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Cuban refugee volunteers in schools

A Cuban refugee from Fidel Castro’s reign spoke to a Farragut High School Spanish 3 class in late October.

Vicente Diaz said, “I got emotional with the students.

“I went in expecting to help them speak Spanish, but they actually wanted to hear my story – being a Cuban refugee,” he added.

Diaz was “very charismatic and personable,” said Harrison Amburn, a student in Allison Maldonado’s Spanish class.

At age 16, Vicente Diaz’s father told him and his three older sisters that they were going on a U.S. “Freedom Flight” to America.

Diaz’s father had undergone radical suspicion of being “someone who was against the government.”

Communist leader Castro had everyone who may have feelings against the government taken hostage, including religious leaders.

His father’s ’53 Ford was confiscated and he was moved to an old 300-seat movie theater turned hostage-holding center along with nearly 3,000 other hostages.

For six days, the hostages had bathroom-faucet water and no food. “When he got out, he was totally sick,” Diaz said.

That was the last straw for Diaz’ father. He wanted his children out of Cuba.

The Diaz children arrived in Miami where they all worked at a dry cleaning company.

Diaz said the hardest part was leaving his parents behind in Cuba.

Castro made it especially difficult for those leaving Cuba on Freedom Flights. He placed them in glass rooms for hours so they were unable to speak with their family and say what could be their last goodbye.

As the youngest, Diaz worked part time while finishing high school, learning English and later studying chemistry full-time at Miami Dade University where he received his two-year degree in chemistry.

Diaz was never without work and never went on welfare. The dry-cleaning company only paid the Diaz children about 35 cents an hour when minimum wage was about $1.

“At least we had a job. We were so thankful,” Diaz said.

Once his parents were able to come to the U.S., Diaz began working full time and dropped his course load to part-time.

“As soon as I lessened my course load, the U.S. military drafted me to go into war,” Diaz said.

He was not yet a citizen.

“I maybe could have gotten out of fighting, but this country took me in, how could I not serve?”

Brooke Butler, a student in Maldonado’s class, said, “It touched me that he served our country without being a U.S. citizen.”

“It made me think that we take America for granted,” Katrina Storms, another student, said.

“It was my duty. The guys treated me like ‘one of the guys,’” Diaz said.

After the war, he finished his studies at Louisiana State University in chemistry. He met his wife, Karen. “She’s the nicest person you’ll ever meet, a jewel,” Diaz said.

His passion for service did not end with the war; Diaz volunteers in his community regularly and enjoys giving chemistry demonstrations to students and guest speaking.

He teaches English to Spanish speaking Latinos and Spanish to English to his fellow parishioners.

Vicente and Karen moved to East Tennessee in 2008 after the Hurricane Katrina’s wrath was unleashed on New Orleans, La.

He is now retired, enjoying volunteer work. Karen assists him with chemistry demonstrations.

The couple has three married children and three grandchildren.


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