Sergio Wong’s 1969 journey from Havana, Cuba to the United States to pursue a better life and prominent future
essay written by Sarah Wong
Sergio Wong, born and raised in Havana, Cuba, immigrated to the United States with his parents and brother as an eleven-year-old child in 1969. Exposed to the Chinatown ghettos, starvation, and an unfamiliar life, Wong eventually assimilated into American culture and lifestyle, although he first was forced to confront the struggle with finding his identity and the ties that he has to three prominent cultures – Cuban, Chinese, and American. Despite the obstacles, Wong found the inner strength in overcoming these hindrances and his poverty-stricken background in order to make the discovery toward a better and brighter future.
Broken English, naval barracks, and Chinatown ghettos – three seemingly arbitrary but distinct words that echo the journey Sergio Wong undertook to America in 1969. The various reasons Wong left his country with nothing more than the clothes on his back, the transition he was forced to undergo, and the assimilation into American life shaped him to form his identity across the borders of three different cultures.
Born eleven years earlier in 1958 in Havana, Cuba, Wong was raised solely by his godparents, Maria and Mario. His mother was forced into an arranged married at the tender age of eighteen to a man thirty-two years her senior, and was left to run the grocery shop business when she became a widow one year later. Unable to support herself, her infant, and the business, she turned over the responsibility of raising her son to her close family friends, christened as godparents through the representation of Catholic baptism. Despite being raised without his birth parents, Wong recalls, “My childhood, as I remember it, was pretty much carefree [and] happy…even though I was not raised by my parents, they [parents] still provided me with the love and care that any mother and father would to a child.”1 Reminiscing on the nostalgic past, Sergio fondly comments that his godparents, though very strict, were loving; he was allowed to play with the neighborhood kids, and participate in athletic games such as playing baseball and bicycling. Daily routines included the typical chores of cleaning the apartment as well as taking care of his dog Tito.
However, Cuba’s participation in the Angolan war proved to be a difficulty. The ability to buy things became complicated because everything, including food, was rationed. Each person was restricted to only one shirt, one pair of pants, and one pair of shoes a year; the consequences of losing or destroying any article of clothing was that a person had absolutely nothing left. Wong describes how each member of his family had a booklet in which the store cashier would note a purchase each time a transaction was made. In terms of food, there was a separate booklet that the family would use to buy food once a week - usually half a pound of beans, half a pound of rice, and half a pound of meat. Wong recalls, “I remember people lining up really early in the morning because they were expecting milk, let’s say, so people would line up early to get in line with their little booklet, and then the milk truck would come by, deliver the milk, and then you would go inside the market to buy [it] and if the milk runs out, then that’s too bad.”2 The Angolan war definitely had an impact on Cuba because of the degree to which food was noted and rationed. In terms of education, the only issue in schools was a lack of supplies; every three students were forced to share a workbook and were crammed into small classrooms. However, the teachers were knowledgeable enough to teach well. Wong says, “I remember I actually learned quite a bit, and in fact when I moved to the U.S. at the age of 12, I was still in 6th grade [and] I knew more in 6th grade then all of my classmates combined in the 6th grade here [America].”3
Wong, his brother, mother, and stepfather decided to flee to the United States once Cuba became Communist. Fear of the draft, fear of a controlling government, and a glimpse of a better future in the United States were the dominant reasons that Wong’s family decided to immigrate. Before communism took over Cuba in 1957, Wong’s uncle fled the country and traveled to Miami, Florida. He stayed in the U.S. as a political refugee until he became a citizen and then was able to sponsor Wong’s parents to come to America as well. Wong recalls that at first the Communist Cuban government decided that anyone who wanted to leave the nation was labeled as “traitors” to the nation. Wong’s mother, Mary, already bent on heading toward the United States, understood that her family was going to be persecuted by deciding to leave. However, Wong says that his mother did it, “for us kids…she didn’t want us to [be] hungry or starving, she wanted us to have a better life in terms of education, [and] lifestyle…So [she] decided to sacrifice.”4
Once the decision was made, Wong’s parents filed applications to emigrate and then waited. However, because there were so many people that wanted to leave the country, the Cuban government created a quarterly system to allow only a certain number of people to leave each year. Wong believes that when Fidel Castro made the announcement that those who did not want to be in Cuba could leave, he had no idea how many people would head his advice; Castro regretted his statement but had no choice but to allow it because he had already signed the contract with the United States. Angered by the situation, Castro decided to delay the process by giving a specific quota of the number of people allowed to leave per year. Wong’s family was forced to wait five years before being granted permission to leave. Meanwhile, the family was divided – Wong’s stepfather was taken to a concentration camp in another area of the country to cut sugarcane, coming home only once a year during Christmas for approximately a week and then immediately leaving again. Wong’s mother was under house arrest to raise Wong and his baby brother. The government took over the family business and turned their house into a hotel.
The day of departure eventually came and with it notes of sadness and sorrow enveloped Wong and his family; they were left penniless and without property - their house, car, and business belonged to the Cuban government. After saying tearful goodbyes to friends and family, including his beloved godmother, Wong’s family departed in the early morning, with a friend who drove the family to another province in Cuba where the airport was. However, the line to get into the airport entrance was long and when the family was finally able to enter, they thanked and said goodbye to their friend, who in turn, gave the family twenty pesos, despite Wong’s mother’s protest. Fortunately, Wong’s mother eventually accepted the money, but the airport had announced that they would not be boarding any more planes that night. The airport boarded the family onto a bus and drove them to a hotel, where they were required to spend the night until another flight was available. The money went to pay for the hotel expense for that night. However, Wong’s mother realized that the twenty pesos was not enough to cover for their entire stay at the hotel; early in morning, she decided to illegally sneak the family out of the hotel without paying. They knew of a family that would temporarily take them in; however they had no car and not enough money for bus fare. Instead Wong and his family walked for two hours, asking passersby’s for directions to their friend’s house. Upon arriving, Wong remembers that the woman of the household “took pity upon them and served them a breakfast of only coffee with milk and dried toast…[with] nothing else.” 5 Later in the day, Wong’s family received a ride to another family friend’s home, close to the beach. Wong says that he remembers this family “being poor and living in this makeshift hut, but providing [Wong] with good food…”6 The addition of staying on the beach was enjoyable for Wong and his brother who were able to entertain themselves while their parents made further arrangements. After dinner, Wong, his brother, and his parents drove back to the airport to board a flight to the United States, where they once again forced to stay overnight. This time, they slept on the hard, wooden airport benches until the morning, when they were finally allowed to board a plane. However, Wong comments that security was nerve wracking, especially when his mother was harassed and then interrogated because of her illiteracy in the English and Spanish languages. Eventually, the family passed through the security check fairly quickly because they had nothing to bring other than their immigration papers.
Once the family had boarded the plane and found their seats, Wong, nervous and excited, fondly recalls that “[When] the stewardess served coke, I was excited…[because] it my first time drinking coke. I never actually had soda until I was twelve years old.”7 The flight from Cuba to America took ninety minutes, and when they landed, Wong and his family went through the naval base in Miami, Florida to be processed. Once they were done, U.S. officials at the naval base proceeded to give each person a set of clothing – a jacket, gloves, and a pair of pants. Then the family was escorted to barracks – sleeping quarters similar to dorms with bunk beds.
After settling in the barracks, Wong remembers that some friends from Miami came to visit them and graciously offered for the family to stay with them once the U.S. officials of the naval base allowed them to leave. After a week of staying at the naval barracks to finish receiving their papers, Wong, his parents and his brother joined their family friends in their home where they were finally able to properly shower and enjoy a traditional Cuban feast in celebration of their arrival in America. Two weeks later, Wong and his family boarded another plane that was flying to Los Angeles, California where Wong’s uncle lived. He recalls that they arrived at the LAX airport at around 9:00p.m., where their uncle picked them up and then drove them to Chinatown for dinner and then to his home where they would remain for a few months.
Wong had high expectations of America – an expectation that was unfortunately not met. He says, “As a child in Cuba we had heard so many nice stories about luxurious lives, everyone having a swimming pool and everyone having a good job and making a lot of money…it sounded like money was flowing from the streets.”5 However, Wong was severely disappointed; the promise of America and its opportunities failed to come true. Wong spent his first years in America in the Chinatown ghettos of Los Angeles, where graffiti drawings, gangs, and poverty were the norm. Although Wong’s uncle had been a U.S. citizen for a few years already, he was still poor, owning a single small duplex house in Chinatown. Wong says, “I wasn’t expecting to be poor. I wasn’t expecting to be living in the Chinatown ghettos with rats and cockroaches, because we were actually not used to that in Cuba – we lived very comfortably in a very big hacienda home…so coming from that environment (even though Cuba was poor), to this environment where we were even poorer…was devastating”8 However, as a teenager, Wong realized that in order to become successful in America and to have the “luxurious” life that he saw advertised on TV and magazines, hard work and a good education were essential. In reference to his poverty-struck community, he comments, “We really had an opportunity to join gangs and be [just] hoodlums.”9
Both of Wong’s parents found low-end jobs; his mother sewed in a sweatshop seven days a week and his step-dad became a clerk at a Chinese market. With his parents working, Wong says that he had the added burden to help his parents with the cook, clean, and raise his little brother. Wong says, “I don’t think I had nice adolescent years that I can say or speak of, all I just remember is working really hard and helping my parents as much as I could. Anyways [they were] very sad years.”10 Overall, the expectations that Wong had of America led to disappointment – it wasn’t until later that he was able to discover there was more to life in the United States than the Chinatown ghettos.
In terms of adjustment, a major difficulty for Wong was learning the English language. For Wong, it was difficult for the first two years, but he was able to eventually learn English words and phrases through school, friends, TV, and music. For his parents however, he says, “I think it was harder for them because they had two jobs; my dad after work would go to the free adult school to learn English but [he] never picked it up, and my mother, sort of a smarter girl, didn’t have the time to go to school but through work she was able to actually learn and now she speaks better English than my dad. Now my dad’s only words are still ‘Don’t speak English’ but my mother is able speak it for the most part.”12 Nevertheless, the communication issues were difficult to overcome. Wong’s parents were illiterate in Chinese, Spanish, and English because they never received an education and were forced to rely upon their son to translate for them when they went to the doctor or public places.
The assimilation into American culture was more of an identity crisis for Wong than anything else. The transition from Cuban culture to American culture was difficult to come to terms with. He recalls that Cuba music “is very bubbly, full of energy and very loud” and the food is “usually composed of white rice, black beans, meats and yucca usually serve with mojo and fried plaintains.”13 Unfortunately, those parts of the Cuban culture were lost to him when Wong and his family immigrated to the United States. Wong says that he was a part of three cultures; his Chinese background, Cuban childhood, and American introduction all had an impact on him because he became thoroughly aware of his Chinese heritage in Chinatown versus when he was with his Cuban friends in his native country. Until then, the retention of the traditional Chinese culture has never been never brought up in his family.
After completing high school, Wong received a full scholarship to UCLA, where he completed college and then went on to become a special education teacher. After teaching for twenty-two years, he went back to school to obtain his degree in psychology and now currently works as a school psychologist in the Santa Ana Unified School District. As for any regrets about immigrating to the United States, Wong expressed none. With regard to Cuba’s war with Angola, Wong says “I think if I had stayed in Cuba I would have been dead by now…if I would have stayed in Cuba and graduated in 6th grade I would have been drafted into the military at the tender age of thirteen…I remember still being in school and receiving letters from my friends in Cuba saying so and so had died in the war, so I guess I was blessed even if I had to go through what we had to go through.”14 Wong remembers that every boy who graduated from elementary school was drafted into the Cuban military to fight in the war against Angola and that many of his schoolmates who served in the Cuban military army were killed. In addition, Wong believes that immigrating to America was the best decision his parents ever made for him, even if the adjustment struggle was prominent in the beginning, because of the prosperous political and economic climate here. Wong says, “Everyone was excited about the new advances in medicine, education, job opportunities, and science exploration. In 1969, the first man walked on the moon and [my family] was able to watch it all happen on TV, and we thought ‘That’s incredible.’”15 The transformation and future that Wong was able to create for himself in America exemplified not only the courage and patience it took for him, but also the belief that the United States truly is the land of opportunity.
1. Wong, Sergio. Personal Interview. 24 May 2009. 1.
2. Wong, 24 May 2009. 3.
3. Wong, 24 May 2009. 6.
4. Wong, 24 May 2009. 5.
5. Wong, 24 May 2009. 9.
6. Wong, 24 May 2009. 8.
7. Wong, 24 May 2009. 11.
8. Wong, 24 May 2009. 14.
9. Wong, 24 May 2009. 17.
10. Wong, 24 May 2009. 11.
11. Wong, 24 May 2009. 15.
12. Wong, 24 May 2009. 16.
13. Wong, 24 May 2009. 2.
14. Wong, 24 May 2009. 15.
15. Wong, 24 May 2009. 13.