Denver Official Tells Childhood Story of Rescue, Survival
CHERYL CORLEY, host:
The Democrats chose Denver because it has a dynamic political landscape. With citizens and leaders who reflect the diversity of the American experience, perhaps no one embodies that quite like Guillermo Vincente Vidal, the deputy mayor of Denver and manager of public works, born and raised in a well-to-do family in Cuba. His life changed drastically after Fidel Castro's communist government took over the island. At the age of 10, Vidal will become one of more than 14,000 Cuban children who were sent away by their parents to live in the United States. These young refugees were part of what came to be known as Operation Peter Pan.
Deputy Mayor Vidal shares his experiences in his memoir, "Boxing for Cuba," and he joins us now from member station KUVO to talk about the book and his work in the city of Denver. Welcome to the program.
Deputy Mayor GUILLERMO VICENTE VIDAL (Denver; Author, "Boxing for Cuba"): Thank you.
CORLEY: Well, we will talk about your book in a moment. But first, tell us a bit about how your city has prepared for the convention and what makes Denver an ideal place for the convention?
Deputy Mayor VIDAL: Well, I think a couple of things. I think you mentioned the diversity of our wonderful city. Actually, the weather right now is just absolutely wonderful. We did spend a year and a half planning for this event, so I think we're really ready for it. We have all kinds of events for people to participate in, as well as to have a successful convention. I think people can really be a part of something that we consider to be one of the most important historical events in the history of the United States, and it's happening right here in our city and it's just an incredibly great time for us.
CORLEY: Mm hmm. Well, your book, "Boxing for Cuba," is a story of your family's immigration this country and really some of the profound difficulties of that process. And I wanted to know what made you want to tell that story.
Deputy Mayor VIDAL: I think it was born out of, in a way, my failure as a father with my three children from my first marriage, who I think, growing up, they never understood, really, what my background was. And so in 2001, I visited Cuba and I went back to the home that I had been born in, and when I came back, I really felt motivated to write this down for them to eventually be able to share with their own kids. It was a kind of thing that if I couldn't be a good father to them, perhaps I could be a great ancestor.
CORLEY: Mm hmm. Well, let's talk a bit about your ancestors, your parents, in particular. It took a few years for them to get to the United States. So what was the benefit and perhaps even the downside of your immediate family living in the Denver area?
Deputy Mayor VIDAL: Well, I think that coming here to Denver was really by chance. I mean, we ended up - my two brothers and I - being processed through Operation Peter Pan to an orphanage in Pueblo, Colorado. Then when my parents finally got out of Cuba almost four years later, they decided to stay here in Colorado and make a life for themselves here.
I think in some ways the advantage was, I think, that we really grew more integrated. There's not many Cubans here in the Denver area. So we're really afar away from our culture and our roots that probably would have been more prevalent in Miami, for example.
CORLEY: Mm hmm. And your name was - you didn't go by Guillermo when you grew up there.
Deputy Mayor VIDAL: No. Within a few days that we were in the orphanage, I think in an attempt to get us to speak English, we really were into, I think, a full immersion. And we were told, from now on, your names are not Guillermo, Roberto and Juan. We were Bill, Bob and John.
CORLEY: Well, a lot of what happened in your life was brought on by enormous political forces that were really completely beyond your control. So what advice would you give to young people in foster care or really difficult situations who might also feel that they have no control over their lives?
Deputy Mayor VIDAL: I think that the best thing that happened to me that was hard to but was an important thing to do was my college education. And I think that being able to eventually get educated and being able to have a career that I could be independent and on my own, I think help me overcome, you know, a lot of the things that hamstrung my life along the way. You can choose to be a victim to all of these things or you can just choose to try and overcome them. And like I said, the biggest tool that helped me to overcome it was getting my college education and then my career.
CORLEY: Mm hmm. Well, you went back to Cuba in 2001, as you mentioned, which spurred you to write your book. You were fearful to do so at first, so tell us about what kind of response you received, and what was that trip really like for you?
Deputy Mayor VIDAL: Well, let me speak to why I was so fearful. I mean, I darn near didn't go because I was so scared, and I think because the trauma of leaving was clearly one the worst days of my life. Certainly being separated from my parents and not knowing what was going to happen in the United States, not even know where we were going to end up. And I think the days that followed were so difficult that those are feelings and experiences that stayed with me that when I was flying back to Havana, they reemerged inside my being to where I went to being that 10-year-old boy, scared to death and going back to Cuba. I really wondered why the heck I had done that, why I had put myself through so much punishment.
But when I went there, the people just treated us wonderfully. They were really glad to see that I had made the effort to go back and find out what had happened and really reconnect with my roots. The other thing that was interesting is that there was an author that had written a book about the 14,000 children of Operation Peter Pan, so when I would tell the Cuban people that I was one of those children, apparently this book had been well received throughout the island, where people would just drop everything they were doing and come and give me a hug and say, welcome home, we're so glad you're here. And so it was an unexpected response.
I think the other thing, though, about my trip back to Cuba, especially going back to the place that I was born in and visiting every place that I had been to, I think really changed what I thought about Cuba and perhaps what I thought even about American policies towards Cuba. It was just a real watershed moment in my life.
CORLEY: Mm hmm. Well, I'll let people get more of that by reading the book themselves. So I want to ask you what it's like to have gone through all of the events of your life and now to be a part of the administration that's hosting the Democratic National Convention.
Deputy Mayor VIDAL: Well, I think that if there's anything about my life that I know, I think it's applicable now, maybe, as the Democrats are trying to establish their platform, and that is the experience that I have as an immigrant to the United States. We have so much debate about that today and it seems to be more of an economic perspective. And I think that the experiences of my life showed me that I'll - it's possible to overcome those issues and you know, I guess in my case, most people might see me as the American success story. We just should not forget that the obstacles of immigrations are so difficult that they can crush your body and soul.
And then my hope is that people read my story and really realize that people who are immigrating to the United States deserve some compassion and that perhaps looking at this issue with some human compassion and thinking about the suffering that these people are going through, perhaps we can come up with some better answers to our immigration problems in this country.
CORLEY: Guillermo Vicente Vidal is deputy mayor of Denver where the Democratic National Convention gets underway later today. His book is titled, "Boxing for Cuba," and he joined us from member station KUVO in Denver. Thanks so much for joining us.
Deputy Mayor VIDAL: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.