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Childhood Memories Of The Cuban Missile Crisis


This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Rwanda has just been voted onto the U.N. Security Council for a two-year term. We will speak to the country's foreign minister about that and the country's ongoing efforts to move beyond its painful history of genocide and violence.

But first, it's been 50 years since the United States - and indeed, the world - was brought to the brink of nuclear war. School children were taught to hide under their desks. Parents spoke in hushed tones about where they would go and what they would do if the worst came to pass. The episode has become known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. Here is President Kennedy addressing the nation about the threat 50 years ago today.


MARTIN: We wanted to take a look back at how the episode touched the lives of people who lived through it, so we've called upon two people who have strong memories of it, both in the U.S. and in Cuba. I'm joined by Marta Maria Darby. She was a child living in Miami during the crisis. She now writes about Cuban food and culture at mybigfatcubanfamily.com.

Also with us is Maria Salgado. She was a child living in Cuba at the time, and she's now a project manager for Dell.

Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

MARTA MARIA DARBY: Hello, Michel. Thanks for having us.

MARIA SALGADO: Hello, Michel. Thank you so much for giving us the opportunity.

MARTIN: So, Marta, I'm going to start with you. You were in the United States during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and I know that you were very young at the time. But what do you remember of it most? What are your first impressions?

DARBY: I remember when the announcement happened and my family reacted with: The world is going to end, and it had something to do with Cuba. I was seven years old at the time, and it was quite an impression. We sat and thought: Where would they strike first? We've had this - it was a sort of surreal conversation. I was very afraid.

And then the adults in the house started wondering, well, maybe they'll hit New York first. And so I didn't sleep for days. It was quite frightening.

MARTIN: Maria, as a young girl in Cuba, what do you remember?

SALGADO: I remember just the secrecy around it. I think in our culture, in our Cuban culture, parents are very, I would say - they try to protect and isolate their children - not that all parents don't do that, but in our culture, it seems sometimes to be to excess. I also remember family members from out of town coming in and everyone being in our same hometown because, like Marta says, you know, the world was going to end. So you wanted to be near your family, near your loved ones.

MARTIN: Did you have any sense, Maria, of what the politics of it were? And I know you were both very young at the time, but was there any sense of who's doing this? Why is this happening?

SALGADO: Well, it was always Fidel. You know, it was all about Fidel and whether or not the United States wanted to support the Cuban people, and that kind of thing, that it was all about a balance of power, if you will.

MARTIN: Maria, what about you? I was wondering whether there was any fear because you were Cuban-American. You know, living in the United States, but your roots are in Cuba. Your family had left and were no fans of the regime, but were you worried at all that other people would blame you? That other kids or other non-Cuban-Americans would blame you for this crisis somehow?

DARBY: There was a group of Cuban kids that I went to school with. We lived in Miami at the time, and there was mostly - our school had mostly Jewish kids and Cuban kids, and we were a small population. And we talked about this. I do remember talking about this amongst ourselves. And I think at the time we were afraid that maybe something would happen to us much like the Japanese interment camps during World War II. And there were whispers of that. Maybe they'll take us away and hide us somewhere. And that was a little bit scary.

MARTIN: You also talked about doing these duck-and-cover drills at school.


MARTIN: Can you talk a little bit about that?

DARBY: Yes. Like it wasn't enough that we thought the world was already ending, they would have - we started to do these drills. And I know it was just that week, because it never really happened again. They would kind of turn on the fire alarms, say OK, when you hear the alarm, you dive under your desk.

And I remember, even as a child, thinking, like, really? This is going to prevent a bomb from destroying us?


DARBY: It was kind of surreal.

MARTIN: Even at the time, you thought this is crazy, but I'm going to go with it.

DARBY: Yes, absolutely.

MARTIN: This is what the adults want me to do.


DARBY: Yes. But I remember that it felt like everything had gone crazy, just like that. Like, what is happening? The world is ending, and now we have to hide under our desks? And, yeah. That was kind of funny, in a way.

MARTIN: Maria Salgado, you were in Cuba at the time, as we said. Did you have to do these kinds of drills? Was this kind of thing - were there any preparations being made in case the worst should happen, that you recall?

SALGADO: Well, I think what I remember was sort of preparations very much in the way that one would prepare for, you know, having lived in South Florida a number of years in my life, a huge hurricane, where you prepare, you know, goods in the home and water supply and things of that nature.

I want to interject here that if you were in Cuba at that time, in 1962, remember that there had been so many events that were taking place that led up to that Cuban Missile Crisis - you know, the revolutions, the rebels up in the mountains marching through the towns, the nationalization of businesses, the religious community being asked to leave the country.

So I think if you were in Cuba, this was just one of many events, and this turned out to be the huge, huge event that kind of magnified things for the world because of the nuclear implications.

MARTIN: But did you know that at the time? I mean, this is how we're looking at it in hindsight, but, you know, at the time, and obviously through your child's eyes, was there a sense that - you had just mentioned that there had been these ongoing, you know, crises and disruptions and - but did you feel at the time, did the adults communicate at the time this could be the end?

SALGADO: You know, as Marta says, you know, when you're a child - and I was six - you remember the things that a six-year-old remembers. So I remember this sort of hush-hush talking, the where-everyone-is-at kind of thing, where family members were at that time. Some had already divided up as some being pro-Castro, some being against Castro.

So as a child, you kind of learn to watch what you say, who you say it to. Maybe you weren't allowed to, you know, play with certain neighbors, and you were just kind of kept real tight in the fold of the home.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Today marks the 50th anniversary of the American naval blockade of Cuba. The episode's become known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, and it did, indeed, bring the region and the world to the brink of nuclear war.

But we're focusing on two people who lived through it as children, one in Cuba, one in the United States. Marta Maria Darby was living in Miami during the crisis. Her family had left Cuba the year before. Maria Salgado was in Cuba at the time.

So now that you're both adults - and obviously, you had a chance to learn more about the history - Maria, I'll start with you first: When you think back at this episode, how do you see it as kind of - do you see it as part of your childhood memory? Do you see it as - do you see yourself as kind of part of history, in a way? Or how do you view it now?

SALGADO: You know, I think I view it as it's my life. You know, it's sort of what happened to me, not in an extraordinary context. I'm only reminded of that when we discuss it in this kind of forum. Otherwise, it's sort of what happened to myself and my family.

MARTIN: I would imagine that the same was true - Maria was saying that, you know, families were divided at this time. Some were pro-Castro, and many were anti-Castro, and your family had left. And I wonder, did you have any communications with the family in Cuba, or - where you become aware of them later, where there was estrangement over this?

DARBY: The family that had stayed in Cuba, my parents, their siblings and their families, they were pro-revolution. And we had left. But there was always, like Maria said, that underlying sense of family. So I remember that we needed to call my grandmother, who was still in Cuba, and make sure that she was OK.

Although again, you know, in retrospect you think - what could really we do? Just to hear her voice, say hello, we love you, good-bye.

MARTIN: Maria, what about you?

SALGADO: The same thing. It was about family. Even now as an adult, when we've had communication with family members that continue - there's only one right now - that continues to be pro-Castro, that is not discussed. You know, what is important is the family, you know, gathering and having some time together.

MARTIN: And Maria, obviously we're talking to you, you're in the United States now. Your family did eventually leave Cuba. Do you have any sense of whether that had anything to do with it? The sense that this is just too much?

SALGADO: Yeah. For my father it became too much. We had plenty of opportunities to leave prior to the freedom flights, to, you know, do the journey across Florida straits. And he felt like, that he did not want to put his family in that type of danger. So we had family here in New York already - my grandfather on my mother's side and I had uncles and aunts and so forth. And so we were brought through the freedom flights via my grandfather.

MARTIN: And I wanted to finally ask you the same question that I asked Marta earlier, which is when you think about this now, how do you see it? When you think about the Cuban Missile Crisis now, do you see it as kind of part of your family story? Or what do you see?

SALGADO: Yeah. I do see it as kind of our family story. You know, it's personal. You're sitting there on this very small island with nuclear weapons pointed to a huge, huge country with a possibility that they're going to bomb each other back and forth. And you know, there would be talk that this would have been much greater than Hiroshima. So it's very personal.

MARTIN: Maria Salgado was living in Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis. She's now a project manager for Dell and she was kind enough to join us in our bureau in New York. Marta Maria Darby is a blogger at mybigfatcubanfamily.com. She was living in Miami during the Cuban Missile Crisis and she was kind enough to join us from our NPR West bureau in Culver City, California. Thank you both so much for joining us and thank you for sharing your memories with us.

DARBY: Thank you, Michel.

SALGADO: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.