By Central Voice
On New Year’s Eve 1959, when Fidel Castro’s soldiers finally defeated corrupt Cuban President Fulgencio Batista, the seeds of the Cuban revolution were planted.
The seeds that would eventually blossom into the beliefs of Harrisburg’s Dr. José Venereo were also planted.
As a Cuban, José faced a family history recounted only in whispers.
“I was very young when much of this family history took place. They did not talk in great detail. This was a traumatic time for my family. Their houses and land were confiscated under Castro’s policy of redistributing wealth,” José tells Central Voice.
As a gay child, he navigated a Latin culture built on strong masculinity and religious values. As a gay man, he later found a home in south central Pennsylvania; now a successful veterinarian and owner of Noah’s Ark Veterinary Center.
Born into revolution
The Cuban Revolution was an armed revolt against the government of Cuban President Fulgencio Batista conducted by Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement and its allies. The revolt began in July 1953 and finally ousted Batista on Jan. 1, 1959, replacing his government with Castro’s revolutionary state.
Castro’s government formed along Communist lines. By 1965, his armed revolution had become the Communist Party of Cuba, today headed by Castro’s brother Raúl who rules the island 90 miles from the coast of Jose’s adopted home.
In 1967, against this tumultuous background, José was born in Cuba. By then his father, also named Jose, had been a political prisoner of Castro for almost eight years. He was a tobacco grower who expressed his disapproval of the dictator’s takeover. Fueling Castro’s revolution was Batista’s slide into corruption as he befriended the US Mob. Although he was popularly elected for his first run, Batista cancelled the second election and took over Cuba by means of a military coup. “Castro found his power by fighting Batista’s corrupt government. Only after taking power did he, Batista, show his true colors,” José explained.
In a story from a Hollywood script, José’s father met and eventually married the daughter of an anti-Castro military sergeant with whom he was jailed. Both Jose’s grandfathers were successful Cubans who met the Castro regime’s disfavor.
The jails of revolutionaries are known for their cruelty.
“They put sugar on one side of moldy bread. There were often cockroaches on the other side of the bread,” José explained.
“During those early years of Communist rule the regime’s control over the hearts and minds of the Cuban people was something we experienced very deeply,” José said.
An experience with his sister, Gladys Maria, is etched into Jose’s memory.
“One day my sister came home from school and told my father she loved Castro more than she loved him,” José said. Her behavior reflected what she had been taught in school. The revolution touched every aspect of Cuban life, including the relationship between a father and his daughter.
Jose recalls with stunning clarity a concrete wall he would pass with elders as they walked to regular destinations. “The wall was about 12 high. It was stained with blood. You could see where the bullets hit the wall, after passing through people. Elders explained in somber voices, “This is where they shoot political prisoners”. That moment is frozen in Jose’s memory.
By late 1971 José’s family moved to Madrid Spain. Several years later, the family migrated again to Puerto Rico. Eventually through hard work and education José became a doctor of veterinary science, landed in the region by the year 2000. A year later, he purchased his veterinary practice. Jose sings with Harrisburg Men’s Chorus.
In 1971, Madrid was not a place open to foreigners. “There were not many jobs and a Cuban was treated like he was taking a job away from a Spaniard,” Jose remembers.
Although schools were private and Spain had no official state religion, they were all coincidentally Roman Catholic. Both countries’ populations spoke Spanish, and even with the many dialects that comprise a language, Jose and his family were able to adequately communicate and enjoy Spanish life. “We went to bull fights which were like baseball in Spain,” José said.
“My father worked in a market lifting boxes and had several hernia surgeries because he worked so hard,” José said. Eventually his father found work in a Cuban restaurant that eased the family’s plight. Although US relatives occasionally sent money to help the family survive, Jose says they were never hungry. “There was no room for excess. When we would go to market my mother would say touch with your eyes not your hands.”
As if the family’s story need be any more legendary, add a literary twist only a kind fate could provide.
By 1975, the family moved to Tarrytown, New York, the setting for Washington Irving’s classic 1820 short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and noiw a popular TV show. Set in the Dutch countryside of 1790, Tarrytown is nestled in a secluded glen called Sleepy Hollow, renowned for ghosts and a haunting atmosphere that teases the imaginations of inhabitants. The plot follows police constable Ichabod Crane, played by Johnny Depp in a 1999 movie version, sent from New York City to investigate a series of murders in Sleepy Hollow by a mysterious Headless Horseman.
“What everyone remembers about Sleepy Hollow is the Headless Horseman,” Jose said, “the ghost of a Hessian trooper who had his head shot away by a stray cannonball during the American Revolutionary War, eerily similar to Jose’s story of the wall where political prisoners were shot for their beliefs.
José, 46, did not come out of the closet until he was 32.
Like all Latin cultures, Cuban culture is embedded in “Machismo,” a belief in the supremacy of men over women that also sees gay men as without masculinity.
“I had an openly gay uncle and cousin. My family would make unkind remarks about them so I knew very early in life what being different was all about,” Jose said.
Like children who are bullied for being gay, or anyone bullied for being different, Jose absorbed the negative messages.
“I was a big homophobe. I dated married men. I convinced myself that if they were married they couldn’t be gay. And because I was having sex with a married man who wasn’t gay, I couldn’t be gay either,” José said of the tortured logic of his earlier years.
“My father thought I was gay because I had been traumatized. He thought somewhere early in my life I had an unrequited crush on a girl. What I had were many unacknowledged questions about men,” José said laughing aloud.
“Today, I like myself very much,” he says with a grin.
Fully aware of his family’s history and knowing firsthand the effects of both political repression and unkind remarks about being gay, José has developed an interesting blend of political views.
“I am a citizen of the United States of America,” José explains, the Americas extend across two continents. A portion of the Americas is the United States of America,” José says.
“I firmly believe that when someone migrates to the United States they have a duty and a responsibility to learn English as their first language,” José says with conviction.
He also says that immigrants should keep their native tongue alive and learn as many other languages as possible. “Knowing as much about the world as you can is the best medicine against bigotry,” José said.
“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a public policy that may say we have a standard language. We cannot possibly start to produce government documents in an endless number of languages. Migration to the US changes over time and we cannot eventually accommodate all the different languages on the planet,” José said.
Jose does not mean that immigrant cultures and languages should be disregarded or disrespected.
“Everyone’s heritage deserves respect. But each who comes to the United States of America has an obligation to pull together, to be good community members, and to create the strongest economy and communities they possibly can,” José said.
Not having a common set of standards for language, José thinks, contributes to the disintegration of American culture. “We need to pull together, find what we share in common.”
“What’s important, whether you are gay or straight, born here or migrate here, is to overcome obstacles, make success your goal,” Jose concludes.