“Everyone smile for the photo”, our museum guide instructed us as four small groups of visitors tried awkwardly to pose for a group photo with our smiling guides. “This is the most we’ve ever had” he added proudly.
I guess they don’t usually get many visitors. The small museum is located off the main tourist street of Calle Ocho in Little Havana, Miami and trying to find it was an adventure. It showed up on Google Maps-The Bay of Pigs Museum, but other Google searches said it had moved years. When I asked the waitress in Little Havana she shrugged and said she didn’t know. That only made me more determined to find it.
“Sorry guys, this might be a waste of time but I really want to see it,” I apologized to my friends as we walked down the block and into an empty parking lot. On the other side of the fenced-in parking lot was an old house. We never would have guessed it was the museum until we saw a historical plaque depicting the importance of the Bay of Pigs on Miami. Even then, the lack of visitors, the high wrought iron gate and a sign on the door about being closed on New Year’s made us think the place was closed. We stood there for a minute, deciding what to do, when the door slowly opened and an older gentleman in black pants and a button up collared shirt walked out and invited us in.
He was one of the guides of the museum. There were four of them there that day and each must have been over 75 years old. All four had been members of the US-backed Brigade 2506 that had attacked Cuba in 1961 in an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro.
It’s not often that you visit a museum and get to hear the story from a person that was actually there, so this was a special kind of living history. We got to hear first-hand how the Brigade members went to Guatemala to train, how the first Brigade casualty was a man who fell off a cliff in the jungle there, and how they started their numbering system for soldiers at 2000 to trick Castro’s government into thinking they were a bigger force than they were.
We saw a picture of prisoners sitting in rows in a courtyard and were informed it was the soldiers’ trial in Cuba after they had been captured. They were imprisoned for months until the U.S. cut a deal with the Castro regime to extradite them in return for millions of dollars worth of equipment, food and cash.
The museum itself was curated by members of the Bay of Pigs Veteran’s Association and contains photos of all of the Brigade members, newspaper articles and other memorabilia from the attack. Not surprisingly, it’s one sided. That is, you won’t find any Fidel Castro supporters here or anything that questions the validity of the U.S. government’s intention to overthrown another sovereign nation’s government.
But, it was a place for great dialogue, and when I shared that I was a teacher, I was asked what I thought about the attack. In my best diplomatic response (real life ACTFL Superior level conversation!) I tried to explain that I thought what they did was very brave and Fidel Castro had done some very bad things but on the other hand the U.S. has a history of overthrowing many governments in Latin America and where do you draw the line? Who should be the world’s policeman when a leader (dictator) is bad and violating human rights?
I steered the conversation to what the future looked like for Cuba, as more Americans travel there and there is a U.S. embassy in Havana again now. Despite these changes the museum veterans were pessimistic about any improvements to human rights or any major changes in Cuba in the future, at least while the current regime is still in place. And unfortunately they are probably right.
These elderly men, who were all there as volunteers at a free museum, were so proud to be able to share their story with others. The excitement in their voice was evident as they greeted new visitors from Spain, France, and the US who came after us. Our group became increasingly larger as our guide was the only one that spoke English and I was glad to be able to chat in Spanish to get the real story.
As a teacher this made me think of what an amazing opportunity this could be for our Spanish classes, especially heritage learner classes, to connect with these men, listen to their stories and experience living history at the same time. I know that I won’t think about the Bay of Pigs again without thinking of the stories of the men who were actually there.
If you are in Miami and want to visit the museum, it is just a few blocks from the famous Máximo Gómez domino park in Little Havana.