History is her story
June 10, 2008 · Updated 5:32 PM
"Escape from Cuba adds personal dimension to Poulsbo teacher's lessonsOne day when Marta Richardson was young and still lived in Cuba, her father and brother were driving in the country and found a cow with its head caught between the slats of a fence. So José Perez, her father, and José Manuel, her older brother, chopped the head off of the cow and somehow lifted the carcass into the car. It dripped blood all the way home. Drops of blood fell from the trunk of the car into the street. When they had driven home and dragged the body of the cow into the courtyard, which was shaded by walls and trees, the family set to chopping up the cow. Soon chunks of meat lay on the ground. Meat to be sold, to be given away, but most of all to be eaten. For Richardson's family, it was a happy time. But the family was reminded of the danger when the head of a neighbor, a known spy for the government, popped up above the wall. She looked at the scene for a moment: the slaughtered cow, the piles of precious meat. Then she asked, Do you think I could have some of that? We forgot about it, Richardson said. That's how excited we were. The story, she said, is an example of the ingenuity of her father, and the survival instinct of her family. Richardson said, We didn't even think about it. We just did it. It's something you had to do and you did it. You only think about what could have happened later. 'It made honest people go bad.' Richardson, now a language and social studies teacher at Poulsbo Junior High, was born in Cuba in July, 1946. She lived with her father and mother and older brother and two younger sisters in Camagüey, a city not much smaller than Tacoma. It was in one of Cuba's five provinces, and the province rolled with farmland and cattle. Her father was an electrician and mechanic; her mother was a homemaker. The family lived on the outskirts until Marta was 14, when they moved inside the city next to their grandparents. Marta went to a Catholic school, a two-story building that housed grades one through twelve. It kept us on the straight and narrow, she said. It was one of those straight and narrow places. She had a big family with many cousins and lots of friends. Sometimes they would meet in the city center, El Comercia. You know how there's cruising with cars? Richardson asks. We just cruised by walking around. We'd make plans to go to a party or movies. We just went everywhere as a big group, walked everywhere as a big group. We didn't listen to a radio growing up. We just conversed with each other. We had a blast. Although Richardson had ideas that she wanted to be a teacher, in those days they weren't fully formed. I was just a student, she said. I had no idea. In 1959, when Castro's revolution changed the country forever, they closed the school. From then on Marta was tutored at home. She didn't even go by the building anymore. I don't know what they did with it, she said of the building. We never went there. Overnight, Richardson said, the revolution changed everything. The food was gone, she said. Every day necessities like clothing, like shoes. And I don't know why. It doesn't make any sense. The family received a ration book. To get rations, someone had to wait in line, sometimes overnight. Family would bring you food so you could eat, Richardson said. And whatever you got, you got, whether it was your size or not. It made honest people go bad. The government didn't extend its reach into only the family's kitchen, but the family's church as well. Richardson, whose family were strict Catholics, found her religion virtually outlawed. They went to mass anyway, Richardson said. They kept the doors and windows closed. And sometimes troops would come in, breaking down the doors and windows and desecrating the altar. If anyone got in their way, they took them away, Richardson said. They did it for no reason. No reason but to harass us. There was a procession that Richardson remembers, called Our Ladies of Charity. The faithful bring the Virgin Mary back to the church. It was a ceremony essential enough to Catholics that they would risk the government's threats to perform it. One of those participating was Marta's cousin. As a nervous militia watched, Marta's cousin and many others wound their way through the city towards the church. Then the militia, spooked, fired bullets over their heads. Marta's cousin ended up in prison for three days. He was lucky. One of Marta's brothers-in-law was executed. He had hijacked a plane to leave Cuba. Then he came back to help others escape and was caught. Marta also said, Certain things - you have nightmares forever. 'We can't wait anymore.' Marta's father José also left Cuba. He went to Miami and worked to earn money to bring his family to America. He worked for an airline. He worked really hard to send us money. It got to be too much for him, Richardson said. So instead, he came back to Cuba with a boat and three other men, all prepared to help their families escape. It was riskier than having a cow in the back of your car. It could mean death, Richardson said. There wouldn't even be a trial, she said. Marta was 17 when José came back, and the family was spending the summer at the beach. That's where she was when she learned he was back: Sitting on the beach. Writing. Relatives found her there and said that José had returned, and he was going to take the family to America. Marta didn't want to go. I didn't want to go. It was scary, she said. She said: I was 17. I said I would love going to the U.S. but when reality hit, I didn't want to go. But, she went. They took a car to another provence. They all met in a park, Marta and her family and the families of the other men who had come back with her father. More than 20 all told. We had to walk through fields and people's houses, Richardson said. We had to do that at night. As they walked, someone ordered, Little ones - hold hands. Pretty soon I had these two little hands holding mine, Richardson said. I didn't even know them. As they walked they were dive-bombed by mosquitoes. When they got to the boat, the only food left from the trip from Florida were cans of Hawaiian Punch. When they got to the boat, they heard rotors buzzing overhead. Helicopters. They would roar, then the sound would lessen until the helicopters were gone. Then they would roar again, coming back. Looking for them. Some of the people hid in the cabin. Some lowered themselves into the water beside the boat. We tried to be still and be quiet, Richardson said. Finally, her father said, We can't wait anymore. They all climbed into the boat. All the men had rifles. I thought, 'Dear Lord, here we go,' Richardson said. The second half of Marta's story, including her escape to America and, eventually, Poulsbo, will be in Saturday's Herald. "