Finding the home within


Marisella Veiga (courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society Press)

Marisella Veiga, right, with siblings Luis Gustavo, Glenna and Juan Carlos, with their grandmother in Merriam Park in the early 1960s

Veiga and Juan Carlos

A ‘Cuban from Minnesota’ tells her story

Marisella Veiga, her siblings and mother fled Cuba on Dec. 30, 1960, leaving their home to escape the new revolutionary government led by Fidel Castro. 

Her father, Miguel, followed them to Miami, Florida, early the next year. 

Five years after the Veigas’ arrival in the United States, they moved to Roseville, where they purchased a house on West Belmont Lane.

In her new book, “We Carry Our Homes With Us, A Cuban American Memoir,” published by Minnesota Historical Society Press, Veiga described her father’s thoughts one winter morning when faced with a wall of snow between his Roseville garage and his commute to work.

“’What am I, a Cuban, doing here? Nothing in my life prepared me for this.’” 

Shoveling deep snow was just one of the new experiences and challenges the Cuban immigrants faced as they adapted to life in Minnesota.

Today Veiga lives in St. Augustine, Florida, where she is an adjunct professor at Flagler College, a four-year liberal arts school. A poet, writer and journalist, her recently released book focuses on growing up in Miami and the Twin Cities. 

“We Carry Our Homes With Us” tells the story of how she and her extended family, with other refugee families along the way, came to live and thrive in the U.S. Yet always in the background are fleeting memories of Cuba, questions about identity and feelings of dislocation.

Veiga, who graduated from Macalester College in St. Paul, said that she carried the seeds of her memoir for a long time.

“You sort of walk around with these things,” she said in a recent interview, “and don’t realize that you have something there that is of value to a large community.”

 

Miami to Mendota Heights

Some 50,000 Cuban refugees fled the Caribbean island between January 1959 and January 1961, according to Veiga’s memoir. Like the Veiga family, most of them landed in Miami.

“My father carried a total of 14 U.S. cents in his pocket, a dime and four brown pennies,” Veiga wrote. In Cojimar, Cuba, a fishing village a short ways east of Havana, they left behind the modern home Miguel built. It’s now the Sierra Cojimar Polytechnical School for Construction. 

The move from Miami to Minnesota, Veiga wrote, happened with help from Catholic Relief Services. CRS placed the Veiga family with the Lauer family, who attended St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Mendota.

Veiga, 4 years old at the time, arrived at the 60-acre Lauer farm in Mendota Heights in September 1962, along with Miguel, her mother Maria González de Veiga, her older brother Luis Gustavo and younger brother Juan Carlos. 

They lived in the basement of the house; the Lauers, all 11 of them, occupied the rest of the home. The language barrier between the families was apparent from the start.

“I learned to ice skate before learning to speak English,” Veiga wrote of her early days in Minnesota.

From the Lauer farm, the Veiga family lived for a time in West St. Paul, where they joined other Cuban exile families at the Sibley Manor apartment complex. While they lived there, Veiga’s sister Glenna was born, named after a Lauer relative.

Very shortly after his arrival in Minnesota, Miguel was hired as assistant comptroller at Twin City Meats in downtown St. Paul. Veiga wrote that as her father’s career progressed, the family was able to move from their apartment to a rented house in the Merriam Park neighborhood of St. Paul.

After Miguel was promoted to comptroller at Twin City Meats, he and his family went from Merriam Park to the house he bought in Roseville in 1965.

 

‘A hidden story’

Veiga said she first came into contact with Minnesota Historical Society Press at an event in New York City in 2008.

“I just went over to say ‘hi,’ and I told them I used to live in Minnesota when I was a kid,” Veiga said, adding that she discussed her immigrant story with folks at the booth.

Veiga said Pam McClanahan, director of MNHS Press, encouraged her to write a book proposal in order to tell her story.

“As director of the Press, we’re really committed to telling Minnesota’s diverse stories,” McClanahan said, noting the state’s history with Cuban exiles is “sort of a hidden story.”

She said she was somewhat familiar with the Cuban community through connections at 3M and work at the University of St. Thomas, and found Veiga’s story clear, compelling and relatable.

“It’s very simple and direct: Here’s what it’s like to live an immigrant life,” McClanahan said.

Veiga said her proposal wasn’t immediately accepted and in the interim she visited the Twin Cities and Roseville. In 2014, she went to Red Wing for a writer’s residency, where “We Carry Our Homes With Us” really took shape.

Then, outside events pushed the development of the book along. President Barack Obama announced in late 2014 that the U.S. and Cuba would restore diplomatic relations — ties were severed in 1961. The move set up Obama’s trip to Cuba last month.

While the international news gave Veiga’s book some added timeliness, she said, initially it was cause for anxiety.

“It put me in the bed with my covers over my head,” Veiga said. “Because it came out of nowhere, because what was negotiated was just unbelievable.”

Veiga returned to Cuba for the first time in 50 years after Obama’s announcement. She said the trip “was really important to this [book],” finally helping her to complete it.

If you go...

The Minnesota Book Launch of “We Carry Our Homes With Us” is Tuesday, April 12 at 7 p.m. at Common Good Books, 38 Snelling Ave. S. in St. Paul.

History and freedom

On West Belmont Lane, Veiga lived just a few blocks from Roseville landmarks that are still there today: Har Mar Mall, Saint Rose of Lima Catholic School, which she attended, and the Roseville Public Library.

She wrote that her block in the mid-1960s teemed with families and kids — during her recent trip back, Veiga said while she didn’t knock on the door of her old house, she did connect with some neighbors who still lived there.

“What I loved most about Roseville — what I remember on a regular basis was the freedom and the unstructured time we had,” Veiga said, referencing a stretch of childhood spent exploring the neighborhood, picnicking at Como Park and visiting the zoo, and swimming at Lake Josephine.

Eventually, she wrote, her family moved back to Miami, just after she’d finished fifth grade in 1968. 

“It was terrible news. Why did we have to move again? We had friends and we liked our school,” she wrote.

“I appreciate the childhood I had. It wasn’t easy at first because I didn’t speak English,” Veiga said, “[but] it afforded me a lot and my family a lot of opportunities.”

Veiga wrote that six years after the move, her mother died of cancer, and in 1977 she returned to Minnesota to attend Macalester. 

Later, she worked as a reading assistant at Humboldt Senior High School and lived in a Merriam Park apartment, before leaving Minnesota for good to return to live with her father in Miami.

Veiga said it was important to tell her story, which is also her family’s story.

“The book was extremely helpful,” she said. “One of the things, on a personal level for me, was my family’s history — at least it’s documented, at least it’s written down.”

Veiga said her siblings haven’t read “We Carry Our Homes With Us” yet, but that her father has. “He was happy; he was pleased,” she said.

“I like to say that I’m a Cuban from Minnesota,” Veiga said, “but I’ve also lived other places. I hope that wherever I live, I can be comfortable there.”

 

Mike Munzenrider can be reached at mmunzenrider@lillienews.com or 651-748-7813. Follow him on Twitter @mmunzenrider.

Rate this article: 
Average: 4.7 (6 votes)
Comment Here