Guillermo Vicente Vidal: From fleeing Castro's Cuba to Denver mayor

11:22 AM, Sep 29, 2013   |    comments
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DENVER - Guillermo Vicente Vidal, or Bill, was the youngest of three brothers born in the city of Camaguey in Cuba. His father was a pharmacist and his mother was a stay at home mom. They lived a comfortable lifestyle as a middle class family with nannies, maids, a cook, and even a gardener. But after 1959, everything would change as Fidel Castro took control of Cuba.

"Within that year, all that celebration started spiraling into chaos. Where all of a sudden properties were confiscated. Your neighbors started turning you in for being a counter-revolutionary and it was mayhem," recalls Vidal. "The schools were taken over by the militia, and the Catholic church was thrown out of the island."

Behind closed doors, the children began to hear the soft murmurs of their parents talking about sending them off of the island. In 1961, through Operation Peter Pan, Vidal's parents sent the boys to the United States on Pan American flights. They weren't the only ones trying to flee from Castro's Cuba.

"The atmosphere at the airport, the kids who were leaving were put in this glass enclosed room called "la pesera," the fishbowl, and then your parents stood on the outside of that not with you. So I remember that feeling. We'd put our hands to the glass to touch and I remember feeling that separation right there from (my parents.) And that fear of uncertainty in the future."

Vidal was only 10 and his brothers 11-and-a-half years old when they arrived in Florida. The brothers stayed in a temporary shelter until they could be processed together in an orphanage in Pueblo, Colorado. "Well, both Pueblo and Colorado are Spanish words so it sounded like that's the place where we belong."

But it was nothing like what they expected. They were punished for speaking Spanish and bullied by older children. Their names were also changed to sound more American.

The boys grew into teenagers in the orphanage, and almost four years later they were finally reunited with their parents. 

"When I walked into the room where my parents where in I actually closed my eyes because I was afraid of what I was going to see. And then I opened then I finally opened them and saw them and we embraced strongly and kissed with so much joy. I could see the traces of who they were in their faces but they certainly were different. They were care worn. And you could see in their faces without words that they had suffered greatly in those years in Cuba," remembers Vidal.

In the orphanage, they were provided with shelter and food. But as they slowly built a new life from scratch with their parents, the hardships continued. Sometimes they didn't know where their next meal would come from. Through it all, education was always a priority. 

"The day I graduated from college was one of the happiest days of my life because I knew then That I was equipped to get out of this cycle of poverty and strife and all of the things that we had gone through as a family, "says Vidal.

His degree in civil engineering turned his future brighter and eventually led him to such positions as executive director of CDOT. In 2011, he was asked by then major John Hickenlooper to be the manager of public works and deputy mayor. Eventually Vidal had to fill his bosses shoes when Hickenlooper resigned to be Governor of Colorado. This made Vidal the first foreign born mayor in the history of Denver.

In Spanish there is a phrase that says "No hay mal que por bien no venga," which means "Out of the bad, good things come."

"I can't think of any other country where a kid could be a Cuban immigrant in an orphanage and then fifty years later had been sworn in as mayor of the largest city in the state of Colorado."

(KUSA-TV © 2013 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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