With the help of a congressman, Castellanos escapes Cuba and unites with family

Rolando Castellanos (submitted)

Upper School Spanish teacher Rolando Castellanos embraces his parents upon his arrival to the MInneapolis-St. Paul Airport in 1978.

While the United States is a nation comprised entirely of immigrants and descendents of immigrants, getting here is often more difficult than it’s portrayed.  Upper School Spanish teacher Rolando Castellanos’ story is a prime example of this.  Castellanos came to the United States from Cuba in the summer of 1978, when he was 26.  He then joined his family, who had immigrated to St. Cloud, Minnesota ten years previously.

Castellanos and his family were fleeing political changes in Cuba, where communist dictator Fidel Castro instigated when he took power at midcentury. “Living in a communist country, you live under all sorts of restrictions that make life a little unpleasant,” Castellanos said, “like the lack of freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of movement…They only allow one political party, and if an individual challenges the status quo, it is believed that there is something intrinsically wrong with the individual.”

Castellanos’ parents and younger siblings left Cuba in 1968, but Rolando, the oldest, had to stay behind.  The Cuban government, in hopes of curbing emigration, had instated a law forbidding men of military age, from 15 to 27 years old, from leaving the country.  Before Castellanos reached the age where he could leave the country again, Cuba and America had entered their long-standing trade embargo, and Cuban immigration to the United States was cut off completely.  The policy “made that fear of not being able to reunite a very real one… the prospects of me leaving Cuba were very slim,” Castellanos said.

He stayed with his grandparents for the next several years.  “I became a high school teacher, and I taught earth science in boarding school on a banana plantation.”

Castellanos’ chance came in 1977, when his parents’ representative, congressman Rick Nolan, was sent to Havana by President Carter with a collection of executives.  The mission was an attempt to improve relations between the United States and Cuba and to negotiate the release of the remaining American prisoners held in Cuba after the infamous 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.  Castellanos’ parents contacted Nolan before he left to ask him to try and bring their son home.  Nolan agreed.  He later said that “he had two goals in Havana… get these Americans out of jail and get Rolandito to the U.S. to join his family,” according to Castellanos.  Castro agreed, and gave the Cuban immigration department a personal order to find Castellanos and tell him he could leave.  The U.S. had recently opened its first consulate in Havana since 1960, and Castellanos was told to go there.  “I was given an envelope…to be opened only by immigration officials of the United States.”  He then took a plane to Kingston, Jamaica, and then another to Miami, Florida.  Upon handing his envelop to immigration officials, he was taken to a back room to wait while they cleared him.  His was the first American visa given to a Cuban citizen since the beginning of the embargo.

When he finally got to Minneapolis, Castellanos was greeted by his younger sister, who he’d never met.  She was nine, and his parents had left Cuba before she was born.  “After being apart for ten years, it was a process” readjusting to family life.  But getting caught up with his family was only one of the difficulties Castellanos faced in his new home.  “The language was a big barrier, not only for surviving in the state but for communicating with my siblings,” many of whom spoke primarily English.  “I didn’t know any English back then.  Zero.” Fortunately, Castellanos was a quick learner, and intensely focused.  “Learning English became an obsession for me,” he said.  “I squeezed my brain to learn your crazy language.”  On top of these challenges, Castellanos had to adjust to the climate.  Having spent his entire life in tropical Cuba, he’d never seen snow, much less dealt with subzero temperatures.  “My first winter here was very interesting, what with the snow and the temperatures and what have you,” he said.  But he stayed, and became a Spanish teacher at St. Paul Academy and Summit School eighteen years ago.