Sense of Belonging
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The swift and improbable rise of Mel Martinez to the top echelon of America’s government began not with a political race but with a burst of gunfire. In April 1958, an eleven-year-old Martinez huddled on his bedroom floor while Cuban soldiers opened fire on insurgents outside his family’s home in the normally sleepy town of Sagua la Grande. With that hail of bullets, the idyllic Cuba of his boyhood was shattered.
If political unrest made daily life disturbing and at times frightening, Fidel Castro’s Communist Revolution nine months later was nothing short of devastating. Martinez’s Catholic school was suddenly shuttered as the Communist regime threw priests out of the country. A sixteen-year-old boy from his town was seized and killed by a firing squad. When armed militiamen shouted violent threats at Martinez for wearing a cloth medallion as a sign of his Catholic faith, his parents made a heartrending decision: their son would have to escape the Castro regime—alone.
Under the greatest secrecy, the Martinez family arranged through a special church program to have Mel airlifted out of Cuba to America. After months of painstaking planning (and a simple mistake that nearly scuttled the entire arrangement), fifteen-year-old Martinez stepped on a plane bound for Miami. He had no idea when—or if—he would see his family again.
A Sense of Belonging is the riveting account of innocence lost, exile sustained by religious faith, and an immigrant’s gritty determination to overcome the barriers of language and culture in his adopted homeland. Martinez warmly recalls a bucolic childhood in Cuba, playing baseball, fishing at the beach, and accompanying his father on veterinary visits to neighboring farms. He also vividly recounts the harrowing changes under Castro that forced him to flee, as well as the arduous years he spent in American refugee camps and foster homes. And he captures the sheer joy of being reunited with his family after four years of wrenching separation. Having embraced life in America, he set about the delicate task of guiding his parents through their struggles with assimilation while also building his own family and career.
Through it all, Martinez embodies the ideal of service to others, whether comforting a younger child on the flight from Havana to Miami or giving legal advice pro bono to his father’s friends in the Cuban-American community. Though his story ends in the hallowed halls of the U.S. Capitol, Martinez has never forgetten the boy who experienced the loss of liberty under Communism. A Sense of Belonging is a paean to the transformative power of the American Dream.