The swift and improbable rise of Mel Martinez to the top echelon of America’s government began not with a political race but with a burst of gunfire. In April 1958, an eleven-year-old Martinez huddled on his bedroom floor while Cuban soldiers opened fire on insurgents outside his family’s home in the normally sleepy town of Sagua la Grande. With that hail of bullets, the idyllic Cuba of his boyhood was shattered.
If political unrest made daily life disturbing and at times frightening, Fidel Castro’s Communist Revolution nine months later was nothing short of devastating. Martinez’s Catholic school was suddenly shuttered as the Communist regime threw priests out of the country. A sixteen-year-old boy from his town was seized and killed by a firing squad. When armed militiamen shouted violent threats at Martinez for wearing a cloth medallion as a sign of his Catholic faith, his parents made a heartrending decision: their son would have to escape the Castro regime—alone.
Under the greatest secrecy, the Martinez family arranged through a special church program to have Mel airlifted out of Cuba to America. After months of painstaking planning (and a simple mistake that nearly scuttled the entire arrangement), fifteen-year-old Martinez stepped on a plane bound for Miami. He had no idea when—or if—he would see his family again.
A Sense of Belonging is the riveting account of innocence lost, exile sustained by religious faith, and an immigrant’s gritty determination to overcome the barriers of language and culture in his adopted homeland. Martinez warmly recalls a bucolic childhood in Cuba, playing baseball, fishing at the beach, and accompanying his father on veterinary visits to neighboring farms. He also vividly recounts the harrowing changes under Castro that forced him to flee, as well as the arduous years he spent in American refugee camps and foster homes. And he captures the sheer joy of being reunited with his family after four years of wrenching separation. Having embraced life in America, he set about the delicate task of guiding his parents through their struggles with assimilation while also building his own family and career.
Through it all, Martinez embodies the ideal of service to others, whether comforting a younger child on the flight from Havana to Miami or giving legal advice pro bono to his father’s friends in the Cuban-American community. Though his story ends in the hallowed halls of the U.S. Capitol, Martinez has never forgetten the boy who experienced the loss of liberty under Communism. A Sense of Belonging is a paean to the transformative power of the American Dream.
MEL MARTINEZ is a U.S. senator from Florida and the former chairman of the Republican National Committee. He is the first Cuban-American to serve in the U.S. Senate. Prior to his election, he served as secretary of Housing and Urban… More about Mel Martinez
“Mel Martinez is a living embodiment of the American Dream. From his early days under the iron-fisted rule of Fidel Castro to his arrival in the United States at age fifteen, and now as a member of the U.S. Senate, Mel has demonstrated grit, resolve, and a commitment to fighting for the fundamental rights of freedom and human dignity. This remarkable story not only gives a glimpse into the life of a great man, but also reaffirms the notion that in America, anything is possible.” —John McCain
“An extraordinary and inspiring book, Mel Martinez’s account is at once a memoir, a historical document, and a tribute to both his native homeland and his adopted country. Of the fourteen thousand stories that the children of the Pedro Pan airlift could tell, this is definitely one of the most exemplary. Senator Martinez reveals here, as he does in his public life, how the hyphen in ‘Cuban-American’ is like gold refined in a blazing furnace. Years from now–even centuries from now –readers will surely marvel still at the history recorded in these pages.” —Carlos Eire, National Book Award—winning author of Waiting for Snow in Havana