BY RAFAEL SIERRA
Pathfinder Press recently released a new edition of Ernesto Che Guevara's Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War - 1956-58. "Pages from Cuba's Revolutionary History," a weekly series aimed at promoting this book, features articles by and about combatants of the July 26 Movement and Rebel Army, which led the revolutionary war that overthrew the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista and opened the socialist revolution in the Americas.
This week's installment is about Camilo Cienfuegos, one of the principal Rebel Army commanders. Before he joined the Cuban revolutionary forces, Cienfuegos was a worker and political activist in the United States. Cienfuegos's first stay in the United States ended with his deportation by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). The second ended when he went to Mexico to volunteer for the Granma expedition being organized by the July 26 Movement, led by Fidel Castro, to begin the revolutionary armed struggle against the Batista regime.
After the revolution's victory on Jan. 1, 1959, Cienfuegos became Rebel Army chief of staff. He was killed Oct. 28, 1959, when his plane was lost at sea.
The following account was written by a friend of Cienfuegos who accompanied him on both trips. It is taken from Camilo: señor de la vanguardia (Camilo, lord of the vanguard) by William Gálvez (Havana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1988). Translation and subheads are by the Militant. BY RAFAEL SIERRA
When we had gathered sufficient money for the trip- which we had to collect from friends, family members, a raffle, etc.-we acquired a 29-day visa, which was then called a "B-29." On April 5, 1953, we took a flight to Miami. On arriving we found lodging in the house of a lady who rented rooms, but we stayed there only 48 hours because we didn't know the language and our objective was to go to New York and find José Antonio Pérez, who would help us get a job, since we were short of money.
We took a bus and arrived in New York on April 6 or 7. We stayed at the Pierre Hotel-we were only there one night because, not knowing it, we had checked into one of the most expensive hotels. We made contact with José Antonio, who was recently married, and he took us to the home of Eugenio Téllez on 18th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues. Téllez owned a guest house more in line with our funds, and we rented a room, which Camilo and I shared. We then began the struggle to find work. The first barrier was not knowing the language and our Latin American background.
Garment worker in New York
Camilo was the first to find work. His experience as a tailor and his physical appearance-he could pass for an American if he didn't talk-helped land him a job in a mass- production garment shop as a sewing machine operator. By then we had only a few pennies left. The job paid little and there was not a lot of work in the shop.
Garment worker in New York
When work there began to slow down, Camilo found a job at a restaurant on Broadway some time around May. In June, when summer began, Camilo-who spoke a smattering of English-found a job at the Huntington Yacht Club on Long Island. This was the first time we worked together, because soon I got a job there too. The work was washing dishes, peeling potatoes and onions, and basically helping in the kitchen. We lived there in the yacht club.
We worked at the Huntington until the end of September, when summer ended. It suited us not to stay in the same place for very long, to avoid detection by the immigration agents. We used false names: Camilo was Ramón Ruiz and I was Luis López. For safekeeping, we gave the little money we had saved to Eugenio Téllez, whom we had befriended.
Owing to this situation and unable to find work, Camilo decided we should go to Chicago and disappear from New York for a while. This was suggested to us by some friends. A few days earlier, Camilo had participated in an anti-Trujillo picket line in front of the hotel where the Dominican tyrant was staying, to protest the dictator's visit to the United States.(1) That demonstration by Dominican patriots, which included many other Latin Americans, had big repercussions, and a number of people were injured. This led the immigration authorities to intensify their search for Latinos staying illegally in the country.
During the whole time Camilo was in New York - about seven months- we were associated with a patriotic organization of Cuban exiles called Cuban Civic Action, which published a newspaper called La Voz de Cuba [the voice of Cuba], for which Camilo wrote a few articles. José Antonio Pérez edited the newspaper and he recruited Camilo and me to this patriotic organization. We participated in meetings and demonstrations against Batista, Trujillo, Somoza, etc.
I remember that when the Moncada events occurred in July,(2) we held a meeting to discuss how to support and collaborate with the insurgents' cause, since that event had a big impact on everyone. A few things were done, mainly responding to the slanders and distortions spread at the time in the U.S. press. We often met at the home of José Antonio, or Téllez, or a comrade named Brunilda Soler and her husband. Besides Cubans, other Latin Americans sometimes participated in these meetings, where we discussed the organization's work and the situation in Cuba and other Latin American countries. We also conducted political discussion groups, above all studying the works of [Cuban anti- imperialist leader José] Martí.
We left for Chicago in the middle or end of October. After arriving we got an apartment on Clark Street, near Lake Michigan and Lincoln Park. Finding work in that state was not easy at the time. Through an employment agency we found work as busboys in a restaurant just outside the city. But we lasted only four hours. They gave us 35 cents each in tips for three hours of work, but we decided not to accept the money and took off. Camilo got a job in a factory operating a kind of drill machine, but the pay was low. After a month and a half we decided to return to New York.
We again began to look for work, which we found at the Parakeet Restaurant on Long Island, where we also got rooms. This restaurant burned down, owing to the carelessness of one of the cooks, and we were again jobless. When we returned to Téllez's guest house, he told us two immigration agents had been by, asking questions about their Latin American lodgers....
Once again without work, and with immigration agents hovering around, we decided to go to San Francisco, arriving there at the end of June or the beginning of July . We spent the first night at the Pickwick Hotel. The following day we rented a room with two beds on Utah Street and 24th, in a neighborhood where many Latinos lived.
Again Camilo was the first to get work. He found a job as a waiter in the Fairmont Hotel, located on Mason Street and California, close to a big tourist area. Until I found work at another restaurant, I would go to the Fairmont at noon, sit down, and Camilo would immediately come with coffee, buttered toast, and sandwiches. Getting these things "on the house" helped alleviate our economic difficulties.
Arrest and deportation
We had already spent a considerable amount of time in California and were feeling very insecure about being pursued by the immigration authorities. We frequently remarked, "Those sons of b-- are going to grab us at any moment." One night Camilo went out with some Mexican friends from the state of Guerrero to a nightclub called Noche de Rondas on Pozo Street. There, some immigration agents came in asking people for identification. They went up to the table where Camilo and his friends were sitting and asked everyone but Camilo for their papers. Due to Camilo's physical appearance, they thought he was American.
Arrest and deportation
Camilo understood the situation, and seeing they were demanding identification from his friend Santiago Ruiz-who was illegal-he tried to intervene on the man's behalf. However, Camilo's poor pronunciation sank him. They asked him for identification and discovered his illegal status. The agents took him to our apartment, searched the place, and found my passport as well. They stayed in the apartment with Camilo and stationed an agent on the street to wait for me. Since they had my passport photo, I was recognized and arrested.
We were brought to an immigration office in the city, and were detained for a few hours together with other Latinos. Later they took us in a paddy wagon to Chula Vista, very close to the Mexican border, 600 miles from San Francisco. It was like a prison where they held those who had entered or were staying in the country illegally-even including criminals. There was a sort of trial, and people were held there until papers were secured for their deportation.
For us this was a totally new experience. We were held in a cell ward with 10 double beds. All those held there were Spanish-speaking, and we became friends with some of them. The food was atrocious, enough to make one sick, and discipline was rigorous. There were cases of men who escaped, but they were brought back within two days, despite the fact that the place was only a five minutes' run from the Tijuana border.
Because of his personality Camilo immediately stood out. He was named head of a gang of seven or eight men assigned to clean the cell ward and the hallways.
We had to spend 34 days in Chula Vista until the trial was held and the transit visas were resolved to deport us to Mexico. From there we caught a plane to Mérida, Yucatan, and from there we took a flight to Havana....
Second trip to United States
The reasons that led Camilo to travel to the United States a second time were different from those of his first trip. During his brief stay in Havana-around nine months-he was able to see the tragic situation the Cuban people were going through. Young people were being beaten and murdered with impunity, and terror and abuse were rampant everywhere. Camilo himself had been wounded in the leg by the henchmen's bullets during a demonstration on December 7, and on January 28 he was arrested and booked by agents of BRAC.(3)
Second trip to United States
Camilo knew "something big" was being prepared in Mexico, and he was determined to make contact with the comrades of the July 26 Movement. Going to the United States at that time would be a step to reach Mexico.
We arrived in Miami on Mar. 25, 1956. We worked in that city as bellboys in the Ritz Plaza since, as always, we were short of funds. After three weeks of working there, we had saved up enough money to take a bus to San Francisco. The trip took 96 hours.
After a few months of collecting the funds for the trip and the stay, Camilo left for Mexico.
1. Rafael Leónidas Trujillo was the U.S.-backed dictator of the Dominican Republic from 1930 until his assassination in 1961.
2. On July 26, 1953, Fidel Castro led an attack by some 160 fighters on the Moncada army garrison in Santiago de Cuba and the garrison in nearby Bayamo. The attack failed, and more than 50 captured revolutionaries were murdered. Castro and 27 other fighters were subsequently captured, tried, and imprisoned.
3. On Dec. 7, 1955, the Federation of University of Students organized an anti-Batista demonstration in Havana on the anniversary of the death
of Antonio Maceo, a hero of Cuba's independence wars from Spain.
Several demonstrators, including Cienfuegos, were wounded when the police opened fire on the crowd. The Bureau for the Repression of Communist
Activities (BRAC) was the Batista regime's secret police.
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