SeriesLIVE

Eunice Figueras

Immigrant Archive Project
Eunice Figueras, a Southern California marketing executive, shares her parent's immigrant story, and discusses the realities of growing up as the first American-born child of a Latino immigrant family.
Show transcript
00:00
I, I see our story just being very similar to anyone at Ellis
00:05
Island.
00:05
But thank God by the time we came to this country, we weren't
00:10
forced to change our names.
00:17
My name in English is Eunice Figueras in Spanish.
00:23
It's um I'm of heritage.
00:28
I was born, I was the first one born in my family in the United
00:31
States.
00:32
My brothers, my parents, my grandparents all born in Cuba
00:36
My mom and my dad were tough people.
00:38
They had to be so one story that always stuck in my head.
00:43
Um and it always makes me a little emotional.
00:45
My mom told me when because again, my dad was here and he called
00:49
for them to come over.
00:50
So she packed up my um oldest ha uh one of my half brothers and
00:54
my brother uh who was in infant at the time.
00:58
They got on a plane.
00:59
She left her parents behind, she left everything behind.
01:02
She got on the plane to meet my dad in Miami.
01:05
And the plane took off, went into the air space and the pilot
01:10
came on board and said um we have just left Cuban airspace,
01:18
sad.
01:20
She said everyone on the plane started crying.
01:25
Hm.
01:28
When they knew this was it, they were leaving Cuba, they're
01:32
home.
01:33
It was, um, it was shocking for everyone that had come to this
01:40
They had to leave.
01:42
Um, they knew if they were on a list, their lives were in danger
01:45
They had to get out really fast and, but my mom was so strong
01:51
um, as they, and so we're taking off and everyone was crying
01:57
Um the passenger next to her, um asked her, she, she, they
02:07
asked her, my mom said she was tough for all of us.
02:30
They had to make this work, they had to take care of us.
02:33
And um there was just no time for crying.
02:37
You just, you just had to keep it going.
02:40
There was just no time for crying.
02:41
Um No time I, I think talking to some of my American friends
02:46
growing up when I got older and I had more American friends
02:50
Um They, they even commented they felt like we were, we were
02:55
kind of rough at times.
02:56
We were tough people like we were, we were definitely yeller
03:00
but we weren't super um nostalgia or we weren't super soft
03:07
And I, I think that was part of our upbringing that we had to
03:10
be tough, we had to keep it together, we had to work hard.
03:15
Um And you just don't have time to mope or feel sorry for yourself
03:20
You just had to keep going.
03:22
You, you just had to take care of your family, take care of each
03:25
other and there's no time for crying.
03:28
We have, we have stuff to do.
03:31
My parents expectation was this wasn't gonna last too long
03:36
In fact, my mother said she, she did not unpack her suitcase
03:39
for a month.
03:40
She came to Miami.
03:42
She, she packed up the kids.
03:43
My, my father had been married previously, so she had my um
03:47
half brothers with her, one of them who was about seven and
03:52
my, my other brother who was just a baby at the time, they packed
03:55
up, they went to Miami and she said she didn't even unpack for
03:58
the first month.
03:59
This is gonna blow away.
04:01
They're gonna go back.
04:02
Um And it's funny because my grandmother years later who left
04:05
like in 71 she, she told her neighbor, she left her pig in the
04:11
in the charge of a neighbor and she told her, um there was still
04:18
was this, this idea that somehow this was going to turn around
04:20
soon.
04:21
This is, this is not forever.
04:23
But um here we are 50 years later, 55 years later, have nothing's
04:29
changed.
04:29
But their expectation was Cuba was gonna somehow get its act
04:33
together.
04:34
We were gonna go there and in the meantime, we'll, you know
04:38
we'll make some money, we'll take care of the kids.
04:40
We, we'll have to wait it out here in the United States, but
04:43
they definitely had expectations that the United States
04:46
things were gonna be nice, calm.
04:48
It, there is gonna be a refuge for them growing up in California
04:54
As a Cuban was a very interesting experience because I would
04:59
tell people now that I'm older, I tell people this inside the
05:02
house, it was Cuba.
05:03
In fact, it was Cuba in 1959 as far as we were concerned.
05:07
Um, all the customs, everything we ate, everything we did
05:12
was how it was done in Cuba, everything we tended to have only
05:16
Cuban friends that we hung.
05:18
And that was kind of tough in southern California.
05:21
But there was a, a small community of Cubans out here that we
05:24
knew about.
05:25
Um we had just kind of reached out to each other.
05:27
There's a whole system of Cuban clubs in Southern California
05:31
where there would be activities and um uh dances that they
05:37
we, we celebrate all those things with other Cuban clubs
05:39
and we knew about other Cuban people.
05:41
So we, we kept to a little enclave, but there was even a Cuban
05:45
um little league team that you could play on.
05:47
So it, it became a little self sufficient Cuban community
05:51
within southern California.
05:52
We used to order Cantina from a company called Cuba Cubans
05:58
in Cali California.
06:00
They came up with the name they, they delivered all over Southern
06:04
California and they had their Cuban clientele in California
06:07
that would deliver the services.
06:09
Um The school I went to was private and there was a handful of
06:13
Cuban families there too and it was all word of mouth.
06:16
It always spread word of mouth.
06:18
So when we landed here landed, um we ended up in Alhambra and
06:23
then when others would come, we would tell them come and live
06:26
in Alhambra.
06:27
In California, we found out there was also a lot of Cubans in
06:30
Glendale in Downey.
06:32
And if you look at southern California, you can see this very
06:35
odd collection of Cuban restaurants and bakeries in these
06:39
places that you're trying to understand.
06:41
And unless you're Cuban and you don't understand that it's
06:44
because when Cubans came from Florida to California, they
06:48
would find other Cubans settle there and start their businesses
06:51
and serve other Cubans.
06:52
And, and we stayed kind of in a lot of ways self enclosed when
06:56
I went to an All American school because it was private.
06:59
But I still, my parents were pretty protective and I didn't
07:03
have that many American friends.
07:04
I went there because I had a Cuban friend and she was my best
07:08
friend growing up there was other Cubans there.
07:10
So it was, it was kind of very self enclosed even though we were
07:13
in the United States, even though we were in California.
07:16
When my parents came to this country, it was going through
07:21
a social upheaval.
07:22
These are the sixties in California.
07:26
They were horrified by what they saw.
07:29
It was the year I was born um Martin Luther King had been assassinated
07:34
Robert F.
07:35
Kennedy Junior had been assassinated, uh later on, I believe
07:39
Helter Skelter happened here in California.
07:42
Um They were absolutely horrified and they, and they would
07:45
talk a lot about this American culture that they admired so
07:48
much.
07:49
It was falling apart.
07:50
It was unraveling and uh they had a, a great distrust of hippies
07:55
of what was, what was happening in this culture that they admired
07:59
And so what they did, their, their tendency was, well, we can't
08:02
control the culture but we, we're gonna protect our Children
08:07
as much as possible.
08:08
We're, we're not gonna let them interact too much with these
08:11
Americans and we call them that Americans.
08:13
Um they were very like they had to control who we talked to,
08:18
who we had overnights with and, and what we did.
08:21
So we were OK to hang out with other Cubans, sometimes Argentines
08:27
sometimes other Latin Americans.
08:30
But for the most part, they really did when we were young Children
08:33
try to keep it to just Cubans as much as they possibly could
08:37
I never heard my parents really complain.
08:42
Um My parents were very um uh Christian people.
08:47
Um and they, they always were serving in one way or the other
08:52
So if they, they didn't complain, they did complain about
08:55
politics.
08:56
They did complain if they felt like the policies were not what
09:00
they thought was the best policies for this country or for
09:04
Cuba, but they didn't complain about their lot in life.
09:09
It was more about this is what happened.
09:11
You move on and, and, and my, my mother was not one, she would
09:16
probably not be too happy that I'm crying right now.
09:18
She was not one for tears at all and she wouldn't, I don't think
09:21
she would be very happy that I was crying.
09:23
But, um, it, it, it's just what you have to do.
09:27
You just, you just keep moving on and you take care of people
09:30
because again, they were the first ones here.
09:32
And our job was to bring everybody over from Cuba.
09:35
As we made money, we just kept bringing people over to the United
09:39
States.
09:39
We, we sponsored a lot of people.
09:42
Uh my parents adopted or took care of two, the two of the uh kids
09:48
and helped them when they were here.
09:50
When the happened, we took on uh what we call a because he had
09:55
no family here.
09:56
And remember a lot of just were dumped.
09:59
They were, they came, we, we have some suspicions that he did
10:02
come from prison and he lived with us practically till the
10:05
day he died.
10:06
It was just about taking care of people and serving.
10:10
And, and even right before my mom died, she opened up a Baptist
10:13
social service center and here in southern California because
10:16
she wanted to keep helping people.
10:18
She was a social worker here in Southern California.
10:21
So, yeah, it's like no time for crying.
10:26
One of the things that I remember my parents telling me about
10:30
was uh my dad after my, my mom died first.
10:33
So my dad and I took a couple of trips and he became very sentimental
10:37
after my mom died because she was kind of the glue of the family
10:41
And uh we went to Florida and he wanted to find the little apartment
10:45
It's, it's like this little bungalow in Florida where he lived
10:48
um, while he was waiting to bring over my mother making enough
10:51
money.
10:51
And he told me he, when he came to Florida, remember he was an
10:54
electrical engineer in Havana.
10:56
He um he went to school and he, he got a job picking tomatoes
11:01
and making little wooden frames.
11:02
It, it was just like he goes, I didn't speak the language.
11:05
What could I do?
11:06
I spoke a little bit of English, not so good.
11:08
So, but I had to make money because I had to bring over your mom
11:10
And you know, there was always this list I had to do this.
11:13
I had to do that.
11:14
So we had to bring him over and I brought him over when he came
11:17
to California because the United States for the most part
11:20
didn't recognize his um university diploma from the University
11:25
of Havana.
11:26
He retook all his classes and, and this is the part that, that
11:30
makes me very sympathetic to immigrants to this day is he went
11:34
to Cal State L a, and he had to retake all of his engineering
11:37
classes.
11:38
But because his, again, his English wasn't so great.
11:42
Him and his, um, his counselor didn't communicate very well
11:46
and he took a lot of classes but never got his degree.
11:49
So that always kind of ticked me off because I go, why didn't
11:52
someone help him make sure he got his degree?
11:54
Why didn't someone, you know, kind of reach out to him?
11:56
And he like, he, he went by one but his name was and he goes, hey
12:00
why, you know, the, you have four more units that you need
12:04
to take and this and this so you can complete your degree.
12:07
So the things like that kind of ticked me off.
12:09
It's like dad really, you did everything at and you still didn't
12:13
get your degree and then, and then he got frustrated and he
12:15
and he stopped, but it was, it was things like that.
12:18
He, he, he had to figure it out for himself and there wasn't
12:21
a whole lot of people lining up to help figure out with some
12:24
exceptions.
12:26
Um The reason we ended up in California was because um there
12:30
was a ton of Cubans in Florida just way too many Cubans all coming
12:35
to Florida at the same time.
12:36
And basically the um II I don't know who I guess na na Naturalization
12:43
Services or one of the, the gov branches of government sent
12:47
out letters to the Cuban refugees.
12:48
Basically saying if you're willing, we want to locate you
12:53
to other parts of the country.
12:55
And my parents were going to a church in Florida, um, a Quaker
12:59
church that, uh, I believe the name in Spanish is, um, something
13:03
like that.
13:04
And they heard about a Baptist church in California that was
13:08
willing to sponsor a refugee family.
13:12
And, um, there was a lot of churches in southern California
13:16
that were willing to sponsor a refugee family.
13:19
And we were one of those families.
13:21
They, my parents raised their hand, they say we'll go to California
13:25
Um They left Florida, came to California one year after they
13:30
got to Florida and that's how they ended up in Alhambra because
13:34
the first Baptist church in Alhambra sponsored us and they
13:37
lived in the, um what's it called?
13:40
The parsonage, the little house that the church had for the
13:44
pastor.
13:44
They lived in that little house until they could get up on their
13:47
feet and, and get their own rent and going.
13:51
So there was definitely in the sixties as Americans saw what
13:56
was going on in Cuba.
13:57
There were uh some Americans who were truly concerned and
14:01
they were trying to help out and they, and I tell people to this
14:04
day, yeah, I'm a refugee.
14:05
Um We were sponsored by a church in California and that's how
14:09
we ended up in California.
14:11
There's a few ways that I stay in touch with my Cuban culture
14:14
Being out here in California.
14:16
And one of the most important ones is uh the internet and social
14:19
media.
14:20
There is definitely a lot of Cuban groups that share information
14:24
with each other about Cuban festivals, Cuban parties, Cuban
14:28
clubs, what you name it?
14:30
Um At this time now that we've been here such a long time, we're
14:33
obviously so assimilated.
14:36
Um being part of those going to Cuban restaurants, going to
14:39
Cuban fairs, Cuban festivals.
14:41
In fact, this weekend at Dodger Stadium because a bunch of
14:45
Cubans from different Cuban clubs including uh Betty is part
14:50
of that.
14:50
But there's some other that I've met too at the different Cuban
14:53
clubs here in Southern California.
14:54
When Yasiel Puig was um again, baseball is a big deal for us
14:59
Um When Yael Puig was drafted by the Dodgers, it was already
15:03
around those Cuban social media pages that, oh the Dodgers
15:06
have a Cuban, the Dodgers have a Cuban joining his name is Yael
15:09
Puig and I remember it coming over and I go, that's interesting
15:12
Um Once he came to the Dodgers to the big leagues in 2013, a bunch
15:18
of Cubans here got super excited about it and they went to the
15:21
Dodgers and they said we wanna celebrate Cuban heritage because
15:24
we're really proud of Yael and all the other Cubans they were
15:27
bringing up and this is the time that the Dodgers organization
15:30
was really bringing in a lot of Cubans and they started something
15:33
called the Cuban heritage uh Cuban heritage game at Dodger
15:39
Stadium and this weekend is the Cuban heritage game at Dodger
15:42
Stadium.
15:43
It used to sell out Bright Field where Ciel was, but, and he
15:46
was awesome.
15:47
By the way, we loved him.
15:48
He, they would, the Dodgers would host uh Vela Dodgers area
15:53
and there would be Cuban music out there and Yael would come
15:57
sign autographs, it'd be dancing and he would talk to the crowds
16:01
It was awesome.
16:02
And there was a time that there was about five Cubans on the
16:05
Dodgers.
16:06
Um And, and it, it was like it became a yearly event.
16:09
Um They have a Facebook page.
16:12
We go to the games.
16:13
You see people you haven't seen in a long time.
16:15
They're all there in that area.
16:17
The Dodgers show it up on the, the board and, and it's a time
16:20
that we can celebrate our heritage and, and they'll always
16:24
bring out someone of importance.
16:25
One year, Andy Garcia was there another year.
16:29
Um I'm trying to think of the different years that they've
16:32
had, they've had something special every year to kind of celebrate
16:36
what we love about our culture and what we bringing with us
16:40
now that we're firmly planted.
16:42
Ok.
16:42
I think the, the days of us thinking we're going back to Cuba
16:45
to find our houses or whatever are gone, we know we're, we're
16:48
firmly planted in this country.
16:50
But how do we keep, what's great about being Cuban our, our
16:53
our goals, our way of looking at things and it's through food
16:57
and through baseball and it's through parties and it's through
17:00
salsa.
17:01
It's, uh, the kids take salsa lessons.
17:04
We take Spanish classes.
17:06
Um, we've infused it into the ones that don't even speak Spanish
17:10
We just little things like the food, um, the music, we, we teach
17:15
them about history, ask us questions.
17:17
Like, why didn't we come to this country?
17:19
My niece who was, uh, born here clearly.
17:22
Um, she, uh, she, when I picked her up from UCL A yesterday,
17:27
she goes, tell me why we don't like communism.
17:29
She doesn't know.
17:30
She goes, tell me the story because I, I was trying to fight
17:32
with someone the other day and I couldn't, I couldn't defend
17:35
why we don't like communism.
17:36
And I go, ok.
17:37
Ok.
17:37
That's a whole, that's a whole party, right in of itself.
17:41
We'll get, we'll get the together and we'll tell you why we
17:43
don't like communism.
17:45
So, but there we do keep that and we make sure the kids know that
17:49
they're Cuban even if they're not full Cuban.
17:52
We, we tell them you're Cuban, even if you're adopted, we tell
17:55
them you're Cuban, you're Cuban.
17:58
I believe you can be 100% Cuban and 100% American patriotic
18:04
Um, I, I don't see a difference in that.
18:06
I, I see our story just being very similar to anyone at Ellis
18:11
Island.
18:12
But thank God by the time we came to this country.
18:16
We weren't forced to change our names.
18:18
Like I remember one time I was at work and God bless them.
18:22
Um I was working with a lot of Americans and they, my name is
18:26
really tough.
18:28
Figueras, Figueras.
18:29
And uh it takes a lot and is tough too.
18:32
Um, and she was praying for me.
18:35
This was like a little uh Christian nonprofit I was working
18:38
at and she wanted to pray for me and, and my family and she called
18:41
us the Ferguson because she couldn't remember what our names
18:44
were and, but you know, we were privileged enough to keep our
18:48
names.
18:49
We didn't have to change our names.
18:51
Um The only thing I ever had to really do is anglicize my name
18:55
I my, I remember as a little girl, my mother taught me how to
18:58
say my name in English.
18:59
This is, you know, when you go to kindergarten, this is how
19:02
they're gonna say your name because you know that was different
19:05
But um you, you can be 100% American because we're so grateful
19:10
for the chances we were given here.
19:12
We, we understand because we see our family now because of
19:16
Facebook, we see our family back in Cuba.
19:18
We see what they've been going through.
19:20
We see the hardship and there comes a point in your life and
19:23
you realize that could have been me, that could have been my
19:25
life where I was just trying to figure out, you know, what school
19:29
they were gonna send me to, what, what career they were gonna
19:31
assign to me after a class or whatever or was I gonna be allowed
19:35
to go to school?
19:36
And, um, would I ever be allowed to vote or, you know, it's,
19:40
their lives were so different because as my cousins fled Cuba
19:44
like the, the ones from Mariel, I did have friends and family
19:48
that came over.
19:49
Um and they told I could see the difference in us.
19:53
I was being raised here and they came over already as 12 year
19:56
olds and I was in charge of trying to teach them English and
20:00
we play games together and they were trying to learn very quickly
20:04
how to because they were kids, they were trying to learn very
20:06
quickly how to adapt and um to American culture.
20:10
But in, in my view, it's like, of course I could be American
20:13
I'm grateful to this country.
20:15
I love this country and everyone in my family, we, we have servicemen
20:19
in our family.
20:20
It's not just one or two, we have army and it's my cousins, not
20:25
the ones that were necessarily born here.
20:27
My cousins who were born in Cuba served in the army, they were
20:30
airborne.
20:31
There is cousins who served in the navy, my brother served
20:34
in the army.
20:35
Um We all have served uh and then now the next generation they're
20:39
serving too.
20:41
So there's a, a deep love for this country because of them allowing
20:46
us to come here as Cuban refugees start over.
20:49
And that's how we can reconcile being 100% Cuban, loving my
20:53
culture, loving my background, loving my history and loving
20:56
this country that's given me these opportunities and allowed
20:59
me to keep my name and my background and my family history.
21:03
At the same time, they're, they're not making me give up one
21:06
for the other.
21:07
They're allowing me to bring that along and to enrich other
21:10
people with my point of view, with my stories, with my perspective
21:16
you know, with whatever I can offer the country, I, I'll do
21:19
that and that comes because I'm coming with all this history
21:23
behind me of what's happened in Cuba and what it's like to grow
21:26
up as the daughter of refugees in Southern California.