A Sense of Belonging:
From Castro's Cuba to U.S. Senate, One Man's Pursuit of the American Dream
By Sen. Mel Martinez
Crown Publishing Group, 2008
256 pages, $26.95
To order: randomhouse.com


Mel Martinez served as President Bush’s secretary of housing and urban development until 2004, then was elected to the U.S. Senate from Florida.

 But less well known is the amazing journey traveled by this 62-year-old émigré from Cuba, who, like so many of his fellow countrymen (including unaccompanied minors like himself), fled Fidel Castro’s brutally repressive regime.

 It’s a story he tells in A Sense of Belonging, a disarmingly simple and candid account of his life. Much of the account has the feel of being told through the eyes of the boy who emigrated, courtesy of Operation Pedro Pan, to America on Feb. 6, 1962.

“Some days are miraculous,” he begins, recalling his swearing in as a U.S. senator. “You feel the grace of God at work in the universe as surely as you feel, in your exhilaration, your own heartbeat.”

 God has been there every step of the way.

 Martinez’s faith was nurtured by the strong sense of humanity he learned from his family — working alongside his veterinarian father, helping out at his uncle’s soda factory and his other uncle’s farm, both of which Castro’s regime shut down — and at Sagrado Corazon de Jesus school, which, he writes, “developed my strong Catholic faith from a very early age” that “was to be a source of strength throughout my life.”

 It’s a captivating story of how he went from the warm security of living in his beautiful homeland, with a strong, loving family steeped in faith, to suffering the growing strains of revolution, starting in 1958. He rebelled, causing his parents to stealthily plan his exit to America.

His full integration into American society came with the help of many, especially mentors whom he dubs “a kind of secular rosary.” Martinez always worked to support himself and helped his family settle in the United States after they were finally able to emigrate in 1966. A few years later, his parents had saved enough to buy a home, which, he writes, was “a culminating achievement in giving us a sense of belonging and of putting down roots in a new culture.”

After distinguishing himself as a successful lawyer (making partner, then launching his own firm), in this last decade, Martinez has worked to give back as a public servant — this, after having given so generously of himself the previous 35 years in a private capacity, including copious pro bono legal work.

 A Sense of Belonging is a great inspiration for children and young adults who might feel life’s challenges are a little steep, especially those young people who are dealing with language and cultural barriers.

 And, while the book may sometimes seem too detailed an accounting, that defect is more than compensated for by poignant scenes of emotion: when Martinez leaves his family in Cuba, the family reunion and his sister’s crippling disease. It’s at dramatic moments like these that every detail enriches the story and gives you goose bumps — and lots to think about regarding the truly special place America is because of her rich immigrant tradition.

Mary Claire Kendall is based

in Bethesda, Maryland.