“Gratitude is forever,” Rina Darzhansky said, speaking of her late brother-in-law. That gratitude has marked the lives of Rina and her sister, Lilia Alvarez, Cuban immigrants who have spent most of their lives in Cowley County and Miami, Fla.
They were the youngest of 10 children, and their father died from typhus when they were 5 years old. Their mother was very proud of them, Lilia said, not because they were beautiful (which they were) but because they were “very good girls.”
The twins were 90 on May 7, but their faces are smooth and unwrinkled, as are their throats.
“And we don’t put anything on them,” said Rina, older by five minutes.
Their hair is fashionably cut, but they never go to a beauty salon.
“Lilia taught me how to do it. We cut our own hair,” Rina said.
Both women are petite and still dress alike when they are together.
Though Lilia lives in Arkansas City and Rina in Miami Beach, they are utterly close.
“We slept in the same bed until we were 25 years old,” Lilia said. When they visit one another now, they still sleep together.
Both are widows and both have children, Lilia two and Rina one.
Of Spanish ancestry, they are from Havana, Cuba. They came to the United States in the early years after Fidel Castro took over the government in 1959. Rina and her son came in 1966; Lilia came in 1967 with her husband and two children.
“I supported Fidel when he first came to power,” Rina said. “I thought he was going to help the poor. Then I saw he was going to help only the government. They took everything from the people” from the poor as well as from the well-off.
At the time, Lilia was teaching home economics in a college. When Castro came to power, she was forced to give up her position in the college and had to teach in a school. Whens she went to get her materials out of her office, she found it trashed. Her husband, Norberto Alvarez, a physician, was not allowed to practice.
Fidel’s coming to power spelled the end of Rina’s marriage. Though she had quickly become disillusioned with Castro, her husband became so enamored of his work, he joined the Communist Party. It was the end of their marriage, though Rina said her first husband was a good man and she always respected him. In fact, she still has a picture of him up in her house. “He was good to me and he gave me a son,” she said. “I will always respect him.”
At the time of the sisters’ leaving Cuba, the government was letting people leave only by boat. “We could take one pair of shoes, one purse and 30 pounds of clothes. I could take 15 pounds of clothes for my son,” Rina said. “If we tried to take any money or jewels with us and the (police) found them, we could not leave and we could go to jail.” Most of the people leaving the island at that time were from the upper classes, those with education, money or both.
Though Cuba is only 90 miles from the United States, many of the boats foundered and sank. So many people were drowning, Lilia said, that the U.S. started what they called Freedom Flights, flying planeloads of people to Miami a couple of times a day for 10 years.
In 1966, Rina, then 37, took her son, who was 4 at the time, and flew to Miami, where she got a job in a photo studio. She took a three-month course to become a nurse’s assistant and moved to Winfield where she worked where she worked under nursing supervisor Helen Gable.
Lilia, her husband and their children came to Winfield in 1967. He worked at Winfield State State Hospital & Training Center for several years. When he finished getting his U.S. credentials to work as a physician, he left the hospital and set up a private practice in Arkansas City, which he had for 35 years.
“He adored his career,” Lilia said. “He worked until he died.”
Rina said the sisters met Norberto when they were 16 and he 18. “I had brothers but I called him ‘my best brother,’” she said. “I say thank you to him every day. He helped me a lot. Gratitude is forever.”
Rina met her second husband, George Darzhansky, from Bulgaria, also a physician, at the state hospital. They lived in Boston three years, then came back to Wichita. On a trip to Paris for a conference, he was taken ill and died suddenly in September 1978.
Rina continued to find different jobs after her husband died. She worked at Sears and at a photo studio in Arkansas City before she returned to Miami to live.
Lilia said she never worked outside the home after she married because her husband didn’t want it. Because Rina worked, she made herself learn English — 20 words every day. She practiced until she could read everything in English, which she does to this day.
Because Lilia was not out in public like her sister, she did not master the language as well.
Though they love Cuba, the women consider Winfield and Arkansas City home.
They had visited a few places in the U.S. before immigrating, but they were welcomed with open arms to Winfield, they said. “We still have so many good friends here,” Lilia said. She has kept her home in Arkansas City and Rina visits her often.
“We saw so much love at our birthday party,” Lilia said. They spoke especially of Jim and Charlotte Buterbaugh who arranged the party for them. “Charlotte is the sister of my heart,” Lilia said. “We just adore them.”
The twins have no interest in returning to Cuba or to be buried there. Both of them became American citizens, and they are grateful for what they have received from America. “We came with nothing,” Rina said, “and now we have everything. America gave it to us.”
An ardent Republican, Rina believes Democrats do not understand what socialism is so they support it. “They want to bring socialism here, but they don’t know what it would be like,” she said.
Her definition of socialism is what Fidel Castro did in Cuba. It seemed like he would do so much good, then he took everything away and gave it all to the government.
After Castro came to power, things were good for a while, she said, but then they got worse. The government took from people what they had worked hard to earn. A man with a lot of land would be reduced to three acres. What he raised he could sell only at government prices to the government, Rina said.
She had furniture she wanted to give to a sister before she left for the U.S., so she brought it to her. At 2 in the morning, police arrived at her sister’s apartment to tell them Rina could not give away the furniture. They took it away and threatened her, though they did not act on the threats.
She referred to Che Guevara, romanticized by some Americans, as an “assassin animal.” He and Raoul Castro, Fidel’s brother, “were far worse than Fidel. I can’t understand how it continues,” Rina said.
She remembers the president, Fulgencio Batista, whom Castro overthrew, as being loved until he arranged a military coup to take over the government when he realized he could not get reelected in the early 1950s.
Nowadays, Cuba seems lawless to them. Prices for food are extortionate — $40 for fish that used to cost pennies. Everything is for the government while the poor continue to be poor and those who were well off are poor now, too. The races — those of Spanish background and those who are black — are becoming more openly mixed now, something that would never have happened when the twins were young.
Cuba was “a successful island” before Castro’s revolution, Rina said. The fervent wish of both sisters is that Cuba could be free again, “the way it used to be.”