Jan 16, 2016

An Honest Man

Proof of an Honest Man
“What’s this?” I asked my father, holding up a pink cancelled check for $860. We were preparing for the sale of their house and the move to assisted living and I was going through his “caja fuerte.” His strongbox was smaller than a shoebox and made out of green painted tin with a flimsy combination lock. He kept in the back of the closet and it held his car title, house deed and other important papers. “Oh, that,” he said, “That is proof of an honest man.” And he told me the story.

Letter from Rafael Peix. Translation below
He showed me an old letter he had kept, and pointed to the second and third paragraphs. The paragraphs said that Taylor (a friend from Brooklyn) visited the writer and brought him 50 new slides to play on his projector. It continued that he will guard them zealously to make sure they don’t get lost, and that Taylor is a magnificent photographer and so far he has 100 slides from him put away. “You should see the beautiful color and how well-framed the shots are.”  The letter, dated December 12, 1963, was from his friend Rafael Peix, who then lived in Connecticut.

“They weren’t slides,” he said, “and Taylor did not visit him.”

In 1963 Benito H. Prats was mailing cash out of the country so he would have something to tide him by when he and his family arrived in Maryland.  It was against the law in Cuba to hold U.S. currency, and it was against the law to send money out of the country. It still is. So he had to be very careful. He would include a $50 bill in a letter to one friend, $20 to another. Friends would write back giving him the name and address of of their friends that “wanted to hear from him,” and another $20 bill would go their way.  In this way he sent hundreds of dollars, one bill at a time, to dozens of people who had instructions to forward the cash to Rafael Peix. Rafael would write him in code, acknowledging receipt. 50 slides = 50 dollars. 

Receipt from her Aunt
At the same time his wife Mariana Martínez was doing the same thing, hiding cash in letters to her American and Canadian friends from school. She went to school in Ontario. Her friends would forward the cash to her aunt Angela Rodriguez, who lived in Miami.

“Any one of these people, including Peix, could have kept the money and said it was lost in the mail,” he said. “But they did not and he did not.”  This check was the balance Rafael was holding for him when he finally arrived in Maryland.  The majority of the money his friend and her aunt were holding was sent to them in Mexico City where they spent four months waiting for their U.S. immigration papers. 

He asked Rafael to send him the cancelled check as a keepsake, and he kept it with his valuable papers all his life.  Back in 1965 the annual median family income was $6900 a year, so the two thousand or so dollars that his friend held for him was quite a sum in those days. He certainly was an honest man. 

$300 Draft sent to Mexico City

Translation of Rafael Peix’s letter:  

Dear Mariana and Benito:

Only a few words to send you my loving greeting for Christmas and my hope that what you yearn for, God will allow you to quickly turn into reality.

I had the great surprise of a visit from our friend Taylor, who to treat me, brought me 50 new slides so we could watch them on my projector. I am guarding them zealously so they don't get damaged. He would like this to be something in the spirit of Christmas, it looks like he took them during the Christmas season.

He is an excellent photographer and now there are 100 slides that I am safekeeping. I would love for you to see their colors and how well framed they are. I hope one day you will be able to see them and delight in them.

About us generally I'll tell you that we are OK, except that every once in a while like yesterday I feel extremely nostalgic wanting to see my parents and believe me that in those moments many things cross my mind. I don't know if you know that I was promoted to Assistant Supervisor. Honestly I can't complain and apparently I am having success in this Company.

I won't delay you more, please give my greetings to everyone and if Mariana could do me a favor, please call Eloisa and tell her to tell my mother that I am writing every Monday since the hurricane in October, same as I did before, and I can't understand why she is not receiving my letters. Also to Lilia I write regularly and apparently they are not arriving.

I care for you both and expect God will help you,

Translation of Angela Rodriquez note, most likely written by her accountant for her signature:  Received from Mr. Wenceslao Ortega the amount of $100.00 (one hundred dollars) in payment for the agreement contracted between Doctor Benito Prats and Mr. Wenceslao Ortega. —Angela Rodriguez de Castellanos