A Cuban Refugee's Optimism Inspires His Grandson's Acting Career

Jul 30, 2021
Originally published on July 30, 2021 9:56 am

Growing up in Havana, Cuba, Mario García was a well-known child actor. That all changed in 1962 when he fled as a refugee under Fidel Castro's regime. Although he put his acting career aside then, he was later able to pass along his passion for acting to his grandson, Maximilian.

Mario was about 10 years old the first time he ever stepped on set, he told Max during a conversation at StoryCorps earlier this month.

It began with a chance encounter. Mario had been sitting on a bench outside a studio in Havana, waiting while his father — a Cuban jazz saxophonist — was at band rehearsal.

"Suddenly, someone approached me and said, 'We are trying to test for this commercial,' " he said. "So, I got up and I did the casting call."

Even with no acting experience under his belt, it quickly felt like a natural career path, said Mario.

"It was like I had always been doing this," he said. "From the commercial, I went on to be on telenovelas and a movie and all that."

Mario García as a child actor on the set of the Cuban telenovela Esta Es Tu Vida.
Mario García

But a revolution came and, in its wake, his career prospects were disrupted.

Mario was 15 when his parents put him on a flight to the U.S. He landed in Miami, where he went to live with his aunt and uncle while his parents stayed in Cuba. They joined him in Miami about a year later.

Mario clearly recalled the day he left: Feb. 28, 1962.

"My mother made me dress in a pinstripe suit and a beautifully white ironed shirt and a tie and she told me something that I never forgot: She said, 'People will evaluate you based on the way you dress.' So I arrived in the U.S. as a refugee looking like a million dollars."

He remembered seeing the clear waters of Cuba from the plane window. "It was so, so beautiful," he recalled, tearfully.

Mario told Max about his journey as a refugee on his grandson's 14th birthday. "It was the first time I was old enough to put it all into perspective and understand how much it took," Max, now 22, said.

His grandfather was in high school that first year in Florida. It was a challenge, he said, living "in a foreign country with no language, no parents, going to school — gone from being an actor to being a busboy."

"I remember that I was working and I had my 15-minute break. I would go back to an alley behind the restaurant and sit on a wooden crate and dry the tears with my apron."

But, Mario told his grandson, his optimism never failed him.

Mario went on to earn his Ph.D. in Spanish language and literature from the University of Miami and currently teaches journalism at Columbia University. Still, he said, "At 74, I'm not giving up on, you know, getting a good part in a movie sometime."

Mario's latest acting job was as an extra in the new musical drama film In The Heights. He continues to audition for new roles.

"That sense of optimism, and that dreaming big that I do have before auditions, is because of you," Max told his grandfather.

Max described his ideal film role, perhaps in a romantic comedy, for which he'd like to be cast.

"My favorite scenes are the final scene where they run after them at the airport and they say, 'Don't leave me, please don't leave me.' "

Mario imagined he'd be a supporting actor in that film:

"In a perfect movie, Max, I would be the old florist who sells the bouquet that you run to the girl with."

He wants his grandson to keep his optimism alive.

"I hope that when you are my age, you will still be dreaming, because the next best thing could be around the corner," he said.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Janmaris Perez. NPR's Emma Bowman adapted it for the web.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Time now for StoryCorps. Mario Garcia was once a well-known child actor in Havana, Cuba. In 1962, that changed when he fled the Castro regime and became one of 14,000 children who came to the U.S. alone as refugees in an operation called Pedro Pan. He put aside his acting career, but he later passed along his passion to his grandson, Maximilian. At StoryCorps, Max asked his grandfather, Mario, about the first time he ever stepped on set.

MARIO GARCIA: My father was a musician in Havana. And he took me to a rehearsal, and he told me to sit down at a bench outside the studio. Suddenly, someone approached me and said, we are trying to test for this commercial. I must have been 10 years old. So I got up, and I did the casting call. I mean, I had never been an actor, but it was like I had always been doing this. From the commercial, I went on to be on telenovelas and a movie and all that. I mean, that was going to be my career. But four years later came a revolution and changed it.

MAX GARCIA: And you had to come to Miami.

MARIO GARCIA: February 28 of 1962 - I woke up, and I knew that this was the day I would leave. My mother made me dress in a pinstripe suit and a beautifully white, ironed shirt and a tie. And she told me something that I never forgot. She said, people will evaluate you based on the way you dress. So I arrived in the U.S. as a refugee, looking like a million dollars. But anyway, we went to the airport, and there were a lot of children. We were all fighting for the window. And I remember seeing the clear waters of the water in Cuba. And it was so beautiful (crying). Sixty years later, you start telling that story, and it all comes back. It doesn't go away.

MAX GARCIA: I remember you told me that story on my 14th birthday, and it was the first time I was old enough to put it all into perspective and understand how much it took.

MARIO GARCIA: Absolutely - in a foreign country with no language, no parents, going to school, going from being an actor to being a busboy. I remember that I was working, and I had my 15-minute break. I would go back to an alley behind the restaurant and sit on a wooden crate and dry the tears with my apron. It was a challenge, but optimism never failed me. At 74, I'm not giving up on, you know, getting a good part in a movie sometime.

MAX GARCIA: Yeah. That sense of optimism and dreaming big that I do have before auditions is because of you.

MARIO GARCIA: Tell me, what would you see yourself playing?

MAX GARCIA: My favorite scenes are the final scene where they run after them at the airport, and they say, don't leave me; please don't leave me.

MARIO GARCIA: And in a perfect movie, Max, I will be the old florist who sells the bouquet that you run to the girl with.

MAX GARCIA: (Laughter).

MARIO GARCIA: I hope that when you're my age, you will still be dreaming because the next best thing could be around the corner.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE DOT SESSIONS' "LAHAINA")

MCCAMMON: Mario Garcia with his grandson, Maximillian Garcia. Mario is still auditioning. His latest role was as an extra in the film "In The Heights." Their conversation will be archived at the Library of Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE DOT SESSIONS' "LAHAINA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.