Raquel Johnston is a former Cuban refugee who came to America at age 10. Among the blessings she discovered in the United States, Raquel learned the value of education and became converted to the Church. She has passed both of those legacies on to her seven children.
Tell me about coming to the United States.
I came to the United States as a child with my parents. I was 10 and my brother was 11. My father had been a sergeant in Batista’s army (the Cuban dictator in power previous to Castro). After the revolt in which Castro defeated Batista in 1959, followers of Batista were being picked up and weren’t allowed to leave the island. Many members of my family were affiliated with Batista’s regime, and my father wanted to send us out of the country for safety. His life was very much in danger because he was considered part of the opposition.
One of the outward expressions of opposition was when my dad pulled both my brother and I out of school as soon as he discovered that we were being taught Communism and atheism. We did not attend school for nine months because he was not willing to allow his children to be indoctrinated with an ideology hateful to him, even if it meant incarceration.
My mom, however, said she wouldn’t break up the family. So, my dad took a gamble and paid for a chartered flight out of Cuba. He could have been arrested any time, even at the airport as we were leaving. So he coached my brother and me to continue boarding the flight if anyone came to take him. We took no personal belongings with us — all I had was a small handbag with a few family books.
We went to Florida and asked for political asylum, but U.S. Immigration gave us a hard time because Castro still wasn’t a confirmed Communist threat. Cubans were flooding into Florida, as it is located only 90 miles away, has the same climate, and helped us feel close to our homeland. Many Cubans wanted to stay close. No one thought it would be long before Castro fell.
It became harder and harder for refugees to find work since the local infrastructure couldn’t support so many people. Also, most of the Cubans, including our family, had a language barrier which limited the available jobs even more. My dad was working two jobs, as a janitor at a hospital and as a dishwasher in a restaurant, but that was all he could get. My mom could not find work. It was the same for everyone from Cuba – even doctors and lawyers; no one could find much work. The four of us were living in a little one-bedroom apartment with some of my uncles.
The government created the Cuban Resettlement Program to help the Cubans move to other states to find work. We considered New York but my father decided we couldn’t live there because of the cold winters. Then, my mom’s brother opted to try California because he heard there was a lot of work and the climate was warm and pleasant. A month later we got a letter from him telling us he had everything ready for us to move to Los Angeles. There was plenty of work and many people spoke Spanish because of all of the Mexicans. We didn’t know anything about California, but that’s how we ended up here.
What was school like for you?
None of us spoke English, so it made things really difficult. None of the schools in Florida had bilingual education at the time, so all of the teachers spoke English only. They couldn’t communicate with us. We were some of the first non-English speakers at the school. No one knew what to do with my brother and me, so they gave us math worksheets every day. We’d do the Pledge of Allegiance and then they’d put us with an aide or leave us alone and we’d do worksheets, day after day, since math is the universal language. That’s when I learned to love math. We became very good at it very quickly because of all the practice.
One day, the principal called us in and threatened to deport us, which was very frightening for us as little children. We didn’t understand what was happening. After that, my dad came to the school and with the help of a translator said he wouldn’t stand for his children being threatened when they didn’t have any say in the situation. The principal said that we’d have to attend evening classes to learn to speak English. My brother and I started going to adult education and summer school classes to try to learn the language. That was a huge turning point. I remember running home and sharing with my mom, with great excitement, how the ESL teacher had picked up a small table and said “la mesa…table” and a light had gone off in my head. It was really exciting for me to learn to connect all the words I was hearing. We started buying comic books too — lots of pictures, few words — and slowly but surely we learned English.
During this time of feeling out of place and scared in Florida, my brother and I would come and go to school through our apartment complex every day. There was an older lady in our building who would give us cookies every time she saw us coming home from school. No one could understand us or knew who we were, including her, but she knew we were struggling, so she did that small act of kindness for us. I’ve never forgotten that.
After two years in Florida (I was 12 and my brother was 13), we went to California where everyone thought we were Mexican because we spoke Spanish. We let them think that because it was too complicated to explain. No one even knew where Cuba was. When we came to California, we couldn’t understand the Mexicans — the language sounded different. Both cultures are of Spanish descent but at first we had some difficulty communicating with each other. Cubans speak really fast — to us, it seemed like the Mexicans were singing their words. Their speech sounded slow to us, but eventually we adapted.
We moved into a small apartment owned by a Mexican family who lived below us. They were very kind-hearted people of very modest means. Yet, they had gone to Pic ‘N Save [Big Lots] and bought plastic plates and cups, utensils, and basic pots and pans. They donated all this as well as bedding to help us get a head start. Everything looked beautiful to us. They understood our situation and their generosity made a big impression on me as a child.
My parents worked really hard. My dad had two jobs, and my mom took me along with her to look for work. It was a time when you knocked on doors and asked for work instead of sending in a resume like we do now. My mom did a bunch of odd jobs. She’d clean, sew, whatever. My dad eventually opened his own delivery business and became successful. He was able to provide higher education for his children. Both my brother and I attended UCLA.
Many of our family members had not left Cuba because they didn’t think it would get as bad as it did. Some of them lived and died there. We were among a few of the fortunate ones who left the country. Every good thing I have, I owe to this country and the God given freedoms that are available here.
How did you develop such a love for education?
School was hard that first year in LA. Teenage years are difficult because you want to be a part of everything, but in my situation it was impossible — different culture, different language, and my parents were uneducated and couldn’t talk to the school personnel to help us be involved in school activities such as clubs, music, or sports. Fortunately, the school counselors were helpful.
We worked extra hard in school because my parents really believed in education and told us we were very fortunate to be in this country. We believed the U.S. was the greatest country in the world, the land of opportunity, and that we could achieve anything that we wanted to achieve by working hard. My parents reminded us that had we stayed in Cuba, we never would have had an education since only the rich could go to school there. Part of the reason the revolution took place in Cuba was due to ignorance and poverty destroying lives. You can’t become what you’re supposed to become, or in other words “achieve your potential,” unless you rise above ignorance.
My dad would take us to the library often and we’d check out lots of books. We couldn’t afford anything so the library became our favorite place. We’d get encyclopedias, dictionaries, everything. We caught the passion for this great land and its educational opportunities.
Things were especially hard for me. In Cuba I was considered gifted and was applauded by my teachers for my accomplishments, but in America I was treated as someone lacking intelligence because I could not communicate. It made me realize that when there is a language barrier, people sometimes tend to classify others incorrectly. I had a hard time and cried a lot, but my parents’ attitude was that being here was a gift. They never spoke negatively about America. They were extremely supportive of our education. This enthusiasm has been passed on to our children – it is part of my parents’ legacy.
During junior high school, I reached a turning point when I realized that I had to accept who I was, in that it was okay that I was never going to be like my American peers. My heritage was different and my family did things differently. We were starting a new life in a new country and I had some handicaps that weren’t going to change. I remember how one day during those formative high school years, my dad asked me why I cried so much. I shared with him how I was not being accepted by most of the other students. He replied that sometimes people, through ignorance, treat others in a demeaning manner but that they do not have the power to change who I am; only I can do that. He told me that I could maintain courage despite what was happening around me. Those loving words of advice made all the difference for me, particularly in how I saw myself in respect to others. To this day, I still have a great love for teenagers because I experienced many difficulties of my own, while I was growing up.
How did you learn about the Church?
I had been raised Catholic, where lay-people were discouraged from reading the Bible and you couldn’t see or understand what was going on during the mass because it was in Latin. Around the time I was 13 years old, The Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) was held which made some changes and opened up study for regular members. I started reading the Bible and taking religious classes. I also resolved to pray to Heavenly Father only. As I did so, my love and trust in Him increased. I developed a very real and personal relationship with Him through prayer. I had a lot of questions and began to see discrepancies in the teachings of the faith in which I had been raised. I felt a growing need and determination to put the teachings of Jesus Christ into practice, not just worship. I knew that God loved me and was aware of me. I also felt that He would provide me with direction as to what to do in my life. As I read the Bible, I was particularly intrigued by the idea of prophets and apostles in the Old Testament.
After high school, I began my undergraduate studies at UCLA. When I was 19, missionaries approached me on the street near the UCLA campus. I was not acquainted with the church at that time. When they posed the question, “What would you say if we told you there was a prophet on the earth today?” they had my attention. It led to a discussion about that topic and many other things, and then they gave me a Book of Mormon. I promised I would read it and I did, cover to cover. As I read the Book of Mormon and learned more about the gospel from the missionaries, it was incredible to me how everything made sense and how all of my questions were being answered. Filled with excitement, I proceeded to share with my parents all the wonderful things that I was learning, and they were not happy. It was a very hard time for our relationship. They loved me and I loved them, our family was very close — we were all each other had when we came to this country — but there was no compromise on either side on this subject. They were shocked that I would be the first to leave the faith of my fathers after so many generations. My brother, on the other hand, later became a Catholic priest. They held me back from joining the church as long as they could, and then told me I had to move out of their house if I got baptized. I went to an LDS member’s house and shed lots of tears.
The day I was baptized, something extraordinary happened to me. I received the Gift of the Holy Ghost and found that I was given the strength to stand alone not only that day but for many years following. In time, my family and I reconciled and our relationship gradually improved. Acting on what I knew to be right was a very difficult thing for me to do, but decisions are like that. I have learned from this experience that sometimes years and years pass before you can see all the blessings you would have missed if you hadn’t said yes when given the opportunity. I could have said no! But because of it, my life has been very rich and abundantly blessed — I have never regretted my decision.
Tell me about your husband and children.
My husband is a native Californian. He served in the US Navy during the Vietnam War for four years while I was in high school and college. He was finishing his last year at UCLA when I met him. I was baptized in April 1970 and we met that August. He wasn’t a Mormon. We fell in love and were married almost two years later in a non-denominational church.
Prior to our marriage, I told him the LDS Church was everything to me and it was something I had to live. He said he’d support me, so he started coming to church with me after we were married. He was baptized two years later. A year after that, we were sealed (married in the Church) in the Los Angeles Temple. We have seven children — four girls, three boys. True to my parents’ legacy, education was emphasized in our home and all of our children have gone to college. All the boys went to Harvard, one girl to Wellesley, and three girls to BYU. Most have gone on to graduate programs.
When I told my dad that my oldest son was accepted to Harvard he said, “Isn’t this the greatest country in the world? We’ve come a long way from cutting sugar cane in Cuba.” They’re wonderful kids, they all live the gospel. They have been wonderful examples to my parents and have helped them become more appreciative of the LDS faith. All three boys and one girl served missions for our Church and all seven have been endowed. All of the pain and sacrifice was worth it for my posterity. My family means everything to me, including the people who preceded me.
My husband and I just celebrated 40 years of marriage. I am so grateful for his love and support throughout the years. I’m also a three-time cancer survivor and am currently cancer free. We’ve had lots of ups and downs — life isn’t easy. However, we love each other and just keep going, trying not to let the bad things destroy the good things. Life presents challenges and God gives us the strength to bear them. I’ve found that you have to get on your knees and talk to Heavenly Father, ask Him to help you make it through the hard things and He will.
I’ve tried to help my children understand what they’re capable of becoming, their potential. You have to help them catch the vision — set their sights high so they can achieve, just like Heavenly Father did for me. Do the same thing for your children: set that atmosphere, until they’re capable of recognizing that what you’ve been teaching is true. I don’t like it when people talk bad about teenagers. Children need a lot of support, encouragement, and help. Although my teen years were very hard, my dad and mom encouraged me. I never would have made it without them.
How have you found the courage and strength to overcome the obstacles in your life?
I look back to my baptism and wonder how I did it. I was very wimpy, sheltered, and protected; I’d never even been out on my own. I still can’t believe I did it. But God delivers you. You don’t always see it along the way.
At A Glance
Raquel Perez Johnston
Location: Escondido, San Diego, California
Marital status: Married 40 years
Children: Seven- Son (36yrs), Daughter (35yrs), Daughter (33yrs), Son (32 yrs), Daughter (28yrs), Daughter (25yrs), Son (23yrs).
Convert: 4 April 1970
Schools Attended: UCLA
Languages Spoken at Home: Spanish and English
Favorite Hymn: “I Believe in Christ” and “I’m A Child of God”
Interview by Lyndsey Payzant Wells. Photos used with permission.