Friday, April 18, 2008

The Day Maria Antonia Became Maria

The USA Resident Visas were granted in June of 1963. Very soon we would arrive in Miami -to temporarily join more relatives- and become full-fledged American Alien Residents with a Green Card. But a great crisis faced us before leaving: How in the world were we going to pay for the 3 tickets we needed to travel from Mexico City to Miami?

Once again someone came to our rescue, as José de la Torriente, a wonderfully kind friend of my deceased Uncle Paco, become our new "St. Anthony of Padua". He came from Miami to Mexico on business, and while visiting Aunt Mary my very.embarassed-mother told him about our plight. He did not hesitate and immediately pulled out a check book ."How much do you need Antonia?"-he asked. Her answer was so low and timid that is was difficult to hear: "One hundred and fifty dollars Torriente. It's the cheapest way...We are taking a bus!"

And the bus we took!

Armed with a roasted chicken wrapped in foil, a few apples, a 20 dollar bill (gifts from my Aunt); 3 or 4 beaten up suitcases (including the trunk with the awful fox heads) filled with clothes of all sizes and mis-matched colors (we were still sicologically 'unable' of throwing anything away!) and our documents from the American Embassy, one evening we boarded a bus from Transportes del Norte towards the American border town of Laredo, Texas, where we arrived- exhausted and very hungry ---about 12 hours later!

At Laredo Customs we were officially welcomed to the USA. We entered as "Permanent Alien Residents", and it was here that I became "Maria". My first name "Maria Antonia" was just too long, so the "Antonia" became an "A". Our last names were also mispelled in the official documents and my mother's birthdate changed to a weird day and month. We were also given a Spanish-English Dictionary (stamped across the pages in red with the words "Gift from the Red Cross"), a toothbrush and toothpaste; and very soon -to our chagrin- our three apples were duly 'confiscated', while the foil-wrapped whole chicken was totally "ignored" and boarded the 4pm Greyhound Bus with us.

On the road to Houston -after cruising for some time on a fascinating and enormously wide American highway - my mother and I decided that the pungent 'smell' of the chicken was just too strong .

"Do you think we are going to eat the chicken or not?"- she asked out loud

"Not me"- I said

"Not me"- echoed Leon

So as the bus was speeding up the road, I -the 'guardian' of the chicken until that moment- opened the window of the bus -and naturally, without thinking about it twice- threw the huge offensive chicken out the window!

A few seconds later we felt the sudden brakes of the bus... The bus driver suddenly backed up- and got off the bus !...We thought something was wrong...Maybe we had a flat tire!....But to our surprise -and total embarrassment- he came into the bus carrying the beat up foil wrapped chicken and walked up the aisle to our seat!

"Did you throw this out the window?"- he furiously asked me

His John Wayne looks were so menacing that the three of us were terrified. At that very moment I realized that in the United States you just did not throw chickens out the windows of moving vehicles.

"Yes Sir"- I barely could say

"Well, in this country you cannot do these things"- he spewed out- "Learn it now, once and for all!"

What a lesson in "littering" that was!..Needless to say I have never- ever- again thrown anything in the street and when I visit countries like Spain -where they do it all the time - it gives me the creeps!

By the time we reached Houston, Texas, it was about 2:00am of the following day, and we were so tired and famished (my mother refused to spend the $20 we had, and for 24 hours we had only eaten cheese and peanut butter crackers from vending machines from the bus depots) ---that my brother decided to look up in the Phone Book the name of Gaston Brunschwig, one of his best childhood friends, who was living there at the time. He found the family name --- and at 3:00am Gaston and his mother Ofelia were picking us up at the Houston Bus Station and taking us to their apartment! It was an unforgettable and very happy moment.

They had left Cuba three years before us and the once-very-wealthy family had settled in Houston. Now penniless, hard working and very resourceful Ofelia worked as a seamstress at "Sakowitz", the elegant Houston store, while 14 years old Gaston went to a beautiful public school. His sister Jacqueline had married her childhood sweetheart Joaquín Novoa , who was "revalidating" his Cuban degree of Doctor in Dentistry and lived nearby. The Swiss-born Mr. Brunschwig was still in Cuba.

We stayed with them exactly 24 hours, as Ofelia fed us to no end, took us to see Houston, her workplace at Sakowitz's; and before taking a midnight bus we had a great dinner at Jacqueline's. It was such a welcome and necessary "pit stop"! And my brother was so happy to see Gaston!...They begged us to stay in Houston and promised all kinds of help, but we had to go to Miami to see the rest of the family and afterwards settle up in New York --where my wedding would take place.

By this time -after a 2 year engagement (mostly through romantic letters and occasional phone calls) X's face had become blurry and I really had no idea why I was getting married. The thought had developed through our correspondence and X's wonderful parents had encouraged it. Going to New York -instead of settling up in friendlier and already Cuban-filled Miami (where we had spent many vacations before the Revolution) was due to "the wedding"; and now I realize Mami was very understanding to go along with "my" plans and have the family settle in a difficult city like New York, where we did not have one single relative nor friend.

So our bus-adventure continued and that night we boarded the bus from Houston to Miami. Ofelia had given my mother a bag full of cookies, fruits and chocolates, but by the time we arrived in New Orleans my brother's insatiable appetite kicked-in and some pieces of southern-fried chicken -left momentarily unattended by some trusting black seat mates- tempted him so much that he stole a huge drumstick, which he hid and ate ravenously in the bus's lavatory!