When news of Fidel Castro's death came last November, Idaho Falls, Idaho, resident Jorge Mena was overwhelmed by a rush of emotions.
Mena was born in Cuba shortly before Castro came to power in 1959. His family lived there under difficult circumstances and it took multiple attempts for them to leave the country until they came to America on a Freedom Flight a decade later.
Amid the flood of memories, Mena logged onto Facebook and wrote from the heart.
"I struggle to not rejoice in the passing of this evil man who caused so much pain and suffering to my family," he wrote. He also noted some of the hardships, including when his parents went to separate labor camps when he was 7 years old, causing him to be responsible for the care of a younger sibling.
"I’ll defer judgement of Mr. Castro to a greater power," he continued. "I view this day simply as the close of a chapter in the history of the Cuban people and now pray that with Fidel Castro’s passing that those who still oppress the Cuban people will reflect upon their own legacy and abandon the debased views of communism and move closer to freeing a subjugated people isolated in the island nation of my birth."
In a recent interview with the Deseret News, Mena discussed growing up in Cuba during the 1960s and a few failed attempts to leave the communist country before his family finally landed in America. Once in the United States, his family joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and came to appreciate the blessings of living in a free country.
"I am just so blessed to live in this country," Mena said. "I could never repay my parents or my Heavenly Father for everything that has been given to me."
Growing up in Cuba
The Mena family lived in Guanabacoa, Cuba, a town outside of Havana. Mena was 2 years old when dictator Fulgencio Batista fled Cuba and Castro established control of the country.
His father, Jose Mena, owned and operated a small textile factory. The new government seized the business but allowed Jose Mena to continue working there as a mechanic.
Jose Mena was not a political man, but he had designed some textile equipment that was mistakenly sent to his home instead of the factory. He hid it and suffered strong consequences. One day, 7-year-old Jorge Mena came home from school and could not find his parents. He learned they had been sent to a labor camp. It was now his responsibility to care for his 4-year-old brother, Jorge Mena said.
His father was taken to a place about three hours away to work in the sugar cane fields. His mother was at a camp closer to their town. Fortunately for her children, she was occasionally allowed to sneak home for a few hours, Jorge Mena recalled.
But for most of a year, the boys survived thanks to a ration card and kindness from other adults who often saved a spot for young Jorge Mena in the food lines.
"People would help us, but it was difficult," Jorge Mena said. "The one thing that kept me reassured that, things would be OK was my mom coming home. She told me calmly that, 'Things are OK. We are working.' She would come home as often as she could. Someone turned a blind eye and allowed her to leave."
Jorge Mena doesn't recall how long his mother was gone, but after seven or eight months, she was permitted to stay at home. His father returned home after he developed bursitis and couldn't lift his arm. He had been gone a little over a year.
Once he had his parents back, the biggest fear Jorge Mena lived with was doing or saying something that would adversely affect those he loved. It was the duty of all Cuban children to turn their parents in if they were critical of the revolution, Jorge Mena said.
"It was a horrific thing. Can you imagine?" Jorge Mena said. "If I do or say the wrong thing, my parents are going to jail. It was an incredible stress."
After coming home, Jorge's father started a kiosk behind their home where he sold, among other things, milkshakes. One day when his parents weren't around, Jorge Mena was hungry and made a milkshake. He was in front of the house enjoying his cool treat when the military police came by. They questioned where he got the milkshake, and with shaking hands and knees, the boy tried to stay calm. He offered to share his milkshake with the men. They left, and he passed out. He woke up later with a bump on his head and milkshake all over his face.
"I thought my parents were in big trouble. I thought they had gone to look for the guy who sells milkshakes. What was I thinking? The guilt," said Jorge Mena, who was wary of playing with friends or in front of the house because he wanted to avoid trouble. "When I told my parents, they just hugged me. That's what happens when you live in a place with no freedoms."
After several years of hardship, Jorge's parents hoped for a better life in the United States, and the Freedom Flights provided a way.
Between 1965 and 1973, an agreement between the U.S. and Cuba referred to as Freedom Flights allowed more than 260,000 Cubans to emigrate to America, according to the Miami Herald. The Menas had relatives who were U.S. citizens who would sponsor them, so they qualified for the program. But those trying to leave were often victims of harassment, fired from jobs or had property confiscated, among other harsh treatments.
The first effort to leave was unsuccessful. The family was assigned an exit visa number but were denied departure when it was given or "bought out" by another family, Jorge Mena said.
The next attempt was by water. Jose Mena built a boat with his brother-in-law and another friend. They named the vessel "Tres Amigos," which means three friends in Spanish. They prepared for the journey by visiting relatives with beachfront property, going on boat rides and stockpiling supplies for the 90-mile trip to Miami, Jorge Mena said.
But on the night they were going to leave, the Menas were double-crossed. Dressed in dark clothing, they arrived at the launching point only to find the boat missing. Years later, Jorge Mena found out his father's friend, one of the "Tres Amigos," had used the boat and provisions to set sail with his family for American shores, he said.
"My father was betrayed by his friend," Jorge Mena said.
The third attempt was successful, although it was almost derailed at the final minute. Working through a friend in 1968, Jose Mena "bought out" another person's exit number, an act that still bothers Jorge Mena.
"While I'm very happy that my father did what he did, it hurts me tremendously that somebody else probably didn't make it out," Jorge Mena said.
Families leaving Cuba had to leave behind everything they owned. A government "watchdog" performed an inventory: "It all had to be there when you left," Jorge Mena said.
On a February night in 1969, 12-year-old Jorge Mena, his father, mother, younger brother and maternal grandmother boarded a flight bound for Florida. Jose Mena also made arrangements for his brother-in-law and family to join them a few months later.
"It would have been too coincidental if both families leave at the same time," Jorge Mena said.
After arriving in Florida, the Mena family continued on to the Washington, D.C., area where they lived close to their American relatives. It was there that Jose Mena received a letter from a close friend in Cuba who had helped arrange the Freedom Flight. Jose Mena had won this man's loyalty by helping his family when they were starving and struggling. The kindness was repaid when the man informed Jose Mena that his cousin, a newlywed who took possession of his home after they left, had accused the Mena family of being dishonest in their pre-departure inventory.
"(The cousin) tried to get us in trouble and prevent us from leaving, and my father was heartbroken," Jorge Mena said. "What he (the cousin) didn’t understand was that friendship, even in a communist country, goes a long way. The Lord’s hand was in it."
'No smoking gas'
Jose Mena considered himself an atheist, yet the first thing Jorge Mena's parents did when they stepped off the airplane in Florida was kneel down on the tarmac and say a prayer of gratitude.
"It was as natural in America as it was illegal in Cuba," Jorge Mena said.
The airport prayer served as a sign of things to come for the family with basic Christian beliefs.
In 1971, after settling into life in Maryland, the Menas learned a relative's family had joined the LDS Church and they were excited about it. They introduced the Menas to Mormon missionaries named George Michael Bean from Oregon and Mark Henry from Bountiful. Jose Mena didn't mind the missionaries teaching the gospel to his wife and children, but added, "I'm just going to sit here. Don't look at me, don't talk to me or ask questions," Jorge Mena recalled.
The missionaries proceeded with their discussions and when the elders invited the family to be baptized, they were shocked to hear Jose Mena's response.
"I don't know about you guys, but I'm getting baptized," Jorge Mena remembers his father saying.
Unbeknownst to Jose Mena, the rest of the family had all been wondering if the head of the house would consent to their desire for baptism. This miracle was proceeded by another miracle, Jorge Mena said.
Jose Mena had been a heavy smoker since age 7. Jorge Mena liked to buy his father cigarettes because he could use the leftover change to get candy bars. Before meeting the missionaries, Jose Mena underwent a hernia surgery and abruptly stopping smoking when the doctor gave him what he thought was "no smoking gas."
In reality, the doctor had given him oxygen from a tank with a little sign that read "no smoking." Somehow he came away from that experience with no urge to smoke and stopped cold turkey, Jorge Mena said.
After the surgery, Jorge Mena asked if he could buy his father some cigarettes. His father replied, "No, I don't do it anymore. They gave me 'no smoking gas.' This country is marvelous."
Confused, Jorge Mena approached the doctor. When he learned it was not really "no smoking gas," but a regular oxygen tank, Jorge asked the doctor not to tell his father the truth.
"After reading the Joseph Smith story, my mother, myself and my brother accepted the gospel message. Our concern was how is this going to happen for dad? He is anti-religion," Jorge Mena said. "Talk about miracles. When the Word of Wisdom came up — the biggest impediment to him getting baptized — it was not an issue. We felt the Lord's hand in it. This was the answer to prayers."
While Jose Mena was a mathematical genius, he was also illiterate. His first LDS Church calling was executive secretary. When he told the local church leaders he could hardly read, they gave him a priesthood blessing. He learned to read with the Book of Mormon and the Bible, Jorge Mena said.
"He became literate through the gospel," Jorge Mena said. "All of us had a tremendous, life-changing event. Things became different and rewarding. The blessings poured forth."
Blessings and hope
Today, Jorge Mena, almost 60, lives with his family in Idaho Falls where he is the vice president of Hispanic operations and leadership development at Melaleuca. He and his wife have six sons. Freedom and the blessings of the gospel have meant everything to his family, he said.
One of his most tender memories over the years was seeing his father sworn in as a U.S. citizen at age 65 in Provo.
"When we came to America, he encouraged us to immerse ourselves in the culture and language. He said, 'Let's not take anything, let's give back.' He was a real patriot," Jorge Mena said. "For him, becoming a citizen was a most emotional process. At the swearing in, he broke down and said 'I love this country because I chose to love this country and because it loved me.' Then he couldn't say another word."
Circumstances have not changed much for other family members still living in Cuba. Jose Mena was allowed to return to Cuba in 1978 and visit relatives, including a daughter who harbored bad feelings against her father for "betraying the revolution," Jorge Mena said.
The ice in that relationship has gradually thawed over the years with long-distance telephone calls and a desire by this half-sister's son to want to know more about his family.
Jorge Mena doesn't feel any joy in Castro's death but hopes future leaders in Cuba will realize that communism is a poor form of government. He points to Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles organizing a second LDS branch there in 2014 and visits by three different popes between 1998 to 2015 as positive signs.
"What brings hope is that once the priesthood is there, once the Lord has his hand blessing the people, it won't take long for good things to happen," Jorge Mena said.
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