By Port Authority Media Relations Staff
Between January 1, 1959 and October 31, 1980, more than 800,000 Cubans entered the United States. Jose “Sid” Fernandez, now a PATH engineer, was among them.
But, as one of countless young men growing up in Cuba and seeking escape from the repressive regime of Fidel Castro, Fernandez could only watch as other members of his family were able to leave the country, including his mother. Fernandez’s own exit was delayed by Castro, who in 1962 denied permission to leave the country to all males between the ages of 16 and 27.
By March 1968, more than a million Cubans had signed on to waiting lists to board a Freedom Flight – the largest airborne refugee operation in American history – which transported Cubans to Miami twice daily, five times per week, from 1965-1973.
Fernandez was the last of his family to leave Cuba, in 1972, but not before being forced to live in cramped barracks for three years while awaiting permission to depart, and suffering humiliation and harassment in the meantime. He said that opponents of Castro, in effect, were placed in internment camps.
“I was called twice to the airport and twice I was sent back to the barracks,” Fernandez recalled. When he received final permission to leave, he was instructed to arrive at the airport one day early for processing. And still there was a last-minute snag – the agent at the desk told him his name was not on the list.
“My stomach dropped. I had my visa and I had permission,” said Fernandez, who has spent more than 34 years with PATH. “But my name wasn’t in the book. Luckily, they found it in another book.”
Even 45 years after leaving his homeland, the emotions are still painfully fresh. When asked about his first glimpse of the airplane that would shuttle him to the U.S., his eyes brimmed with tears and his voice choked.
“When the American plane arrived, my tears came. I cried because I knew I couldn’t stay there anymore,” he said. “My own people were doing that to me, treating me like an animal with no rights, nothing.”
Upon his arrival in the U.S., he was relieved to find communities of his countrymen in Elizabeth and Union City, N.J. Fernandez attended school in nearby Linden, where he pursued an unfulfilled dream of working as a translator.
When he joined the Port Authority, his new co-workers thought he needed a nickname. At the time, Sid Fernandez was a member of the celebrated New York Mets’ pitching rotation in the mid-1980s, so his colleagues started calling him ‘Sid.’ The name stuck. He started at PATH as a car cleaner before rising eventually to the position of train engineer – a job he’s had for more than 30 years.
Thanks to steady employment at PATH, Fernandez has provided a comfortable home and college educations for five daughters, who have each achieved successful careers: a psychologist, a bank vice president, a human resources professional, a teacher and a make-up artist.
“The Port Authority has helped so many people like me get on their feet and put down roots. I recall worrying the day the [twin] towers collapsed that my job was gone. And yet a couple days later, I had a paycheck in my hand,” he said. “Working here has given me a deep sense of pride.”