Jan 4, 2016

Why Maryland?

The first of the Camagüey Prats to settle in Maryland were Benito and Mariana Prats and the youngest two of their six children. They had left Cuba for Mexico in June, 1965, and after four months in Mexico City flew to Virginia as soon as they were granted political asylum by the United States. They cleared Immigration and Customs in Miami on September 29, 1965.

 Benito and Mariana had sent their four eldest to the United States in September, 1961, on the Peter Pan Airlift (they were four of the 14,000 unaccompanied children that left Cuba in 1960 and 1961 under the State Department and Catholic Charities program) and were living with American foster families near Syracuse, New York. They thought it would only take a few months but it had taken Benito and Mariana four long years of jumping through hoops* until the Cuban government allowed them to emigrate. Before the family could be reunited, they had to establish a household.

Dr. Chalon Rodriguez and his wife Isabel
(taken in the late 1970s)
Why did they fly to Virginia?  Because Benito and Mariana’s very good friends and neighbors in Camagüey, Dr. Chalon Rodríguez and his wife Isabel, had settled in Falls Church outside of Washington DC when they fled Cuba with their children a few years earlier. Dr. Rodriguez had established an urology practice in Falls Church and talked up the opportunities in the area. They offered the family of four a temporary place to stay at their new home off Lake Barcroft until they could get settled.

They arrived, inquiries went out, and Suburban Hospital, a fast-growing hospital in fast-growing Bethesda, Maryland, offered Benito employment while he studied for his medical license and would provide the required internship to qualify him for his medical license. Dr. Laurence Funt, an orthodontist in Bethesda, offered Benito and Mariana free use of a four-bedroom one-bath house he owned a few doors down from his practice on Arlington Road, and he sent contractors over to install a new boiler for the heating system and to make sure the roof was reasonably tight and the plumbing was in order for the coming winter. (That was the start of a long friendship between the Funts and the Prats.) Suburban Hospital provided old hospital beds and mattresses. Friends and acquaintances of Dr. Rodriguez and Dr. Funt, and parishioners at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Bethesda, pitched in with old furniture, dishes, pots and pans, and a toaster, and everything necessary to furnish a home, down to a framed painting of Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy (much smaller than the original!) for the living room wall.

The Blue Boy (1770)
by Thomas Gainsborough
The first four Prats moved in early in October and sent for their older children from Syracuse, who arrived Friday October 29, 1965. Benito started at Suburban Hospital November  1st.  The house was in an ideal location but on a busy street. Bethesda Elementary School was a block away across the street, Leland Junior High School eight blocks away. The new Giant grocery store had just opened a few blocks south on Arlington Road and Peoples Drug and Bank of Bethesda was a block away via Edgemoor Lane. Work for Benito at Suburban Hospital was a few minutes down Old Georgetown Road north of town.  The Maryland Prats had arrived!



The Arlington Road House Today
The driveway seen on the left was then two narrow driveways separated by a low chain-link fence, one for this house and one for the house on the left. It led to a roomy one-car detached garage in the back yard that is no longer there (It could probably hold two Ford Model-Ts comfortably when it was built.). The windowless addition on the right behind the tree was then just a one-story screened-in porch.

The Back of the Arlington Road House Then
The garage is behind the photographer. The stoop of the kitchen door was screened inside the latticework. To the left of the kitchen entrance was a small door that allowed the milkman to put milk and bread directly into the cabinet underneath the kitchen counter. Unfortunately, milk delivery was a thing of the past when the Prats got to Bethesda.

* They almost left a number of times, but their permission to leave proved elusive. For example, their Cuban passports show an unused Honduran visa dated September 21, 1964, that expired in May of 1965.  After 1961 and the U.S. Embargo of Cuba, there were no more direct flights, and no way for Cubans to apply for U.S. asylum while in Cuba. Asylum seekers had to get to another country first, or risk a clandestine leaky-boat trip across the Straits of Florida.