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Posted November 24, 2003 by publisher in Cuba Travel

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Pam McLoughlin | New Haven Register

It’s been 40 years since Maria Gelabert was a 7-year-old girl forced to work in the fields of rural Cuba, but tears still come easily when she talks about the lunch she and the other children were fed: sugar, water and two crackers.

Since then, she’s fulfilled the American dream — opening a successful hair salon and buying a house in Orange.

“We lost so much of life that the little we have, we want to hold onto forever,” Gelabert said.

But it all came at a heartbreaking price.

Like other immigrants, she left a large, close family of cousins when, at age 12, she, her parents and an older sister fled what is known by Cuban emigres as the “barbaric time.”

This month, Gelabert returned to Cuba for the first time.

She bore gifts of soap, toothpaste, medicine, clothes and rosary beads, mostly donated by her American “family,” clients at her A Touch of Style salon in West Haven.

Her eldest son, Anthony Gelabert, 27, who grew up hearing the horror stories, joined his mother and came back to this country a changed man.

They traveled Nov. 1-8 on a humanitarian visa through Mar Azul, a travel agency owned by Fidel Castro.

Maria Gelabert was reunited with 48 cousins and two uncles, most of whom she had kept in touch with by phone.

“No matter how many material things a human being has, the most precious thing they can have is family,” Gelabert said.

She saw the grim reminders of malnourishment, poverty and tight government restrictions.

“I had mixed emotions leaving (the United States) and landing (in Cuba),” Gelabert said. “I was happy, angry, sad.

Every emotion you can find. Sometimes I feel like I’m caught between two flags.”


Anthony Gelabert cried when he met a 26-year-old male cousin, Joan, who had only one pair of pants and two shirts that he had washed by hand thousands of times.

“There were a lot of tears,” said Anthony Gelabert, who left Joan many of his clothes. “I feel like since I met my cousin, now I have a purpose in life. I have to help people. I made a promise that I was going back.”

The “gifts” they brought for family and for strangers in the poorest sections of Havana included 42 bars of soap, a hot commodity since rations provide a family of four with only one bar of soap a month.

They took 20 pounds each of over-the-counter medicine, the legal limit, including Tylenol, ibuprofen, cough syrup and other items that Americans take for granted. There is socialized medicine in Cuba, but very little medication, Maria Gelabert said.

They also brought toothpaste, razors, 220 pounds of clothing, money and rosary beads and religious medals.

At her popular salon, Maria Gelabert greets customers with a big “Hola.” Aside from getting coifed there, they celebrate many birthdays, solve problems, say “I love you” when they leave, and drop in to chat.

So customers have all heard the stories about Cuba.

One customer gave them the soap that they brought. Another gave 85 sets of rosary beads.

Dolores Piascik of West Haven gave cash. Many items, such as beef, can’t be purchased in Cuba without American dollars.

If a government official smells steak coming from a home, he has the right to knock on the door and ask for a ticket of proof that it was purchased with dollars. If there’s no ticket, police are called and a person can be jailed.

“I thought she did a wonderful job.

I’m very proud of her,” Piascik said of Maria Gelabert. “She came home very upset about the problems. She wears her heart on her sleeve.”

Ellie Devokaitis, also of West Haven, donated shoes, clothes, pocketbooks and costume jewelry that’s worthless here but, she learned from Gelabert, can be sold in Cuba for food money.

“It blows my mind that we have people hungry in the world today,” Devokaitis said.

Ashley Manseau, 13, of West Haven, cleaned out her closet and drawers for Gelabert.

“I feel bad because they probably do need clothes, and I have so much,” Ashley said.

Nurse Nancy Prall of Milford, who takes care of one of Gelabert’s clients, filled her cart with aspirin, bandages, antibiotic ointment and other medicines.

“I feel bad that anyone has to live under those conditions,” she said.

Dorothy Rusinik was among those who donated rosary beads and cards with prayers to say the rosary.

“With all the religious restrictions (in Cuba), they’re dying for religious comfort,” Rusinik said.

Cuba now is a little more open to Roman Catholicism, since a visit by John Paul II about seven years ago, but Fidel Castro does not encourage religion. At one time, people were punished for worshipping.


Maria Gelabert’s husband of 30 years, Juan Gelabert, also a Cuban immigrant, had no desire to go on the trip.

“It took me so long to get out of there, I’m not going to put myself in their hands again,” he said. “I’m glad my son went, because they (Anthony and Jason) took everything for granted.

They’d say, Oh, here we go with another Cuban story I’ve seen a change in my son.”

Juan Gelabert, 50, now an electronics technician, left Cuba when his mother put him on a plane alone to Spain at age 14.

She felt there was no time to waste, because at 15, Gelabert would have had to join Castro’s military. He survived on his own in Spain for a while, then came to the United States and wound up in Bridgeport, eventually joined by his immediate family.

Trying to leave Cuba was no picnic for Maria Gelabert’s family, either.

Her father, whose family was in the coffee business and considered somewhat privileged in Cuba, recognized that freedom at any price was best for his daughters.

When the family applied to leave seven years before they actually were allowed to go they underwent typical treatment under Castro’s rule. The government took their car, telephone, land and all but their primary residence.

In 1965, under President Lyndon B.

Johnson, the United States and Cuba formally agreed to start an airlift for Cubans who wanted to go to the United States. Gelabert’s family got lucky and made it onto a Freedom Flight.

The family landed in Miami on June 12, 1969, and, through relatives, got to Bridgeport, where they became part of a social service program for Cuban refugees.

Once here, her father got a bakery job and walked five miles a day to his job for years because they could not afford a car.

“It’s been a hard journey,” Maria Gelabert said.

Pamela McLoughlin can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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