government wanted the world to believe. (They wanted people to think) that equality was the norm and that they’ve done away with the rich and now everybody was equal. Well,everyone was equally miserable.”
Her stepfather spent 17 years in jail and was released on probation, which is the closest term that Feliciano could find to describe the increased oppression against her family who now had a target on their backs.
It didn’t matter that Feliciano had the highest GPA in her grade or that she could have been honored as the next valedictorian. What mattered was that her family was not politically correct in Cuba’s eyes.
“For the government, a child who had a father who had been in prison for going against the government … did not merit going to college. So what they called my record was that it was stained,” she said. “You were labeled as no good, not because of anything that you’ve done but because your parents dared to question the government.”
Feliciano recalls being awakened throughout the night by Cuban enforcement bearing arms to check on the family – to instill fear she said.
In 1980, two years after her father was released from jail, the misery among Cubans continued to intensify, much like a pressure cooker, said Feliciano, which led to Cubans forcing their way into a Peruvian embassy. She said they were desperate to escape and if they weren’t on Cuban territory, they are weren’t in Cuban jurisdiction.
“Three, four men and women had this idea of taking a bus and they ram the bus against the gardens of an embassy,” Feliciano said. “People (can) defect … it means that you’re seeking refuge in another country, usually because you are oppressed in your country.”
As a result, thousands of Cubans were sent to Peru, bringing international attention to Cuba, which began being referred to as an “island prison,” she said.
It also resulted in Castro making the announcement that allowed the Mariel boatlift, the exodus that brought Feliciano and her family to the U.S.
“(He said), ‘They wanted to leave? Who wants them? Come and get them. I’m not going to stop them. I will no longer make them stay,'” she said.
La gorra con el nombre Vigorous
The cap with the name Vigorous
From April to September 1980, 125,000 Cubans migrated to the U.S. from the El Mariel port until the American government stopped the exodus.
“My parents were concerned about my future,” Feliciano said. “We were concerned about the safety of our family so when the Mariel opportunity opened up we took advantage of it.”
Cubans were interested in the opportunity, like the Feliciano family, had paperwork to process, but in regards to their interests, Feliciano said the Cuban government had their last act of humiliation on the family.
“When they learned that we put in the paperwork to leave (for the Mariel) my mother was demoted (from Human Resources) and placed in a production line,” she said. “To this day my mother tells me she has repeated nightmares of being in the factory, in front of the huge machine that does the toothpaste and it goes too fast and she can’t keep up.”
While still attending school, Feliciano said law enforcement were not the only ones harassing. School children, Feliciano among them, were taken out of school to scream outside the homes of families leaving on the boatlift.
“I was 13 and knew that my parents were one of those people that had filed (to leave),” she said. “Could you imagine knowing that my school has taken me here to scream at this family? I’m thinking that’s going to be me (next). All these people are going to be screaming at my door to scare me.”
The day that her family left for the port, the government officials came and gave them no time to pack any personal items. They had to leave with the clothes on their back. Even childhood photographs were left behind.
Feliciano said the port itself reminded her of a concentration camp.
“It had barbed wire, it had dogs, it had men with rifles,” she said, “and I was 13 years old, so you can imagine how scary that is. We were questioned. We were harassed. We were screamed at. They did everything they wanted to do before they put us on a boat. The boat was a very small sized-boat for about 10 people and they packed 30 people on that.”
Prior to leaving the port, they received word that a storm was brewing in the Gulf of Mexico, but, despite protest, Feliciano said the government told them to leave immediately.
Within a few hours of leaving the sky was dark and the waves were increasing in size. Then, the motor to their boat broke and Feliciano’s boat became an incontrollable raft of panicked people in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. The captain shot an emergency flare.
Feliciano said she doesn’t remember how long it took for rescue to arrive, but remembered hearing a helicopter coming closer to the boat. It was a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter: Feliciano’s first experience with Americans.
“They took my grandmother,” she said. “(She) was the person who was really sick and dehydrated. They put her on a stretcher and lifted her on the air. A couple of hours later we see a big light and it was the light of a (U.S.) Coast guard vessel called the Vigorous.
At first, only women and children could board the ship. Men, including Feliciano’s father, had to remain on the boat but were reassured that they would eventually be towed through the waters toward land.
Three days passed with Feliciano and other Cubans remaining on the Vigorous while searches for others continued. In the end, Feliciano said 24 died.
While on the Vigorous she said she was seasick, vomiting and weak.
Then, a stranger who worked on the boat noticed Feliciano and her family. She said he noticed her weakness and one day brought her an orange and fed her the drops. Feliciano said that was the only thing that she could keep down.
“One time he brought me an inflatable raft so that I can sleep on it and be more comfortable. Another time he moved my family to the center so that where I wouldn’t feel the rocking of the ship,” she said. “So for three days he was kind, he took the time to check on this family with this little girl. For whatever reason he felt compelled to help.”
By the third day, they were transferred to another boat and brought to Key West. But before she left the young man made sure to say goodbye.
“(He) gave me his cap with the name Vigorous on it and took a Polaroid picture of it,” she said.
To this day Feliciano has the blue cap with the golden words and the Polaroid, which she’s preserved. They were the only tools she had to spend the next 26 years trying to find the “Coastie” – she said she had pay her respects for his help.
Su bondad me conmovi
His kindess touched me
“When I came (the the U.S.) I was determined to find him again,” she said. “I didn’t know his name. I didn’t know anything. He must’ve told me his name … but I didn’t speak a word of English. He was somebody going beyond his duties and not expecting anything, he just felt compelled. I think its just his kindness touched me in such a way at such a critical time when everything around me had completely turned and changed. Everything I knew was behind.”
Feliciano said she remained in Key West and Miami for a few days and then left for Tampa where her uncle convinced her parents that it was a good place to raise kids.
There she attended school, overcame culture shock and caught onto the English language within her first few months of school.
All the while, the man on the Vigorous still remained in the back of her head.
“I called the Coast Guard, I called the national archives, I searched everywhere,” she said. “Everybody wanted to help but how do you help someone who doesn’t have a name – ‘a young man on a vessel in the year of 1980 was very kind, can you help me find him?’ So it was impossible.”
It wasn’t until 2005, she felt she was a step closer to finding him. She accompanied her father to an immigration appointment, which eventually led to the conversation of how they arrived to the U.S. in the first place.
“This guy who is interviewing him – the immigration officer – is reviewing the application and reads that we came through the Mariel boat lift and he said, ‘I was on the Vigorous on May of 1980 (also),'” she said. “So the interview went to hell.”
The officer agreed to take a look at the Polaroid that Feliciano kept. The next day she scanned it and emailed him. Within a few hours he replied with a name.
…esto va a ser un final sin salida
…this is going to be a dead end
Feliciano said her excitement lasted for a short time. She contacted the Coast Guard again but received bad news.
“So now I’ve got a name. I’m all excited. I’m emailing the Vigorous. I’m contacting, again, the national archives,” she said. “Everyone is like, ‘We don’t have a Larry Moncuso. We have no record of a Larry Moncuso.’ So I thought, ‘OK, this is going to be a dead end.'”
But one person from the U.S. Coast Guard contacted her saying that she wanted to help. She told Feliciano about a website where Coasties communicate with one another and recommended Feliciano post her story, and she did, along with the Polaroid.
It was September of 2005 when Feliciano was between meetings at USF as the Interim director for Diversity and Equal Opportunity. On her way to a faculty meeting, she was checking her voicemail and heard a voice she hadn’t heard in 25 years.
“Here’s a voice of this guy who says, ‘I’m the Coastie you’re looking for. My name is Rocky not Larry. And I’m a captain for a boat in the Mississippi River. Why don’t you call me? Here’s my number … How good to hear that you’re looking for me,'” she said. “I want to stop every student that came by and say, ‘Do you realize what just happened? I have been looking for this guy for 25 years and I found him.”
For years, Feliciano and her family anticipated what would happen if she ever found him. She said her mother recommended having a pen and paper to write down whatever happens in their first conversation.
“So I have the number and the pad and the pen,” she said. “I call the number and I’m calling a boat. A young man answers the phone and I tell him ‘Can I speak to Masterchief Moncuso?’ and he tells me ‘I’m sorry he’s busy. Can you call back?’ I said ‘Oh sure. I’ve waited 26 years what’s one more day?’ He said ‘Wait wait you’re the little …’ and I said ‘Yeah I’m the little girl.’ He said ‘Wait a minute. No, no. He told everyone he’s waiting on your call which is why we told you he’s busy. He’s waiting on your call. Wait a minute.”
For two hours they talked on the phone, they laugh, they cried and they promised to keep in touch. When Feliciano hung up she looked down at her paper and pen.
The paper was blank.
“There’s not a single word,” she said. “It was very emotional – very special.”
She wouldn’t have guessed that in a couple of months she would meet him face to face.
“I get a phone call from work that the (U.S.) Coast Guard who want me to go to Kentucky to surprise Rocky for his retirement after 30 years with the military,” she said. “I immediately say, ‘Of course! What a great opportunity to say thank you,’ which is what I wanted to do (and) to take my kids so that they know about giving back and know the importance of giving back to each other. So my husband and I made arrangements to get there.”
The retirement party was in Kentucky, Moncuso’s home state. Feliciano remained hidden behind “some very big officers.”
“His superior is talking about the lives that he’s changed and the people he has inspired,” she said. “Not only in the military but also civilians (and he said), ‘Like the little girl you that took care of for three days during the Mariel boat lift. She’s here.'”
Feliciano said she popped out from behind the guards, wearing the 26-year-old Vigorous cap.
“I was very emotional,” she said. “I hugged him and said, ‘Thank you’ in perfect English. We couldn’t speak. The last time he saw me was when I was 13 years old and I didn’t speak a word of English. So here I show up 26 years later as an adult. We’re both going back to 26 years ago and what we’ve experienced. I then gave a speech and then I went to his house and we all had dinner. We’ve been in contact.”
Yo nunca regresar…
I will never go back…
Feliciano has only returned to Cuba once since leaving, when she took her husband for their honeymoon after they were married in 2008.
“I had a mission and my mission at the time was for my husband to see with his own eyes to see what I lived in. the last thing that I wanted is for someone to be that close to me emotionally and to be oblivious to the situation in Cuba,” she said. “It was bittersweet it was a very happy time in my life and I spent the whole time crying.”
Feliciano was shocked by parts of her visit. She and her husband visited areas of the country that were devastated and falling apart.
“All of this is important to me,” she said. “It’s one thing that Castro has done is to confuse people and send the wrong image. Cuba is a hellhole. It’s not a paradise and but he’s created this idea that if you only go to the beach and the nice areas that he repaired for the tourists that it’s wonderful. It’s only that you go inside to the real Cuba then you realize all that is wrong with it.”
Feliciano has been involved with many Cuban activism events and have arranged events herself, such as last year’s March for the Freedom of Cuba in Tampa where hundreds of Cuban-Americans marched to spread the message of the continuous dehumanization of rights that prevail in Cuba.
But, she said, she will wait before visiting again.
“I will never go back until things change,” she said. “Through as hard as the experience has been I think your past and experiences tha tyou have to go through shape who you are and I have my parents to thank for our journey and having brought me to a country where we can achieve anything we set out to achieve if we try hard enough.”