Coming to America
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Coming to America

Senator Robert Menendez tells his family's immigration story

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Real power doesn’t have to be flashy.

Robert Menendez, a Democrat, is New Jersey’s senior United States senator, and he is chair of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee. From that extremely powerful position, his support of Israel, always clearly and explicitly stated, helpful, and welcomed, has been particularly useful this summer, when the Iron Dome system -whose presence in Israel he shepherded – made a life-and-death difference to many Israelis.

You’d never guess that from his local office.

Mr. Menendez’s main office is in Washington, of course, and he maintains two in New Jersey. One is in Barrington, south and west of here in Camden County, and the other is in Newark.

To get to his Newark office, you walk through a florescent mall space, filled with peppy, well-groomed, coffee-gulping young people in suits. The ambiance is somewhere between an airport gate and the Port Authority bus terminal. His office, too, should make taxpayers rest easy. Many expenses have been spared. The broad windows of his conference room look out on train tracks and parking lots not very far below. Staten Island lurks sullenly off to the side.

Mr. Menendez – who comes across as a real person, with a firm handshake, a direct gaze, and warmth – sat at the head of the table. Two aides (both of them Jewish, which made us wonder if he could provide ethnicity-appropriate staffers for each of the huge number of groups in this vastly multicultural state) sat on one side, and we sat on the other, as the senator answered our questions.

(A report on Mr. Menendez’s discussion on Israel is in the panel at right.)

We Jews know ourselves to be an immigrant people; the term “wandering Jew” came from somewhere. There are a few Israeli families who can trace their roots there back until they are lost to time. The rest of us, though, know that not too many generations back, our ancestors either chose to leave where they had been in search of something better, or were forcibly evicted from their homes, their countries, their continents, their lives.

Mr. Menendez is a first-generation Cuban American. His story is in some ways similar to ours, and in some ways it is not.

His parents, Mario and Evangelina, were born in Cuba, the descendants of Spaniards who made their way to the New World long ago. “They were average working people,” Mr. Menendez said. His father ran a necktie factory for a company owned by Jews and headquartered in New York, and his mother was a housewife.

She also was a dynamo, and she had clarity of vision. “My mother didn’t like Batista” – Fulgencia Batista, the one-time elected president of Cuba who became its dictator in 1952, presiding over a government where rampant corruption reigned. “She didn’t like what she saw in the mountains, with the cattle barons, and she didn’t like what she was afraid was coming,” Mr. Menendez said. “She was the driving force behind our leaving Cuba.

“She said to my father, ‘I don’t want my kids to grow up here.'” At that point, there were two children, Caridad and Reynaldo. “My father was hesitant. They didn’t have much – but what they had was in Cuba. And she said, ‘Either you come with us or we leave you behind.'”

After a short stint in Puerto Rico, which they did not like, the family came to New York City. That was in 1953. Mario and Evangelina Menendez’s youngest child, Robert, was born there on January 1, 1954.

When they first came here, Mario Menendez continued to work for the tie company, but eventually it closed, and he became an itinerant carpenter, and Evangelina Menendez became a seamstress. “They left New York when I was very young and came to New Jersey, first to Hoboken and then in Union City,” Robert Menendez said. “There was a nascent Cuban community – not from Havana, where my parents came from, and they didn’t know anybody.” The small community grew as more Cubans came over during the 1960s. “What brought them over was the embroidery business,” he said. That craft flourished in Hudson County. (Think of the stories of Jews drawn to Paterson and Jersey City for exactly that reason.)

“My mother started in the embroidery business in Hoboken. At one point, much later, I moved to a place called Clinton Mills. I told my sister about it, and she said, ‘That’s where Mom used to work.'”

Life was not easy. “We lived in a tenement in Union City, and we were poor. There were five of us in two rooms. My brother had to go to work in carpentry, and my sister in retail. I got to be the first in my family to go to college” – St. Peter’s University – “and then I went on to law school” – Rutgers.

“Education was an enormously important value to my mother,” he continued. (By this point, the parallels between Mr. Menendez’s experiences and ours are too obvious to bear pointing out.) “She knew very little English, but when I was growing up, at the end of a long day, when she came home, and then finished cooking and cleaning, she insisted on having me read her my homework assignment. I’d say ‘Mom, you know you don’t understand it,’ but she wouldn’t care.” She wanted to be sure that her son was doing his homework, and that he knew how much she cared.

The family spoke Spanish at home. “My father was fairly fluent in English, but for my mother, Spanish was her language,” he said.

“I think about courage often,” he said. “We talk about it often, and when we do, I always think about Mom.

“She made the choice to move to freedom, not staying with a right-wing dictator, or what she feared would be the Communists coming from the mountains.

“So she made the choice to come to a country where she didn’t know the language, where she didn’t have a job, where she didn’t have anybody waiting for her. After she got here, she was convinced that she had made the right decision. She lived in a country where she was free to worship at the altar she chose.

“She wasn’t politically engaged, but she was able to say what she wanted to say without looking over her shoulder.”

There were very real costs to the family, and an even harsher penalty was exacted on those left behind. “My parents yearned to see their brothers and sisters,” Mr. Menendez said. Eventually, one of his aunts was able to come to the United States for a visit, but they never saw anyone else again. “And when I started getting politically engaged, and then got into Congress, one of my aunts got punished pretty badly because of my views on the Castro regime.”

He had asked his aunt to ask for political asylum in the United States, but “she refused to do so,” he reported. “Then I asked her never to recognize me as her nephew, and she agreed. The first two years were fine, but in the second year that I was in the House, she was listening to me in Havana on Radio Marti” – the U.S.-financed Cuban equivalent of Radio Free Europe – “and in a moment of pride, while there were visitors, she said ‘Menendez is my nephew.’

“One of the people was part of the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution” – snitches who reported on their neighbors for thought crimes – “and he went to state security. Her life was a living hell from then on, until she died.”

Mr. Menendez has two children, Alicia and Robert. What is their connection to Cuban culture and the Cuban community?

“If you would ask them, they would tell you that they are Norwegian” – his former wife’s ethnicity – “and Cuban,” he said. “My daughter has a television show on Fusion, a national cable network. Her whole focus is to reach out to millennials and young Hispanics who want to hear about Hispanic issues in English. Her nightly show is about both identity and crossover issues. She is living in Miami and engaged to a Cuban-American, so she personally is fully engaged in the culture of the Cuban community.

“My son – he calls himself Rob – is a lawyer. He also has an identity as a Cuban American, but not as deeply as my daughter.”

In the end, it seems that there might be at least as many parallels as differences between the Cuban and the Jewish immigrant experience – the courage, the dislocation, the sundering from many family members forever, the focus on education, the joy in a child’s success, and did I mention the courage? Because it stands out so strongly, the courage of our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. Or, at any rate, the parallels between many of our stories and that of Robert Menendez.

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