Today, I have the pleasure to showcase Fernando “Fernán” Hernández, author of The Cubans: Our Footprints Across America and The Cubans: Our Legacy in the United States. I met “Fernán” through a Facebook group composed of Pedro Pans, persons who participated in an exodus of Cuban children to America in the early 60s.
Your book, The Cubans: Our Footprints Across America, was recently published. Congratulations. Before we talk about it, however, I would like to ask about its prequel, The Cubans: Our Legacy in the United States, published in 2012. What made you decide to write that book?
That’s a good question. For some time I had been pondering how much did I really know about the Cuban community in the United States and our impact in American society. I also wondered how much did my two adult children know about their roots and what people of Cuban origin had contributed in making this country a better place to live. So I started to research and found myself surprised at the number of notable and important folks of Cuban background that through multiple generations had and continue to make substantial contributions in the USA.
In your first book you write about Celia Cruz, Desi Arnaz and others whose names are well known in this country. In your new book, you concentrate on Cubans who are less familiar to the American public, even to a Cuban audience. During your research what was the biggest surprise you encountered, the one person that made you say,”Gee, I didn’t know that Cuban was responsible for that.”
As we say in cubanese, “me la pusistes en China”(translation: that’s a tough one). Definitely one person that fits the description is Ysrael Seinuk (1931-2010) who was a structural engineer, the only child of Lithuanian Jews who immigrated to Cuba. Many people are unaware that prior to the communist revolution in 1959, Cuba was a nation that attracted immigrants from all over the world. Seinuk graduated from the University of Havana in 1954 and fled once Castro took control. He arrived in New York City with $20 in his pocket, his slide ruler, and diploma from the University of Havana. In a few years he became known as one of the world’s foremost experts in the structural design of skyscrapers. The New York Times reported that he “made it possible for many of New York City’s tallest new buildings to withstand wind, gravity, and even earthquakes”. His method was to use reinforced concrete instead of steel. In 2004, Real Estate Weekly wrote, “you can’t walk down the streets of Manhattan without seeing a building that famed structural engineer Ysrael Seinuk hasn’t touched”. He was known as “Mr. New York.” Among some of his works are the 70-story Trump World Tower, Trump International Hotel and Tower, and the 58-story Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue. He was an amazing engineer and I am extremely proud that he was Cuban. I grew up in Manhattan and now I wonder how many of his tall buildings I walked by every day
In Footprints, you devote a chapter to the Pedro Pan program, an exodus to this country of more than 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children between 1960 and 1962. In that chapter you included me among some Pedro Pans whose accomplishments were worth mentioning. Thank you for the honor. I’m sure there are many more who deserve recognition. Have you received flak from some who felt slighted?
No, not yet! The book is so new in the market that many are unaware of it. But once folks read it I am sure some feel they deserve to be included, or ask me why so and so is omitted. My purpose is to have a representative sample; my intention has never been to write an all-inclusive book. Even now I become aware of many who are worthy to be included, but one has to ask, when do I stop writing? By the way, you are profiled in The Cubans: Our Footprints Across America because undoubtedly you earned your place there.
You, yourself, were part of the program along with your brother. You were 9 years old at the time and your brother, 11. What was the most difficult part of your experience as a Pedro Pan?
We Pedro Pan veterans have our own unique individual story, as you well know. In my case it is so difficult to explain. When I left my hometown of Banes, my father was so heartbroken that he could not muster the courage to say goodbye to my brother and me. My mother was the one who took us to Havana and eventually stayed with us as we left for Miami. Our mother never shed a single tear as we spent a few days in Havana before our departure. I recall a relative telling me as we left for the capital not to cry, for I had to be “a little man” from now on. The day that we left, July 8th, 1962, mom stayed by our side until we boarded, she never cried in our presence. Even now as I write this, I have tears streaming down my face. When I sat in the plane and peered out the window, I could see mom waving a handkerchief towards the plane, embrace another woman and just drown in tears. This loving, unconditional mother held on until the last possible moment to release her emotions and worries as to what would happen to her little boys. She thought I could not see her….but to my last breath I cannot erase that image of her. Last night during my book presentation someone who knew my parents well told me he never saw a man (my father) cry so much for his children as he did. So I can say my parents’ suffering is my most difficult experience as a Pedro Pan. I must note that they never talked about the separation from us and the heartbreak they endured during almost four years.
It took four years before you were reunited with your parents. What kept you going during that time?
I was blessed because my brother and I spent the first 9 months living with a cousin in Miami and then we went to live with a maternal aunt and her family. They were our second parents, very loving and caring. The family atmosphere fostered a secure and stable life for the two of us until our parents came to the U.S. My aunt told me that the day we moved away with our parents, she and her husband cried because they had come to love us as their own.
How has the Pedro Pan experience shaped you as a person?
I have learned to overcome adversity and to depend on myself. I have also realized the reality of God and His presence in times of troubles and uncertainty. Somehow during my years of separation from my parents I always felt a gentle presence guiding and leading my life, I also sensed I was being protected from heaven.
I understand you had a public launch of Footprints in Miami recently. How was the book received?
On July 19th, the official launch of the book took place. I actually did not get a shipment of books until this past Wednesday. The book was made available by www.Amazon.com.on July 9th. The presentation went very well, I selected a few people profiled in the book and expanded on their lives and activities in the U.S. Some of the people I talked about were born in this country in the 1800s of Cuban origin and this made the audience want to know more about the book. I was especially happy that a good group of Pedro Pans attended the book reading.
It is clear you love your homeland and have a desire to share that passion through your writing. Do you think you’ve exhausted the number of Cuban Americans who have distinguished themselves in the United States, or is there room for a third book?
There is definitely room for a third book. During my research for this last book I intentionally omitted many sports figures because they would “occupy” too much space and some folks are not interested in sports. I wanted to provide a balance that represented many sectors, such as business, education, politics, music, etc. I want my readers to enjoy a cross-sectional view of what Cubans have done and do to enrich this great country.
What is the one thing you hope people take from both books, Legacy and Footprints?
I want people to understand that although the Cuban-American community is only 3.6% of the Hispanic population within the United States, our contributions and impact in American society is something we should be proud of. The books are also a testimony to the greatness of what America offers immigrants: an opportunity to excel, grow and reap the benefits that a free and democratic society provides to those who work hard and sacrifice. I do agree: there is no free lunch.
For my review of The Cubans: Our Footprints Across America, go to www.Amazon.com.
About the author:
Fernando “Fernán” Hernández is a graduate of Power Memorial Academy in Manhattan and St. Thomas University in Miami, where he earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in Communication Arts and Management. Besides The Cubans: Our Legacy in the United States and The Cubans: Our Footprints Across America, Hernández is the author of Spanish-language books, Potaje, and Lo que aprendí de mi perro, and has written a short story, Knutts’ Cases about fictional psychiatrist R. U. Knutts. His work also appears in the anthology Un Horizonte Literario: Poesías, Cuentos y Algo Más. He and his wife Josie have two adult children and make their home in Miami, Florida.