Early in the morning on Nov. 18, 1961, my parents, my brother and I headed for the Havana airport, Rancho Boyeros, for I was to catch the morning flight to Miami. I was 16.

The morning air seemed cooler than usual that day. Perhaps this was a physical reaction to the uncertainty of my future at that time.

My father had placed el gusano, my gray traveling bag, in the trunk of our fairly new Ford. Those of us leaving the island at this time were called gusanos by the Castro government.

According to El Comandante en Jefe Fidel Castro, we were insubordinates, did not believe in the revolution, were unworthy of being called Cubans and were the closest thing to dirt. So we were called gusanos, or earth worms.

I was leaving behind my most dear city, Camagüey, where I had lived all my life. It was a difficult move for me, but I could no longer remain in a country whose government was rooted in unnecessary unrest, repression and persecution of all those who did not agree with the government.

The Cubans, young and all, were told repeatedly by the nationalized media that the gusanos were responsible for all the ailments that our country had and could have in the future.

The traffic flow from the hotel to the airport was interrupted often by groups of militia marching in the streets. They were being trained to face aggressors and unworthy citizens. Due to all these interruptions, we were late arriving to the airport and I missed my flight!

My father talked to the military personnel in charge of the building facility and flights to the United States. I could not hear the conversation well, let alone understand what was going on.

But I could see my father’s expression and it was not pleasant. I was afraid he would be taken away by the G2, National Security personnel. Someone else joined the conversation and he seemed less militant and friendlier.

Next, this same man started to converse with my uncle, who had just arrived. I sensed things were getting better and saw a much happier father and mother. Something told me that I was going to travel after all.

One of the employees summoned me to the pecera, or the gusanos’ waiting room and asked me to wait there for the afternoon flight. There was a vacant seat in the Peter Pan afternoon flight. I was on it.

My arrival to Miami was one of the most exciting moments of my life.

Everyone was quiet on the plane. There were some teary eyes around me, and my eyes were watery, too.

However, when we were approaching Miami, the pilot said, “We are in the United States of America!” The mood changed completely in that plane, and everyone clapped while shouting “WE ARE FREE!”

I did not have to go to the Peter Pan campgrounds because a relative of mine was picking me up at the airport. I spent four days in her home. She was very kind and had other children staying in her house. There were beds and mattresses all over the house. Everyone helped and cared for each other. Most of these youngsters were surprisingly hopeful. They thought we would return to Cuba soon.

After about four days in Miami, I left for Tenafly, N.J., to live with relatives who welcomed me with open arms. I have wonderful memories from my years in Tenafly.

Tenafly Senior High School introduced me to my new life. I had very competent and dedicated teachers. I met and studied with culturally diverse students and instructors.

In addition, the school had a student-exchange program, so I enjoyed meeting students from Venezuela, Russia, Italy and Chile. Life in Tenafly was quite different from Cuba, but very nice as well.

My brother and his wife arrived in Miami in 1962. I went to live with them and transferred to Miami Edison Senior High School. Once again, I was blessed by sharing my life with my family and attending a good school. Subsequent to my arrival in Miami, I observed first-hand the difficult time most exiles were experiencing.

Jobs were scarce, salaries were very low, and since relatives from Cuba were still arriving in the United States or trying to leave Cuba via a third country, life was taxing for them.

Most of the time, the news from Cuba was not good. But as time went by, we all learned to live with the reality of our lives. I personally found great enjoyment in school.

My years at Miami Edison were challenging but hopeful. I had superb teachers, especially my government and economics teacher, who provided all of us with superior instruction and classroom atmosphere. She was fair, inclusive and promoted a positive learning environment. It was this teacher who motivated me and others to continue our education.

My friends became long-lasting friends. They all contributed to my success in my new and beloved country, The United States of America.

Angela Albaisa Santos grew up to become an educator herself, retiring last year as principal of John G. DuPuis Elementary School in Hialeah.