On File

A Cuban Influence in Rochester

Digna Betancourt Swingle, director of social services at The Salvation Army’s Albany, N.Y., Corps, reflects on her family’s Cuban heritage and subsequent history in Rochester, N.Y. She tells how her parents, Nicomedes and Evangelina Betancourt, overcame political and cultural barriers to successfully meet the needs of the Hispanic community and to begin the Salvation Army’s Rochester Hispanic Outpost in 1965.

My father was born in Banes, a municipality on the northeast shore of Cuba. He was the youngest of six children, born to my grandmother Digna, for whom I was named. Growing up, Nicomedes was a street–smart kid. When he was 10, he hung out at the local grocery store, which had the only telephone in town. When a call for someone came in, he would pick up, put the caller on hold, and run to the person’s house to tell them they had a call. He earned tips that way. He also made money by competing as an athlete in baseball games and boxing tournaments. However, he gave all that up when he discovered The Salvation Army and heard God’s call to ministry.

My mother, Evangelina Reitor, was the middle child of five orphans. They all lived with different family members. She was raised by an aunt who was an espiritista (spiritualist) and attended a church devoted to holding séances and ‘talking to the dead.’ My mother never felt comfortable going to such a place, but went because her aunt did.

During one service, my mother witnessed a séance that involved a man with eyes that, by her words, “No longer looked human.” The man turned to my mother and whispered, “You do not belong here with us. You belong to God.” This scared her so much, she left that church and never returned.

Like Nicomedes did in Banes, Evangelina also became a part of the Salvation Army in her home of Manzanillo. As cadets in Cuba’s officer training school, they fell in love and married in 1953. Their first assignment as officers was running a Salvation Army orphanage in Cuba. My mother was also a star fundraiser. She had a charm that would make people running orphanages from other churches, who didn’t have much money themselves, donate to The Salvation Army.

Unfortunately, my parents’ time as officers came to an end when raising a family and supporting an orphanage became too much for them to handle. It was a difficult decision for them. But back then, they did not have the help that the Army now gives officer couples. They could not take care of their children and give the orphanage the proper attention it needed. When we all eventually moved to Havana, Cuba, my parents left officership, but remained active soldiers.

Living with Communism

To support my brother Daniel, my sister Eva, and me, my father worked as a butcher, and my mom became a homemaker. Though they were still involved in the Army, such ministry changed in Cuba when Fidel Castro rose to power. Christians were persecuted and arrested for preaching the Word of God.

Communism also affected my family personally. A journalist uncle on my mother’s side was arrested and later killed by firing squad, only because he worked for a newspaper that had supported Fulgencio Batista, Castro’s predecessor.

Because the schools were indoctrinating children to see Castro as a god, I was home–schooled by Mr. Gonzales, a Christian like me. To this day, he is still one of the best, toughest teachers I ever had. Years later, I learned that Mr. Gonzales was arrested for passing out Christian tracts in downtown Havana. He continued to minister in the prison to inmates until Castro’s men killed him.

My father applied for our family to come to the United States on the Freedom Flights of the 1960s. The U.S. government approved my father to leave, but the rest of us had to remain. He refused, knowing that if he came alone, he might never see us again. “God gave me this family,” he told the authorities, “and I choose to stay with them.”

Fortunately, a year after he turned down his flight, our whole family was approved to travel. We left suddenly, without saying “goodbye” to our extended family or telling them we were leaving. This hurt me greatly, but I later learned that I had aunts and uncles on my father’s side of the family who were directly connected to the Castro regime. Fear of the “Communist Next Door” was real in Cuba. Other family members could have reported my parents for what they were doing for us.

Arriving in the U.S.

In February 1962, we arrived in Rochester, N.Y. Members of the local Salvation Army were at the airport to donate coats to travelers coming off the Freedom Flights. My parents wanted us to have an Army upbringing. Even though none of us knew English, we started attending services at the Rochester Corps. The corps officers were aware that my parents were former officers. But to be officers in the United States, they would have to retake cadet training. Once again, they put family first and turned down the opportunity.

The fire burning inside them for ministry was still alive when Captain Ralph Leidy and his wife Mary arrived in Rochester. The Leidys valued my family’s love for the Army, and, like my parents, had a heart for the Spanish–speaking community, which had grown in recent years.

The outpost ministry

In 1965, with the help and support of the Rochester Corps, my parents, as volunteer soldiers, began the Rochester Hispanic Outpost, a storefront ministry in a local Hispanic neighborhood. We held holiness meetings, Bible studies, art programs, and provided assistance and counseling for new immigrants.

I was active at the outpost. I remember Christmas celebrations and being up late wrapping gifts with my mother for all the children of the families that we served. Also, anything that I learned in the corps’ English timbrel classes, I would teach to the younger children at the outpost. At age eleven, I had my own little group of timbrel players.

The Outpost ministry was a gift to my parents. They loved volunteering their time; it was their way of keeping alive the ministry that had meant so much to them in Cuba.

When the Army decided that a recent graduate from the College for Officer Training should take over running the Outpost, the transition proved difficult for my parents. Soon after that, they left the Rochester Corps and the outpost. Despite this, in their hearts, they remained loyal Salvationists, and attended corps in Amsterdam and Schenectady until their deaths. The Army conducted funeral services for both of them.

Giving our time

After my mother died, my father gave much of his time to volunteer work, not just at the corps, but at any church that needed help. He loved giving rides to people who did not have a car. During his eulogy, I asked, “How many of you knew Don Nico because he gave you a ride to work, to church, or to run errands?” Every hand went up.

The most important lesson I learned from my parents is that you can still do a lot for people, even with little money. Sometimes we have the mindset that, unless we can write big checks, we can’t help people in the most need. We forget that giving our time to others can be more valuable than money. If there is a need, find a way to meet the need and don’t let the lack of funds, inexperience, or even language barriers stop you.

interview by Hugo Bravo