Prologue: The story the child was told was that the trip was to be a vacation in Miami—a visit with family. This bit of a deceit was, for the sake of the girl, a precaution (lest she blurt out in school the family’s true intentions—to save themselves from the clutches of the Castro regime)…
Such was the fear of El Caballo, Fidel Castro, who ruled cruelly in his newly minted haven of half-truths…
Through the smoke screen of cigars, camouflage clothing and so-called charisma, there lurked an iron-fisted dictator—one willing to wreck havoc on families in his pursuit of ultimate power and total domination…
For the Vila family, there was no option but escape…
She told my mother that in the United States people had to earn their keep. That everyone worked. As a result we moved into a one room garage ‘apartment’ with a cement floor. My mom took on multiple jobs in order to keep us afloat.
Adis Maria Vila was born in Güines, Cuba (some 50 km from Havana).
Her father, Calixto Vila, was a bookkeeper for a construction company—her mother, Adis Fernandez, a homemaker. Adis was an only child…
“I recall glorious summer vacations at Playa Varadero. My mother and I would stay at my father’s boss’s beachfront home. I guess you could say life was good…”
Adis’ parents put a premium on education. As a result she attended a British school in order to learn English.
“At that time in Cuba there were three options for education; public school, private school or religious school. And while my parents had both attended Catholic school, they greatly desired that I learn English and get the best ‘by the book’ education available.
“Just as I have such fond memories of those summers at the beach, I have vivid and joyous memories of my early school years.
“As my school was located outside of town, on the road to Havana, it was convenient for my father to take me in the mornings on his way to work and pick me up on his way home. The school, however, had an odd quirk. We attended in the mornings but were sent home for an extended lunch break before returning for afternoon studies.
“As a result, my grandfather, who I affectionately called ‘Abuelo Neno’, would pick me up on his bicycle and then, after a hot-lunch, return me to school. It was truly a wonderful, familial filled time in my life.”
But Adis’ “dream” life turned nightmarish on July 16th 1962 when she and her mother shipped off to the United States…
“When Castro took control in 1959 things changed drastically. My school was shuttered and I was sent to a public school, which was for all practical purposes not a place for education as much a vehicle for indoctrination. But my parents dealt with it. They said, ‘we will un-indoctrinate you in the evenings, but at least you’ll still receive a basic education.’”
Eventually her parents desired more for their daughter—freedom and a chance for economic betterment. This decision, however, came at great cost.
“Once you declared you intentions to leave the island you became ‘non-people.’ When my mother and I left, our house was boarded up, our car was repossessed, the food ration card was revoked and worse, the government wouldn’t allow the entire family to leave. As a result, it was just my mom and I; the punitive measurement was to break up our family!
Calixto moved in with his mother, while Adis and her mother moved in with Calixto’s sister in Miami (she had moved to the States prior to Castro’s take-over).
But things didn’t go as planned…
“My aunt didn’t quite provide sanctuary; in fact, she kicked us out of her home after a week.
“She told my mother that in the United States people had to earn their keep. That everyone worked. As a result we moved into a one room garage ‘apartment’ with a cement floor. My mom took on multiple jobs in order to keep us afloat.”
As a result, nine-year old Adis had to grow up fast. She became a “latchkey” kid before the term became popular in American vernacular.
“I had to fend for myself. My mother would leave for work before sunrise, so I had to feed myself, gather myself and get myself to school. Since my mother spoke no English I also had to serve as translator—handle the bills and grocery shopping. It was a difficult and trying time but I didn’t blanch—I simply couldn’t.”
Adis’ father arrived in the United State when the U.S. government cut a deal with Castro to trade agricultural equipment in exchange for the parents of minor children left behind when their families immigrated to the States.
That moment almost came back to haunt Adis twenty-years later.
“I was nominated by the President to the position of Assistant Secretary U.S. Department of Agriculture. The vetting process was daunting. One of the questions asked was whether I had ever benefited from any program at the Agency for which I was nominated.
“I felt the need for total transparency and explained how the Department of Agriculture’s earlier program had benefited me in the reuniting of my family.
“Apparently, Senator Patrick Leahy, who chaired the Senate Agriculture Committee, heard of my ‘confession’ and I was summoned to his office for a meeting. I was a nervous wreck!
“He met me at his door with a smile and a hug! Apparently, as a young congressman, he’d been involved in the original policy which brought my father back to me!”
But let’s go back…
Adis’ parents divorced shortly after his arrival. My mother wished for me to have access to my dad so she waited to divorce him until he was in Miami—once again, she sacrificed for my benefit.”
Calixto got a job and moved out. Adis, meanwhile, remained with her mother. The 13-year old went headlong into school and studies and all the activities provided—joining as many clubs and sports teams as she could.
She also found employment. “My first job was at Miami Stadium. At the time it was the Spring-training facility for the Baltimore Orioles baseball team. I was responsible for weighing peanuts and putting them in bags for sale to the fans.
“In the fall I worked at the Orange Bowl stadium during football games where I went from a concession stand helper, to cashier, and during my last year of high school to managing a souvenir stand.”
That people recognized Adis’ talent and drive and rewarded her accordingly, was something that would stick throughout her meteoric rise…
Adis, the student, was diligent and determined. She was passed from 7th to 9th grade as a result of her scholastic acumen. And when she hit high school she showed no signs of letting up. Still involved in myriad activities and clubs (including serving as President of Future Teachers of America), Adis graduated 4th in a class of over one thousand.
“My ‘It takes a Village’ experiences were provided by the educators that guided me, supported me and nurtured me.
“My high-school counselor, Mr. Nelson, apparently saw promise. He urged me to consider college. In fact, he was just short of demanding I do so. And he facilitated in so many ways.
“He promised, ‘You keep getting the grades, I’ll worry about tuition and expenses.’”
Mr. Nelson visited the home of Adis and her mother (they had moved into a one bedroom apartment, where mom and daughter shared a bed).
“We had a little table with only two chairs. Mr. Nelson and my mother took the seats, while I sat on a tiny stool, pulled up close.
“Mr. Nelson, utilizing me as interpreter, completed the financial aid forms.”
Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois was the first to bite. Bradley had come to Miami to pitch prospects. They were seeking students excelling in math and science (Adis’ strong suit).
“Bradley brought along a photo album with images of the campus. The pictures were surreal—indoor swimming pools, tunnels connecting dorms to the library and cafeteria and students wearing sweaters!”
Bradley bought in, offering Adis a full-ride, which also included a suitable wardrobe and plane tickets—they were aggressive in their come-on.
“I recall explaining to Mr. Nelson that my mother would never go for me leaving Florida. And he replied, in typical fashion, ‘Not to worry, I’ll take care of it.’”
Next up was Rollins College, a liberal arts college located in Winter Park, Florida.
“There was only a handful of hopefuls at the meet and greet. Afterwards, according to Mr. Nelson, the envoy expressed interest in ‘the little girl with the gray jumper, gray knee socks, and saddle shoes—the only one taking notes.’
“Of course, Mr. Nelson advised that Rollins would have to match or better the Bradley offer.”
Shortly thereafter, Mrs. Stevens, the sponsor of the Future Teachers of America Club, was driving Adis (and a few other students) to a conference in Daytona Beach. Mrs. Stevens thought it judicious to not only leave a day early in order for Adis to check out Rollins, but also to drop in on Bethune-Cookman University.
“This was an opportunity unbeknownst to students of my social status. Once again, the ‘Village’ kicked into full-gear!”
Adis fell in love with Rollins.
Mr. Nelson went to work—securing a full-ride with all the perks needed for Adis to seamlessly adjust to her new surroundings.
“Rollins was a Liberal Arts school and so I wound up majoring in math. And then things took another change for the better.”
In 1971 Walt Disney World opened in Orlando, Florida
(a mere twenty miles from Rollins). In 1972 Disney World sent recruiters to Rollins seeking students to serve as tour guides. Adis was highly recommended, her multi-lingual talents and smile a major selling point.
“I was hired and worked there during my sophomore, junior and senior years. I dealt with the crème de la crème—providing private tours of the venue to diplomats, business big-wigs, et al.”
But it was a crisis moment that truly changed the landscape for Adis.
“During one of my tours, a woman suddenly became deathly ill. I reacted quickly, comforting and calling on medical back up.
“The woman was ambulanced to the Disney hospital at Reedy Creek. Her husband was able to accompany her because I assured him that I would personally tend to their young son until the situation was resolved.”
Let’s just say, one-thing-led-to-another. The ill-stricken woman mended and the husband wrote a glowing letter to Disney—a letter that was read by Disney VP Bob Matheison.
Matheison was more than just a high-ranking Disney executive; he was also a member of a committee at the Windemere Rotary Club, responsible for granting the vaunted Rotary Club Scholarship (second only to the Rhodes).
Oh, how accommodating fate can be. You see, in Adis’ junior year she was encouraged to apply for the aforementioned Rotary Scholarship and who other than Bob Matheison read her application. What happened next would define the future of Adis Maria Vila…
END OF PART I
To be continued tomorrow…