The death last week of former Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro has resonated around the world, but for a minister living in rural Iowa, Castro’s passing represents a weight being lifted from his oppressed, impoverished homeland.
As a teenager, Ray Gimenez lived in the slums of New York City’s Bronx borough with his family, surrounded by crime, cold weather and an incredibly unwelcoming setting.
Castro’s rise to power during the Cuban Revolution forced thousands of natives to flee. Ray’s grandfather was an influential Havana mayor during the old government’s reign. His father was a journalist for a popular Havana newspaper.
“Having those ties to the old government, we were very sought after,” Gimenez recalled during an interview with the Clinton, Iowa Herald. “Those are things that I remember very well. Once Fidel Castro decided to take communism as the way of life in Cuba, my father and grandfather both escaped, just like people do today still.”
Gimenez’s father and grandfather had both escaped by 1959 and 1960. In 1961, it was Ray’s turn to make the 90-mile trip to the Florida coast, at the age of 11. But rather than settle in the area, the Gimenezes continued to trek north, landing in The Big Apple.
In the Bronx, Ray was exposed to many new things — some positive, some very negative, in the eyes of the Havana native. Of course there was the crime, crowded streets and neighborhoods, a language barrier, frigid winter temperatures... the list goes on for Gimenez.
But there was also baseball. More than just a game to him, baseball would change the lives of Gimenez and his family forever.
“I saw baseball as a way to possibly make some money, and I could give that all to my parents so that they could divorce the Bronx and get out of New York City,” Gimenez recalls. “Living in the slums of New York, I had to find a way to help them, and to help us. So that’s what happened.”
Gimenez was chosen in the fourth round of the Major League Baseball draft by the Detroit Tigers in 1971, as a catcher and an outfielder. With the money he earned playing professional baseball — he competed in the minor leagues for five years — he was able to fund his parents’ move from New York and send them to south Florida with countless other Cuban defectors. It was a more comfortable, familiar way of life for the elder Gimenezes.
Why the family didn’t settle there in the first place is something he jokingly questions.
“Really, we should’ve stayed in Miami,” he said with a laugh. “I asked my parents why we didn’t stay all the time. To this day, I still resent that. But we had some contacts, some friends in New York City, and the work was maybe a little bit better for my parents.”
After his baseball career was over, Ray devoted his life to God. Earning many ordinations, Gimenez — now the Rev. Ray Gimenez — has spent his time helping those in need not only in Iowa, but around the world.
He settled in the Gateway area after taking a liking to it while playing for the Class A Clinton Pilots in the mid-1970s. In 1987, he founded the Victory Center Rescue Mission in Clinton, which serves as an emergency shelter for people from all walks of life. His ministry has reached numerous Central and South American countries, as well as Africa.
With strained relations between the United States and Gimenez’s home country, Ray was only able to make his first return to Cuba in 2005. After 44 years, he was finally able to visit the Cuban shores once again.
What he saw shook him to his core. Gimenez’s remaining family members were still living in the hell that he had been fortunate to escape in 1961.
“It was like time stood still,” he said. “There was no progress. It was like going back to my childhood days. From the deterioration of the buildings, nothing had advanced. I saw the misery in which my family was living. It was a terrible life... many of them have monthly salaries of $10 a month. Can you believe that? Some don’t even make that much. Just to see their continued way of life brought tears to my eyes.”
After his initial visit, he attempted to return eight more times; he was denied each time, before successfully visiting again this summer.
Now despite slightly relaxed relations between the two countries, it’s still quite a financial burden to return to his home. Between airline tickets, tourist visas and other necessities, thousands of dollars have been spent.
But even with the remaining difficulties, a massive Gimenez family reunion has been planned in Havana for next year. Ray has already coordinated a nightclub-style gathering with bands, food, and all the works.
With Castro’s brother Raul, the current leader of the country, announcing that he would step down from power at the end of 2017, Gimenez senses a new era, a healing era, could be on the horizon.
“(Castro’s death announcement) is certainly one of those moments where you’ll remember where were when you heard it,” he said. “I was immediately shocked, because there were rumors that he had been dead for a while and that it was being covered up by Cuban media. But to have it announced worldwide... it was incredible. The terror and misery that he spread throughout the country for so many decades, it feels like rebuilding can finally start.”
The Clinton, Iowa Herald contributed to this story.