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The Cuban Connection: How Cubans brought an international flavor to WJC

In her diary, Emma Arguelles Karim had circled Nov. 25, 2016 – the date Fidel Castro died. Karim had a playful, dry sense of humor, and she wore a wide grin that day as she made a gleeful note, in Spanish, in her diary to mark the occasion. The note contained a mild, celebratory oath. It’s reasonable to think she might have danced on Castro’s grave if she could.

Emma Karim standing in from the Gate at Wingate.

Karim spent one year studying at Wingate Junior College, in 1957-58, and then, after several years in Cuba and a couple in Spain, returned to live most of her adult life in the town of Wingate. She learned English and made friends at the College, and she raised two girls in the town. Those were the good times.

For a Cuban who did not support Castro, the intervening years were unsettled. Karim was ostracized, lost her job, and was separated from her husband. The mistreatment stuck in her craw until her death in December of 2017.

Karim’s story is one of several that tie Cuba’s tumultuous second half of the 1900s – the Batista coup, followed by Castro’s Revolution and then decades of authoritarian, Communist rule – to Wingate University.

It’s an odd bit of University history. Flip through The Gate yearbooks, starting in 1940, and for a couple of decades it’s rare to find a student who was not white and from the Carolinas.

But every year for nearly three decades, Wingate was home to a handful of Cuban students – as many as 16, in 1953. According to notes from Carolyn Gaddy, a longtime history professor at Wingate, in the 1930s the College “obtained the approval of the State Department to teach foreign students,” and soon “a considerable number of Cuban students were enrolled.” That most of them came from affluent families, she writes, “did a great deal toward helping the financial situation which still remained critical” after the Great Depression.

The steady stream of Bulldog Cubanos slowed to a trickle in 1960 before drying up completely a couple of years later, thanks to the Revolution.

But until then, the Cuban contingent brought a different perspective to Wingate, at a time when homogeneity reigned.

Jose Duarte (1930s-50s)

Of all of the thousands of students to pass through the Burris Building over the years, Jose Antonio Duarte-Oropesa led perhaps the most interesting post-Wingate life. Duarte spent his latter years writing the history of Cuba, in four huge volumes, but his own swashbuckling life could have been the basis for a storyline in a James Ellroy novel.

The world a young Cuban grew up in during the early part of the 1900s was often volatile. Like many colonies, Cuba had been exploited throughout its history, leading to revolts, uprisings and frequent changes of power at the top. Frequent armed insurrections were followed by World War I. By the time Jose Duarte was born, in 1917, Cuba was fighting for the Allies.

From his schoolboy days, Duarte was an intriguing combination of scholar and fighter. He wanted to fight in the Spanish Civil War but was too young. Instead, in the mid-1930s, according to the short bio accompanying Duarte’s four-volume history of Cuba, Duarte’s parents sent him to study in the United States, at Wingate Junior College, “to remove him from the persecution unleashed by the repressive police of Fulgencio Batista,” the head of the Cuban armed forces and the de facto leader of the country.

Little is known about Duarte’s junior-college days, other than that he was known as “Chico.” But after leaving the sleepy town of Wingate in 1938, Duarte’s life was wrapped up tightly in the tumultuous 20th-century history of Cuba.

Duarte was a revolutionary. His military and activist career included fighting for the U.S. in World War II, leading bands of rebels against the Batista regime in Cuba in the 1950s, agitating against communism in the 1960s, and, perhaps errantly, turning up in FBI files in relation to the assassination of Bobby Kennedy.

Periodically he was jailed, beaten, exiled and forced to hide out in his own country.

Always, he remained principled and honor-bound. His love of Cuba was evident in his actions: He was a supporter of the Revolution – in fact a guiding force, in many ways – but he was more anti-Batista than pro-Castro. He became an enemy of the Communist regime in the 1960s.

Jose Duarte-Oropesa

As Duarte writes in his massive Historiologia Cubana, he expresses disappointment in how the Revolution turned out, saying that Castro betrayed the program that was laid out during the insurrection. Duarte did, however, feel that an insurrection was necessary.

Batista had already orchestrated one coup in Cuba, in 1933, and he essentially led the country until 1944, including four years as the official president. Now, in 1952, after living a life of luxury for eight years in Florida, he was back, again looking to run his home country.

His campaign was going poorly. Lagging behind in third place, the U.S.-backed Batista didn’t want to wait around to find out he had lost the election. At 2:20 a.m., on March 10, 1952, Batista and his confidants began a coup by taking over the military base Camp Columbia. An hour and 17 minutes later it was over, and Batista had ousted the incumbent president, Carlos Prio Soccaras. He was in control of Cuba once more.

Duarte, a graduate of Wingate Junior College who had fought for the United States in World War II, was among those who opposed the coup. At a meeting of the Havana Post No. 1 of the American Legion, less than a week after Batista’s stunning takeover of the government, Duarte stood and denounced Cuba’s new leader – undoubtedly knowing the personal pain and suffering that would result.

According to a 1959 article in the Havana Times, Duarte was “[h]unted like an animal, jailed and tortured” but “never wavered in his perilous course.”

“Four broken ribs, a pierced ear drum and a smashed hand failed to deter this courageous rebel with a cause,” wrote Milton Guss in his “Smoke Signals” column for the Havana Times.

Duarte wound up in exile, in the United States, Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama. He engaged in gunrunning, supplying Fidel Castro’s guerrilla armies with munitions. In New York he was jailed on a firearm-possession charge. Once released he was charged by federal authorities with violating the Neutrality Act, which was designed to limit U.S. involvement in future wars, for trying to buy a surplus U.S. Navy rescue boat to transport arms from Miami to Havana. He used the alias “William Mendoza.” Later, immigration officials sent him to Ellis Island, where his passport was confiscated.

Duarte was eventually reissued a Cuban passport, and he then immediately made his way to Mexico. He was stopped at the border in El Paso, where, Guss writes, “his name turned up on a list of men to be watched.” Duarte bolted, swimming across the Rio Grande into Mexico, where he headed for Chihuahua. But with his immigration problems trailing him, he wound up instead in Costa Rica.

There he “got mixed up in the Nicaraguan revolution,” a revolt that ultimately failed. Writes Guss: “When things got pretty hot for him again, he took off for Yucatan.”

By this point, in 1953, Duarte was tired of fighting a revolution remotely. He returned to Cuba, where he went underground, managing to evade capture. All the while, the revolution was brewing, and Duarte was in the thick of it. He moved to Santiago, in the mountains of Cuba, where a plan was hatched to attack the Moncada military barracks, a first step toward unseating Batista.

In “The Moncada Attack: Birth of the Cuban Revolution,” Antonio Rafael de la Cova quotes from a New York Spanish-language newspaper, Vision, which included in a report on the revolution a photo of a smiling Duarte, whom it described as a confidant of the previous president and “an important axis in the invasion plans.”

The attack, carried out on July 26, 1953, ultimately failed, but it sparked a revolution. One review of Duarte’s Historilogia Cubana described him as “a founder of what turned out to be the 26th of July Movement.”

The movement became something less than Duarte had hoped for. Nor was it welcomed by the likes of Emma Arguelles Karim and other Cuba students studying at Wingate in the late 1950s.

Emma Arguelles Karim

While Duarte was fighting to rid Cuba of Batista, Emma Arguelles was studying diligently in the town of Cruces, in the province of Las Villas, Cuba. Like much of Cuba, the area around Cruces, a town of a few thousand people, was known for its sugar-cane fields and close-knit community.

“We lived in a small town,” says Oscar Montero ’68, Arguelles’ cousin, who spent the first 14 years of his life in Cuba. “Our family had been there forever on both sides. It was that kind of very traditional, small-town world.”

Arguelles had a head for figures and hoped to one day be an accountant, but her family first wanted her to learn English, which would bolster her earning power once she’d obtained a university degree.

All went according to plan until the Revolution.

In the 1950s, Arguelles was one of a number of young Cubans sent to the southern United States to study. Baptist churches were fairly prevalent in Cuba in the 1900s, and often missionaries would serve as a pipeline to colleges in the States.

“It was fairly common to send your children to school here,” Montero says. “It was important to learn English. So they came here in large numbers, for many years.”

One of those children was Lilia Diaz, Montero’s mother and Karim’s aunt, who would later teach Spanish at Wingate College for 20 years. In the 1930s, Diaz wound up at Mars Hill College. “For my mother, it was Mars Hill,” Montero says. “For Emma and for many people later, for some reason it turned out to be Wingate.”

For at least three decades, several Cuban students each year – some years as many as 16 – honed their English, studied business, sang in choirs and socialized on Wingate’s tiny campus. Many were in the high-school or “sub-college” class, presumably in order to improve their English-language skills before either heading back to Cuba or entering the College proper.

Arguelles attended Wingate in the late 1950s, returning to Cuba after a year to study at Havana University. Like Diaz before her, Arguelles struggled with the language difference when she first arrived in Wingate.

“When you come, you’re lost,” she said a few months before her death in December of 2017. “You get some (English), and the other you try to put together. Like there (in Cuba), they have a book, when you are in seventh, eighth and ninth grade. You learn words (in English). You don’t really (learn how to speak it). But here you have to really learn.”

There was a relatively large contingent of foreign students on campus by then, including about a dozen Cubans. Arguelles felt at home – enough to return to Wingate in the late 1960s. She and her husband, Gerardo Karim, would eventually raise a family in Wingate, just across Main Street from the University, and Emma Karim would live in Wingate until her death.

But before her return to Wingate, she suffered through the Castro regime.

Emma Karim standing by the Wingate Junior College sign

Karim met Gerardo at the University of Havana, and they married while they were in school. By the time they each finished their course of study – Emma in accounting, Gerardo in electrical engineering – Castro had taken over the government and was slowly installing Communist restrictions. In order to avoid paying back the government for their tuition, neither Karim sat for their final exam and therefore never officially earned a degree.

It was one way of snubbing their nose at the government. Another was to request a visa to leave the country, which the Karims did. That act had swift repercussions.

Emma worked for the state electric company, and Gerardo worked for the telephone company. After requesting their visas, Emma was sent to work in a knitting factory, where the monotony was torture for a young college-educated woman. “I hated knitting,” she said. “I thought I was going to lose my brain.”

Through an old family friend who worked in the government, Emma got moved to a factory that made macramé belts, but that didn’t last long. One day she received a letter telling her to meet at a certain spot at 6 a.m. “They put us on these trucks and took us way out of Havana to work in the fields,” she said. “They decided to plant coffee.”

Emma and her fellow workers planted coffee plants in plastic bags, and when the plants were big enough, they transplanted them in fields near the beach. “We were mad,” she said. “You cannot say anything, because where you go from there was prison.”

But she did get even. When planting the coffee plants, she wouldn’t remove the plastic incubator bag. “That thing will die there in the plastic,” she said, chuckling. “I asked my friend who went there recently, ‘How many plants of coffee do you find there?’ Not many.”

In the meantime, Gerardo the electrical engineer was sent two hours outside Havana to cut sugar cane. The men weren’t even allowed to come home on weekends, Emma said. “I would go there every weekend to bring him something to eat,” she says. “He got sick there, because they don’t clean.”

It took a couple of years, but eventually the Karims were granted exit visas. By this point there were no flights from Cuba to the United States, so they wound up in Madrid for a couple of years, saving enough money to emigrate to America.

Celeste Hernandez Laino

The story was much the same for Celeste Hernandez Laino ’59. Persuaded by a family friend to join her at Wingate, Laino thrived in the welcoming South, one of seven Cuban freshmen at Wingate in the fall of 1957 (along with Arguelles). Unlike most of the Cuban students who passed through The Gate, Laino was Catholic. But she felt at home at the Baptist institution.

“I never, ever, ever felt like an outsider there,” she says. “Even if I had my accent or whatever, I always felt welcome. There’s not a single person that I met who didn’t welcome me with open arms and affection.”

Like Karim, Laino returned to Cuba after attending Wingate, and her family also emigrated because of the Castro regime. They left their homeland early enough that there were still flights to the U.S., but many other details about their departure elude Laino’s memory now. “There are certain things I don’t like to remember and have actually forgotten,” she says.

Laino does recall the unfriendliness of the airport. “They would search you and put you in what they called the ‘birdcage,’” she says. “They didn’t even have a bathroom in there. You had to stay there until they said the plane was ready to leave.”

But living under Communist rule was unthinkable, so they endured. “We liked freedom and we liked the United States, so we made it our home,” Laino says.

Once on American soil, Laino was content. She had enjoyed college, liked the friendly South and made friends easily. Many of her Wingate College peers are still among her closest friends.

Laino’s parents had a rougher go of it. Her father, a lawyer in Cuba, did whatever work he could find once in the U.S. “He did a variety of jobs – actually manual-type work,” Laino says. “And that was hard. But he was a hard worker, and he didn’t want to take anything from the government.

“My parents, although they loved it here and they really felt like they were American, their homeland is their homeland. They left everyone behind, and I saw my mother suffer quite a bit, because of that, and my father too.”

None of the family ever returned to Cuba. They settled in New York, where Laino got a job and married a relatively well-known cartoonist from Argentina. Finding work was easier in New York and Florida, so that’s where Laino lived, ultimately founding and running an advertising agency with her husband in Tampa, Florida.

But she always longed to return to North Carolina.

“In my heart, North Carolina has always been home,” she says. “That’s where I have my oldest and dearest friends.”

Jose Duarte (1960s-70s)

While Laino was leaving Cuba behind in the 1960s, Duarte was questioning the government he helped bring to power in Cuba. In 1960, Duarte was put in military prison for opposing the Communist infiltration of the Rebel Army, of which he had been a Comandante. He was released two years later but was then re-arrested and spent the next 13 years either under house arrest or in exile.

In the late 1960s, Duarte’s name is mentioned in FBI files regarding the investigation of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination. According to an FBI letterhead memo dated March 7, 1969, and titled “Jose Antonio Duarte-Oropesa,” Jose Duarte was interviewed by the FBI on June 8, 1968, “in connection with the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy.”

According to the memo, Duarte identified himself as the leader of UNARE, a group of anti-Communist Cubans he had organized. At a pro-Castro meeting in Los Angeles on May 14, 1968, Duarte demanded to present his own view of present-day Cuba – one no doubt at odds with the rosy picture painted by the meeting’s guest speaker, Paul Shinoff. Duarte “became involved in a scuffle with a young man, who he later recognized from a newspaper photograph as Sirhan Bishara Sirhan.” Sirhan Sirhan, of course, would go on to assassinate Kennedy less than a month later.

There is doubt as to whether this is the same Duarte who called Wingate home in the ’30s, though Wingate’s Duarte was, by the 1960s, most certainly an anti-Castro figure. A CIA memo from Dec. 13, 1968, mentioned “Jose Antonio Duarte,” followed closely by a mention of “Jose Zacarias Tallet Duarte” in connection with the Sirhan Sirhan encounter in Hollywood. Tallet was a writer and poet who would go on to win Cuba’s National Literary Prize in 1984.

Duarte’s own self-reported timeline has him under house arrest in Cuba between 1963 and 1970, making agitation in Hollywood in 1968 uncertain. But regardless of whether Duarte had a run-in with Sirhan Sirhan or was interviewed by the FBI, he was certainly on the U.S. authorities’ radar.

In 1975, Duarte emigrated to the U.S., where he worked as a journalist and wrote Historiologia Cubana, a Spanish-language history of Cuba – from the Mesozoic period through the late 1960s – colored with Duarte’s own biography and views.

If anyone who reads Spanish would like to take a crack at Historiologia Cubana to find out more about Duarte, the Ethel K. Smith Library has a copy it keeps in its special collection. You probably can’t leave the building with it, but you could learn more about one of the most colorful people to ever pass through The Gate.