Elsa Fonte:
Escaping Cuba to Start a New Life

By Patricia B. Mitchell, March 1975.

Elsa Fonte

The setting is a long, narrow dressmaking shop filled with bolts of colorful fabrics. A few dressmaker's dummies stand around. The shop people speak Spanish. Light filters through a transom. Will Tony and Maria of West Side Story suddenly whirl through their make-believe wedding? No, this is not the Puerto Rican modiste shop of movie fame. This is Elsa's at 936 Royal Street.

Elsa Valdes Fonte is a Cuban refugee. She and her husband Raul escaped Castro's iron grip and emigrated to New Orleans. Elsa is a seamstress and Raul operates the Whitney dry cleaning business.

The Fontes lived under communist rule for four years prior to making their decision to flee. Elsa explained that middle-class and poorer people in Cuba believed in Castro at first. They thought that he would raise the economic standards of the country. They smiled when rich people started leaving Cuba. That was O.K. Let them leave. It would be a revolution of the common people… Gradually, however, they realized that the communist regime was not the change for which they had hoped.

Elsa Fonte Comments on Oppression

There was no freedom of the press, no freedom of speech, no freedom at all… They have what they call Committees of Vigilance. They are made up of five or six of the neighbors on each block. They watch everything, all the movements around each house. (They have to report to the Central Committee of the city.)

If they see you carrying a package, they have the right to stop you in the street and open the package to see what you have, mainly because of the problem of the food. Everything is rationed, but suppose you have some relatives in the country who raise pigs. They bring you a piece of pork, and you are saving it at your house, or maybe you are going to take this piece of meat to your mother across the street from you or your daughter or somebody else. Well, you can't do that, because you have to have just whatever they give you. You are not supposed to have anything else. So, if they stop you in the street and they open your package, you have to tell where you got that piece of meat and why you have more meat than you are supposed to have.

Also, you can't move from one place to another. You have to stay in the house they give you. When you own a house here, you can do anything you want with that house. Not in my country. You have to ask about everything, every movement you want to make. Suppose you want to make a new door, you have to get permission from the government.

When somebody from another city is coming to visit you and they are going to stay more than five days, you need the permission of the government. You can go to jail for not reporting a guest in your house. The government knows because of these people who are watching you… Not even in your own family can you talk because you don't know who is going to tell the government how you think. There are thousands and thousands of political prisoners in Cuba. We have relatives over there in jail because they were against the government.

The government is very, very strong. It's not just Castro. It's Russia behind him. It's Russia against this country. This country is the only one who could help Cuba, but they won't. Of course, I don't blame them. They don't want to get involved in a nuclear war. That would be the final thing.

Some ask why the Cuban people stay in Cuba and support Castro. A lot of the older people did leave, but they made no difference to Castro; it is the younger people who are important to his system. The children are indoctrinated; the ones who were five years old when Castro came to power are twenty years old now, and these youths know no other life. They think Cuba is paradise because that is the propoganda they are fed. They are not allowed to hear good things about other systems.

The world is not perfect and there must be changes made, but communism is not the answer. The communist system takes away all personal freedoms.

Time to Flee

The Fontes are from Cienfuegos, a city on the southern coast in the central part of Cuba. (The town was founded by Louis de Clouet, a Frenchman from New Orleans who attempted to colonize that part of Cuba.) Elsa was a home economics teacher. Raul was in the tobacco exporting business. They became disillusioned with Castro because, for one reason, the government required Elsa to spend part of her class time indoctrinating her pupils in communism. In 1962 the Fontes decided to leave.

We couldn't come by the legal way because right after the crisis of October they stopped all of the flights and everything. By the time we were ready to leave, there was no way to come over here. I was really desperate. My children were here, you understand. I was so upset. [They had sent their son and daughter to New Orleans to stay with a cousin a year earlier because they did not want the children to absorb the communism propaganda taught in the school system.]

We planned this trip for several months. My husband bought a boat. We planned the trip for my husband and myself, the two men who were to drive the boat, and two or three more persons who really wanted to come over. We were going to leave from Matanzas on the north coast and go to Key Marathon, which is the shortest distance between Cuba and the United States … the famous ninety miles.

It was the eighteenth of December, 1962. We planned the trip to take about six hours and we had gasoline and everything for much longer than that. It was night and the weather was a little rough.

When we got to the place where we were supposed to get the boat, we found about fifteen persons waiting for us … The way things are in my country, you have to be careful not only of the government but also of the people who are trying to leave the country. They are so desperate, looking for boats, that when they know that somebody is planning a trip they ask you, they beg you, and sometimes they threaten you.

This man took a knife and asked my husband to let them get in the boat with us. He said, “If you don't take me, I will kill you, because I have to leave the country.”

Instead of the six persons we planned for, eighteen persons came in a twenty-one-foot boat. It was a terrible situation. We had different little bags and things we were planning to bring with us, but we had to leave everything. You get to the point that life is the only thing you care for. All the material things you just forget about.

When we finally left, instead of going straight north, because of the winds and so much weight in the boat, we came northeast. The next morning we realized that we were lost. We couldn't see any land. We were in the middle of the ocean. The motor was broken and we had no gasoline. We were all wet from the waves. We were still sitting in the same place we sat when we started the trip. We couldn't move because there was no room. I was just praying and praying.

Suddenly a ship came into sight. It was a Spanish ship coming from New Orleans, going to Norfolk Virginia, by the trans-Atlantic route. There was a strike in New Orleans so the ship was completely empty. It was high in the water because they had no cargo. We could not do anything by ourselves to get close to the big ship. It was very dangerous because the waves could hit us against that big ship. Thank God, nothing happened. They rescued us. They had to lift us with ropes and put us on board one by one. They even put our little boat on board also. They were very nice to us.

We were forty or fifty miles east of Miami, so they took us there. My husband and I had to wait about eleven days over there because at the same time the prisoners from the Bay of Pigs came to Miami, and they said they had to do all the things for the prisoners and resettle them first because taking care of all the rest of the refugees. From Miami we came to New Orleans.

Settling in New Orleans

Elsa Fonte

936 Royal, home of Elsa's dressmaking shop.

In the beginning we didn't know what we were going to do. We had nothing but the clothes we were wearing and some clothes some nice persons gave us… Then we heard about a man on St. Philip who was from Puerto Rico. He was trying to sell a small cleaning business. We had never been in that business, but my husband said, “Well, we have to do something. If you want to, you can sew. You can make the alterations, and I can take care of the cleaning.”

That's the way we started and since then we bought the business at this location. We have been working hard, as you can imagine.

I'm very, very happy in New Orleans, especially this section which reminds me very much of my home town. We have a lot of the names that you have here and very similar construction. The people here have been very, very nice to us. I feel at home.