If anyone has checked my bio, I was born in Havana but was raised in Manhattan. This all happened in the mid sixties. During that time, the situation for Cubans in favor of the Cuban Revolution of 1959 was to say the least, testy, and more so for anyone who was daring enough to live in New York City and represent the Cuban government at the United Nations. My father had been posted as ambassador at the tender age of 29 and left for New York City with my mom, her mom and myself.
Both my parents had had a pretty wild life before New York City. They had both taken part in the struggle to overthrow Fulgencio Batista in Cuba, they had both met at Havana University while studying Philosophy and Letters, they had both fallen in love a midst revolution on all scales. They were young intellectuals full of literature, the fine arts a passion for books, Visconti and Ray Coniff and the were convinced that social change on any level was the most important form of art anywhere. With all of that as emotional baggage my very small family landed in the Big Apple, asphalt jungle, city that never sleeps.
Overwhelmed by the times, the Cuban revolution was young, the Bay of Pigs invasion had barely just passed, and the Missile Crisis was still fresh in the minds of most and as Ché was about to leave off somewhere unknown to most, we began to accustom ourselves to living in what would soon be considered home.
New York became home to us sooner than anyone might have imagined. I barely spoke and soon began to communicate with my next door neighbor, the daughter of the Rabbi. My parents began to practice their high school English and my grandmother quickly mastered the art of reading the New York Times and later insisting on not speaking anything other than Spanish "to make sure la niña learns her mother tongue." Life was pretty good except for one thing: we were "the Communists" and Latinos to boot!
Growing up in a scenario of not quite fitting in can get lonely, but luckily by the time I was five my family had already begun to care for a group of friends that were a family and that would soon grow to become our extended family in the city, and later on, forever in our lives.
This Sunday, September 13, 2009, a memorial will be held at the Auditorium of the
Beth Israel Medical Center for a man who headed the family that became part of ours, or better put, the family that took mine under their wing and made us feel at home.
For years Dr. Leo Orris and his family would be our sanctuary, our conversations, our endless nights of discussions where themes would range from the history of SDS and SNICC to how to end the Vietnam War to health care and education and how best to achieve both. Sometimes I would fall asleep in a chair while all of these conversations would go on and on with such passion way till late into the night, and then finally Maxine the daughter would pick me up and take me to her old bedroom in the town house on 12th Street in the Village.
They never did fix the world, but they sure as heck had a fun time over semi-sec vodka martinis, trying to and most of all teaching the younger generation how important it was to want to bother to.
Leo Orris was a man who in the words of his son, Peter, "played an active role in movements for social change and progressive physicians' organizations. He was a young Zionist in high school and college and a committed socialist his entire adult life."
Leo was exactly that, committed. He was committed to his philosophical and political and social beliefs. He was a decade's long member of the Physicians Forum and a founder of the Medical Committee for Human Rights, a lifelong member of his county and, state medical societies as well as the American Medical Association. Along with 12 colleagues in 1963, he participated in the historic picket of the American Medical Association demanding the integration of their southern state societies. In the obituary that his son sent to the New York Times (one of Leo's daily reads) and that the paper decided not to publish, Peter stated that "From his first trip to the Island of Cuba in 1960 he maintained his friendship and support for the independence of the people of this embattled island. He admired the progress in health care, education, and living standards that were achieved by the revolutionary government in the 1960's and spoke out for normalization of relations between the US and Cuba for more than 40 years."
This doctor, the same man who held a number of academic appointments at New York University and Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, retiring in 1988 after more than 10 years as the Director of Dermatology at Beth Israel Medical Center, had a concept that was indoctrinated into his children; he would always say, "doctors don't retire." For him his profession went well and above the call of duty, his humanity was unabashed, he felt for peoples all over and believed wholeheartedly that his role in life should be to help others and heal on all levels. Leo was proud of the President that got elected last November in the United States, he was proud because he had the hope that this young, smart, spunky, man would understand as he did that a better world is possible, and had the hope that this president could help the United States take further steps in making that world happen.
He had the optimism that with unity and better understanding and learning from the experience of others many issues could be resolved. I do hope that some day soon, his dream will come true, and I will join in the rest of the family and whisper into the wind over the Long Island Sound, "Papa, we did it!"