The details of that day at the Havana airport are etched in Susana Munro's memory. The security checkpoint, the search, the steps to the airplane, the shoes she was wearing ... she remembers it all.
It was the last day in her native Cuba, the day of goodbyes, the day when, in her teens, she took a leap of faith to the unknown: a new country, new life. It was the last time she saw her grandmother, with tears in her eyes, waving goodbye at the airport. Her mother was there, too, barely holding back her tears.
"When we got through security, the airplane was at the tarmac, and as we were approaching the airplane they told us that if we wanted to wave our families last goodbyes we had to look upstairs. I remember to this day as I was going up the airplane stairs. I had the highest heels, I was wearing a suit and a jacket. ... I had a red pocketbook, and I said to myself, 'My mother was right; these were not the right shoes.' "
Then Susana turned around, and she caught her mother's eyes. "I could make out what she was saying. She was mastering the words through her tears: 'Goodbye. Fly to freedom; fly to freedom,' she said." Susana wipes her tears as she tells the story.
When Susana left Cuba at age 15 in the early '60s, she was part of Operation Pedro Pan, or the "Peter Pan exodus," the operation conducted to transport Cuban children to America. These were the children whose parents opposed Fidel Castro's government and its policies. With the help of the Roman Catholic Diocese, the children were sent to Miami. Between 1960 and 1962, nearly 14,000 Cuban children immigrated to the U.S. to avoid the doctrine of Castro's government. On her flight, Susana was the oldest; the youngest child was 5.
She didn't know when she would see her parents again. The emotional reunion happened seven years later at the Kennedy Airport in New York City; Susana already had become a mother.
She lived in many places: Florida, New York, Oregon, Texas, Canada, California. Pittsburgh became her destination in 2005. Her daughter had a stroke and other health complications. Susana's son was stationed in Pittsburgh as an air marshal then and invited his sister to recuperate here. Susana wanted to be close to her children; she and her husband, now deceased, moved to Pittsburgh.
"My first impression of Pittsburgh was not a good one. My daughter was the one who said that it was a fantastic city. All these bridges. ... I had no idea where I was going, but now I am the one navigating. So it took me two years to adjust, but I think Pittsburgh is a little jewel. It has had a bad rap around it, but we have a lot going for us. The people of Pittsburgh are awesome, and the health care has been terrific. This is a very wholesome city."
Susana's professional life has always been about helping people, whether as government worker or volunteer. With Spanish as her native language, she helped immigrant families with legal documents, settlement and translations.
"I became a refugee for political reasons, and I believe that, as a nation, we have a moral obligation to do everything for immigrants, regardless of nationality, to help them integrate, to help them live the dream. We should not be questioning the reasons why they are here. We should do whatever we can to lighten their load, to help them integrate," Susana says.
As a Latina, Susana would like to see Pittsburgh become even more diverse. "Pittsburgh has the black, the white, the Greek, the Italian, the Slovak. What Pittsburgh is lacking is its Latin flavor. It's there, but it's hidden. I would love to see Cinco de Mayo on Market Square, I would love to see something like a Little Italy with a Latin flavor, Latinland or something. ... I think there is more that unites us than divides us."
Susana became an American citizen after living in the States for more than 20 years.
"Between the birth of my children and the reunification with my family, becoming an American citizen ranks very high on that list, as high as when I went to my son's graduation from the Marine Corps. When you have lived through things that I lived through and you start from scratch and you integrate and you have your kids and family here, it's a big step to become a citizen. You have to be fully committed. These are not just words. Will you bear arms to protect the Constitution of the United States? Yes. I will bear arms, and I will lay [down] my life for it."
As for Pittsburgh, Susana says, "It's a gorgeous city. It has a big heart. It just needs to open it up."
To hear more stories from immigrants who have found a new home in Pittsburgh, go to http://newsinteractive.post-gazette.com/odysseys/
Mila Sanina: email@example.com or on Twitter @pgmila.