She has titled her memoir “Sometimes I Would Like To Sit Down and Cry.” Reminiscing can be painful when Amarilis Presilla thinks back on all the hardships she has known – not just within her family but for the Cuban people as well. But at least for Presilla and her loved ones, the story has a happy ending.
Since arriving in the United States six and a half years ago, Presilla has written it all down, reliving the good and the bad. It has taken some time, but her son and daughter have been able to join her in Weehawken and Union City in the last few years.
Presilla works in a medical office in Union City and once taught Spanish within the Union City Board of Education. Meanwhile, she has completed her memoirs and is in discussions with publishers to get the book out into the wider world.
“I have so much to tell, about the suffering of the Cuban people,” Presilla says. “This is my most important goal.”
Back in Mayari
Presilla said her home village of Mayari evokes bittersweet memories.
“It was beautiful – a valley, with a river,” she said recently. “A beautiful life inside this little town.”
Young Presilla learned to play piano there, becoming rather skillful. All the while, there were dreams of America.
“My father studied business in the United States,” said Presilla. “He taught me English since I was a little girl.” Also piquing her curiosity was Presilla’s mother, who made regular trips to Miami to purchase clothes for the boutique she ran.
But the idyllic childhood was not to last. A major flood – and later, the upheaval wrought by Fidel Castro’s revolution – exacted a heavy toll on Mayari. “It’s a ghost town now,” Presilla says mournfully.
On to college and marriage
Further schooling brought Presilla to the city of Santiago de Cuba. In college there, she focused on languages and literature. Presilla also trained to be a teacher, instructing at every level from primary up to university.
She got married and had two sons and a daughter. After more than 10 years, the couple divorced, so Presilla continued to raise the children on her own.
Meanwhile, the euphoria of the Communist revolution’s early days had rapidly turned to chaos and widespread shortages. “All the people wanted to be in the cities doing intellectual jobs, not working in the fields,” Presilla recalls. Basic food items became scarce. Canned goods and shoddy merchandise were imported from other Socialist countries.
When the Soviet bloc collapsed, conditions in Cuba got even worse. The country’s longtime allies seemed to suddenly forget about them, no longer shipping in supplies. Malnutrition was rampant and the infrastructure crumbled.
This was the world Presilla’s son Gustavo Diez encountered upon beginning his career. His architecture studies concluded in 1989 – the year the Berlin Wall fell. But freedom of choice did not become the law of the land in Cuba. “You cannot work as an architect on your own like in the United States,” Gustavo said in an interview. “You have to work for the government.”
The economic climate greatly impacted Gustavo’s chosen field. He said, “When the Soviet Union disappeared, construction totally went down: No money, no materials, no architects.” Still, he credits those years with giving him valuable experience in working under any conditions (often without electricity) on any sort of project.
America, distant ideal
The United States beckoned. Amaralis’s brother was an inspiration. He had made it to the U.S. in 1970, swimming from Cuba to the U.S. Naval Station on Guantánamo Bay. In 1994, Gustavo and his sister Amarilis Diez – also known as Katya – tried to leave Cuba through Mexico, but their plan fell through. Katya also tried applying for U.S. visas for her family via a lottery system. The only one who was selected, however, was their brother Gotardo. He left for the States in early 2000.
Katya wished she could go too. Growing up, she’d been a model student within the socialist framework. But as she matured, Katya began to question that political system. “We were being brainwashed,” Katya says. “They were telling us what to say and what to do.” She began to quietly rebel by not attending Communist youth meetings and having discussions with like-minded friends. The police took note of her behavior, and kept a watchful eye.
Katya attended medical school, graduating as a general practitioner. The pay was not much; she had to take odd jobs to help support her family and to purchase medicine for her patients.
And then, a glimmer of hope. Gotardo had a friend who had also obtained a U.S. visa through the lottery. The friend suggested a ‘marriage of convenience’ so Katya could emigrate with him. “At that point in Cuba, people were charging $10,000 [for that service],” Katya says. “He didn’t charge me anything.”
They were pronounced man and wife. But just as quickly as hope had arrived, it was dashed by the Cuban government. “They told me I couldn’t leave the country because I’m a doctor,” Katya said. She needed permission from the minister of health in order to emigrate.
Then her storybook non-romance hit a rough patch. “Six months later, his mother called and said he wanted a divorce. He wanted to marry someone in Miami,” Katya remembers. “It was okay with me.”
She worked as a doctor for five more years before she got approval to leave. In 2005, Katya finally moved to the United States. She is pleased with the outcome but bitter about how it played out. “They took time from my life,” Katya says.
Reunited in New Jersey
In 2007, Amaralis was given permission to move to New Jersey. She had waited 13 years for her visa to come through, and could now be reunited with her brother and two of her children. It wasn’t quite enough. Presilla explains, “I said at the embassy: The most important thing is that my son [Gustavo] has to come with me. If he is not able to come, I won’t go either.” Within a couple of months, Gustavo’s emigration was approved, and the family was complete once again.
Gustavo soon landed a job with an interior-design firm in Manhattan, but during the economic downturn was laid off. Another challenge he faces is being re-licensed as an architect in the United States. To do it, Gustavo must pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and complete an internship. There have been frustrations along this path, but he refused to give up.
And sure enough, Gustavo recently secured a position with a New Jersey architecture firm. “When I was in Cuba, I always had that image of American architects, like Frank Lloyd Wright. I wanted to do something in my profession in this country too,” he says. “Even in my darkest moments, when everything seemed very far away and unreachable, I still had this desire inside. I had to do it somehow.”
Meanwhile, Katya became licensed as a medical assistant in the U.S., and also as an ultrasound specialist. To make ends meet, she also works in a restaurant in Hoboken, the town where she lives. (Presilla and Gustavo recently moved from Union City to Weehawken.)
But Katya isn’t satisfied with her current role in the medical field.
“That kind of job is not right for me: It’s not thinking, it’s just doing. I’m a doctor, so my mind is wired differently,” she says. “So I decided to pursue my full medical license in the United States.”
Toward that goal – focusing on preventative medicine – there is still much testing and paperwork ahead. But like her brother, Katya absolutely will not quit. She said, “Even if I’m an old lady with a cane, I’m going to be a doctor.”
While her professional life is still in flux, Katya has found great rewards in the personal realm. Shortly after moving to the U.S., she met Laura Knittel, and they fell in love. Laura says, “I remember getting a phone call about two months into our relationship, from her mom in Cuba. Amarilis told me, ‘Laura, thank you for loving my daughter.’ I will never forget that.”
And now Katya has applied for one more license. “We’re getting married,” she happily says.
As for Presilla, she has had the great pleasure of seeing her family back together after so many years, and she continues to carve out her own existence in the United States.
She has started writing a new book while continuing to marvel at this new chapter in her own life. “Living here is a pleasure, fighting every day, learning every day from Americans,” she says. “I feel like I’ve known them since I was a little girl, because of my father. I admired this country, and I love it.” She adds with a smile, “I am American now.”