The aroma of doughnuts baking at Byerly’s Bakery.
That’s Silvia Morell Alderman’s favorite memory of the nine years she and her parents, Cuban exiles Jose and Rosy Morell Romero, lived in Chadron, while her father was a professor of Spanish at Chadron State College.
“When those doughnuts were being made, you could smell them for blocks and you couldn’t help but go there and buy your dozen,” said Alderman, a 1973 CSC graduate, adding that the long-gone bakery “will always be a legend in my mind.”
Legends and legacies, not of baked goods but of her parents’ role in Cuba’s political upheaval in the 20th Century and subsequent life in the United States are the subject of Alderman’s recently-released book, “The Front Row, The Life and Times of Rosa Maria Teresa de la Concepcion de Varona de Morell Romero.”
Alderman’s father, a distinguished jurist and political leader in Cuba before Fidel Castro seized power, and later president of the Cuban government-in-exile, is better known, but the book focuses on the experiences of her mother whose life encompassed high society Havana, international political intrigue and raising a daughter in rural Nebraska.
Jose Morell’s name is well-known among the Cuban expatriates who fled the island nation in the decade following Castro’s successful 1959 coup against the Batista dictatorship. As a student Morell was deeply involved in driving an earlier dictator, Gerardo Machado, from power in 1933, and he later helped reorganize the University of Havana, served as Secretary of Labor and was appointed to the Supreme Court. After fleeing Cuba in 1960, he spent more than two years traveling in Central and South America, with U.S. government support, persuading national leaders to oppose Cuba’s communist regime. Morell got a job at CSC in 1964, through a program to employ Cuban professionals as teachers, and taught until 1973, when the family moved to Florida to be closer to family and friends. His memoirs were published in 1993. He died in 2002 at the age of 96.
Rosy (as Alderman calls her mother in the book), the descendent of a family with roots in Castilian Spanish nobility, was also a member of the anti-Machado underground. She married Morell in 1934 but a year later the couple were forced into exile by Machado’s successor. They were able to return in 1936 when the political situation changed. As their family grew to include three children, Morell’s reputation as a fair and honest government official developed, and Rosy’s position in Havana society enabled them to encounter many celebrities of the 1940s and 50s. A list of notables she met includes Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Jack Dempsey.
Life changed dramatically after leaving Cuba in the wake of Castro’s violent takeover and subsequent suppression of civil liberty. Morell’s international travels left Rosy often on her own, living in a succession of cramped Miami apartments with nine-year-old Silvia and at times other exile families. Money was tight and tension increased when their son, Kiki, was imprisoned after being captured in the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion attempt.
He was later released but U.S. government support for the Cuban exiles waned and the job in Chadron brought welcome stability to the family. They lived in Sparks Hall, at the time a faculty residence, for three years before moving to a home on King Street and adjusted to the unfamiliar climate and life in a small town. Rosy made friends in the community, joined the Women’s Club, developed her painting skills, shopped at Safeway and listened to KCSR radio (where Silvia worked while in high school). The family used summer vacations to visit friends and family in Florida, and eventually returned there to live after Silvia completed her degree at CSC.
At age 67 Morell was unable to find work, so, to supplement his retirement income, Rosy entered the work force for the first time in her life and kept a job until he died. Embracing her role as grandmother, she also traveled widely and continued to paint.
Rosy was 97 when she died in 2011. Her passing was the impetus to write the book, said Alderman, who is now a successful lawyer and was honored as a Distinguished CSC Alumna in 2007.
“(Rosy), as an unsung heroine, achieved a greatness of her own,” and wasn’t overshadowed by her husband’s accomplishments, Alderman said. “In her own way, she played a part in making it happen for him.”
Alderman said her father never lost hope for a “legitimate government” under the 1940 Cuban Constitution that he helped write, but in later years her mother may have had a more pragmatic view of the possibility of overcoming Castro’s socialist/communist regime.
The recent thaw in Cuban-American relations doesn’t mean much for the many political dissidents still in jail there, nor does it end the multi-generational struggle for freedom by families such as hers, Alderman said.
“I felt that we as Americans let those people down by lending credibility to their oppressors,” she said. “It is my fervent hope that Cuba one day will be free.”
But even if the government were to change, Alderman said she would not think of living there.
“My only connection to Cuba now is in my memories and my inheritance…I am an American in my heart,” she said.
And she has no plans to visit her place of birth until democracy returns.
“Out of everything my parents and their generation fought for, I cannot bring myself to go back,” she said.
Though she has only returned to Chadron three times since graduating, Alderman said the community and its people had a profound effect on her life.
“The people of Chadron fostered the principles I learned at home. They set a great example of what it means to be a decent human being,” she said.
That example, and the memory of baking doughnuts, are among the reasons “Chadron will always hold a special place in my heart,” Alderman said.
A copy of ‘The Front Row’ willbe available in the Reta E. King Library at CSC.