For passers-by, it looked like a normal scene of a dad grabbing breakfast with his daughter. But I had my reporter hat on. A conversation earlier in the week, where we discussed children being separated from their parents at the border, prompted the interview.
As a child and grandchild of war-torn immigrants from different parts of the world, I had learned that fleeing, in my family, was a generational rite of passage. “If my grandparents were alive,” I said, “they’d be dismayed.” Then I asked my dad what he thought.
He sat tall with a black coffee in hand. My dad was jailed as a teen for attempting to flee Communist Cuba. He, too, was separated from his family when they were imprisoned.
But he is also a Trump voter. And so he said, “Like my father, those parents have to be willing to face the ultimate consequences. I had to live them. He knew it; they should too.”
My heart sank. For decades, I had racked my brain and our relationship looking for answers about his knee-jerk political reactions, especially since the 2016 US presidential election — but this one seemed even more inconceivable than any of his others. I mean, how could he not make the connection between this administration’s zero tolerance policy and the horror he experienced?
We now know that trauma, especially in childhood, changes the wiring of our brains — impacting survivors’ ability to experience compassion in relation to how they process pain.
For some, it becomes a driving force to prevent it from happening to others. For others, like my dad, they hold themselves accountable for uncontrollable events. Their thinking: if victims are responsible for their misfortune, they can prevent it from happening again. It’s what professor of psychology at the University of the South, Sherry Hamby, calls the “just world hypothesis,” defined as the need to believe in the myth that we all deserve consequences — no matter how terrifying — in order to feel a sense of power over our lives.
By the time my grandfather cobbled up some money and convinced a man to fix a boat and escape, it was August 1966 — seven years into the Cuban Revolution he had helped win. But, now, he felt defrauded and disillusioned. My grandfather believed there was nothing left to fight for — “people were blind like sheep.” He also feared the Communist government would strip him and his wife of parental authority, sending their kids to one of the island’s forced re-education camps, or, worse, the Soviet Union.
And so my grandfather pieced together an escape plan. He, his wife and three children would get into the family car from Ciego de Avila and drive northeast. They’d later climb aboard a boat with another family to get to one of the offshore islands, before making way into open sea, where they’d wait for the US Coast Guard. Meanwhile, a friend would drive the abandoned car back to buy the family some time before anyone noticed they were gone.
“But that’s the thing with plans, they never quite go as expected,” explained my 68-year-old dad. After sleeping inside the car, they met up with the other family and a clandestine sailor they’d hired. They totaled four adults and nine minors, including a six-month old baby. The men and the older kids, like my dad, spent 24 hours in the water pushing the boat through a canal. They used machetes to cut through mangroves and tree roots. No one was allowed to speak or cry, or they risked being discovered.
Nightfall came as they entered a bay not far from the offshore island. All of a sudden, shots were fired into the air, lights came on in every direction, and they realized they were surrounded by a flotilla. “Stand down, or we will shoot,” they yelled. Their best efforts were thwarted. Turns out, the sailor had snitched on them.
Little did they know, they would never leave Cuba as a family.
After the trial, my dad was sentenced to political prison along with his dad and one of his siblings. He would serve three and a half years in a juvenile prison and never be allowed to go back to school. My dad tells me that it was the first time he learned “boys could be raped” and others beaten.
But none of the horrors he experienced in jail would compare to the “betrayal” he felt from his mother, who served my grandfather divorce papers in prison. “Allí fue donde todo se jodió, (that’s when everything went to s**t).”
He continued in tears, “It took me years to forgive my mother, only realizing it when she died. But this is the reason why I still believe divorce is never a good idea — it makes separation permanent. Children never recover regardless of how old they are when their parents break up.”
How we experience childhood trauma impacts our beliefs, personal and political.
In the same way that trauma and prison quashed my father’s ability to trust others, it also drove him to fulfill his idealized family dream of coming to America.
During an asylum interview in 1978 at the US Interests Section, a State Department unit that handled relations between the two countries until normalization in 2015, the case officer told him they needed to prioritize other political prisoners who had served longer sentences and could not grant him asylum then. But he wouldn’t forget what she told him next. “No matter where you go, please let us know where you end up,” she said. “We will always find a way to help you.”
My dad searched for an out from the island. He was granted political asylum in post-Francoist Spain. By then, he was married to his first wife, who had given birth to my older brother. She did not want to follow him, which meant divorce and separation — yet again. Ultimately, he got on the plane headed for Madrid.
It would take him over 20 years to be reunited with my brother. “No one ever wants to leave the place where they are born, I loved my town because it was mine. I left because staying wasn’t possible.”
From Spain, the US government would finally grant my dad entry into America. The new case officer would remind my dad of what he had been promised back in Cuba.
And here lies one of the biggest needs for trauma survivors — the ability to change the meaning of their lives. For my dad, it was no longer possible in Cuba after the initial separation that snowballed into prison, divorce, asylum and exile. Arriving to America gave him a sense of belonging and of achieving something far greater than himself.
It’s precisely what Viktor Frankl described when defining human freedom not as “freedom from but freedom to.”
“America is the only place where you can be you, and I can be me,” my dad affirmed at the cafe. Asked today, he doesn’t shy from telling you everything he sacrificed. But he also proceeds to list the three reasons that made the whole ordeal worth it: “Rembrandt, Romina and Raphael.” (Those are the names of me and my siblings.)
When my father learned about kids being separated at the border, his support for the separation policy as a Trump voter wasn’t fueled by a nativist attitude or a desire to close the door to others. (Unlike a majority of the GOP, my dad believes there should be another form of amnesty for the close to 11 million undocumented immigrants.) But it also didn’t make him question whether the democratic ideals he admires about his adopted homeland were being eroded.
By all accounts, my dad isn’t a white man from Middle America, but a Latino Jew who on paper should be the face of liberal values — and yet shockingly waves a Trump flag.
So I pressed him about how he reconciles his beliefs with GOP politics. He simply replied, “you put a kippah on your head when you go to synagogue. Christians remove hats at church. No one is asking you to take your head off.” In other words, just because he supports Trump doesn’t mean he has to agree and follow everything the GOP stands for.
I get it. There are lots of reasons why people adopt seemingly irrational political stances that, on the surface, seem to work against them. There are many immigrants or children of immigrants who are hardliners on immigration. And while my dad is definitely not the only Cuban American who voted for Trump, I do find his personal experience informed his political beliefs.
My dad’s way of processing trauma meant that he had to assume full responsibility, if not blame, for his experience — and so he applies that now to the parents who choose to make the perilous trek north. It’s the government’s prerogative to criminalize immigration or “catch and release” migrants. It rests on the parents to choose if they are willing to pay the ultimate price. According to his worldview, then, President Trump and his administration just can’t be at fault. Plus, he added, “I know those children are being cared for. They will never have to use a Turkish toilet or be fed cornmeal like me.”
But there’s a hidden cost to pay when the grandiosity of over-responsibility is unexamined. Even if this tendency momentarily reduces the anxiety that the event will reoccur, as researchers John H. Harvey and Brian G. Pauwels point out, “a misguided sense of power over uncontrollable events has strong demoralizing and self-defeating consequences. Furthermore, self-blame is linked with more distress, anxiety, depression, harsh self-criticism, low self-worth and poorer recovery from trauma.”
Self-blame is an additional and internal trauma that individuals, who survived the unimaginable, inflict upon themselves. The survivor keeps thinking about the event and what he or she could have said and done differently. It compromises the individual’s ability to form relationships and express things like trust, faith, empathy, forgiveness with others. This is something I witnessed covering conflict zones — whether on assignment as reporter or in my childhood home.
Toward the end of the interview, I remember it’s my professional duty to not attempt to change his mind about his beliefs. But perhaps, for the first time, it isn’t my job as his daughter either.