A Cuban Catholic Keeps the Faith In America
By Margarita Mendoza, Editor El Observador
September 22, 2022
AURORA—According to the Diocesan Planning Office, at present it is estimated there are more than 400,000 Catholics in the Rockford Diocese, and of those 42% are Hispanic.
That number is the result of decades of immigration. Hispanics in the diocese and across the United States originated in many countries. 
Those include thousands of Cubans, many of them Catholic, who fled Cuba by crossing 103 ocean miles to the U.S. in rudimentary and dangerous boats. 
Although many have died trying to escape from Cuba, most have managed to reach their northern U.S. neighbor. 
One of them is Alejandro Martínez who left Cuba “fleeing from communism,” he says. 
“Before communism, Cuba was as if it were here in the United States. The money was worth the same, the American money ran with the Cuban at par,” Martínez says. “There was everything; it’s not like
now (when) everything is rationed.” 
He recalls that “the revolution triumphed in 1959,” then Fidel Castro took power by overthrowing Fulgencio Batista. 
“I was a military man. I was in the army of the Batista government,” he says. 
For that reason, by the time Martínez was 25 years old, he had already been imprisoned twice. 
The first time he was confined “during six months in an underground castle, called San Severino, by the sea,” where the dungeons are dark and humid, with limited ventilation. “I never went to trial, (but) those who were with me did,” and many were executed,” he says.
“Later, shortly after being released, we got a boat to leave Cuba,” he says. But they were discovered and were imprisoned again, for 31 days. 
Still, they tried again. “In 1961, we left in a small 22-foot boat, with 17 people aboard,” including Martínez’ brother Roberto. They left the island “at night and when the lights of Cuba were still visible, the motor of the boat broke,” he recalls They drifted on the high seas for three days and nights. 
“The streams took us to the Gulf of Mexico. And, when we had lost hope, an American ship appeared; the Marine Guard rescued us and brought us to Key West,” he says with the passivity that the years give.
Martínez says he is thankful to “God for everything I’ve been through, because He has been there… so that I could get here” to realize the American dream. 
Leaving behind the tropical temperatures, he traveled from Florida to Illinois, where Way Side Cross Ministries in Aurora was his refuge. 
“I spent five months working in the mission until I got a job in a nursery, earning 80 cents an hour. I worked nine hours (each day) from Monday to Friday, eight hours on Saturday and five on Sunday. From there, I went to work in a coat factory here in Aurora, where I worked for 31 years.”
Yuca in garlic mojo was replaced by French fries and the Cuban comfort food called “picadillo” was replaced by sweet beans. Occasional hamburgers and hot dogs were at times a true luxury. Almost every aspect of Martínez’ former life was replaced in his new land. 
The only thing that has remained through the years has been his faith. “My house has always been Catholic,” he says. 
Separated from their family at a time when people waited days and weeks to receive a telegram or a letter and landline phones were an expensive way to communicate long distance, the brothers continued on. The harsh winters of the Midwest made them yearn for the eternal summer on the beautiful beaches of Varadero, near the house where they grew up. 
But new friends became their adoptive family, a bilingual and multicultural family. 
Years passed, and after unsuccessful attempts to reunite with his family, President Lyndon B. Johnson “put the flights for us to bring the relatives.” Those who joined him in the U.S., he says, were “my wife, 10 of my brothers and my fathers.”
Catholic beyond the border 
After first attending St. Therese of Jesus Parish, “in the (19)70s we came to Santa Rita (of Cascia),” he says. “At that time there was no Mass in Spanish … the priest who was there was an American father named Father (Everett) Hiller. He wanted to help us, and he started giving us the Masses, and someone interpreting.” 
Also, 3 to 4 “nuns from Cristo Rey” who lived in a building behind St. Nicholas Church were helpful, he says, noting the communion services they provided when a priest was not available.
Later, another priest “gave us the Mass for two years.” After that, a “priest of the Sacred Heart” and from other churches and Marmion Academy provided Masses in Spanish,” he says. 
Then, when the Diocese of Rockford “put Father Roberto (Willhite) in, everything was formalized,” Martínez says. 
“At first, we were a small group of about 20, nothing more,” he says, adding that after Msgr. Willhite’s assignment, the numbers at Spanish Masses began to increase.
Cuban traditions 
A devotion to Our Lady of Charity unites Cubans, especially on Sept. 8. 
Martínez has vivid memories of that festivity in Cuba, describing how “the procession would come out first, then in the afternoon there would be a party, festival, dance and everything. Each town had its own celebration … After Fidel arrived, all that ended. 
“The communists do not believe … and see religion as an enemy … now they (the Cuban government) are finally a little bit more open.” 
After 17 years in the U.S., Martínez returned to Cuba to be the godfather at a nephew’s baptism. He was surprised when he saw only five people in the church. “There was no one else but us. Godparents and family. People didn’t go to church, they were afraid,” he says, of losing their jobs and of being socially segregated and losing any kind of government support.
Over the years, as their lives improved, Martínez and his family have shared their blessings with his Cuban hometown. “The church (there) was in very bad condition, and we collected money and had it repaired,” he says. 
In Aurora, Martínez helps local organizations that assist persons who are homeless, as he once was. His brothers and relatives meet weekly for lunch, and their gatherings include priest friends from the parishes they attend. 
They are a family united by the great heritage of faith. 
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