AOA Assists Cuban ODs in Exile
In the 1960s many Cuban refugees fled to Miami, Fla. in order to free themselves from the Fidel Castro communist regime. Included were a large number of optometrists who had practiced their profession in Cuba after graduating from the optometry course at the University of Havana. Upon arrival in the United States, they faced many obstacles toward achieving a license to practice. In addition to the language problem, they faced state laws, particularly those of Florida, which required citizenship and graduation from a recognized college of optometry. As a result, some of these refugees sought employment in fields unrelated to their professional education, while others were able to work as assistants in optical and optometric locations. However, obtaining full Florida licensure was a paramount objective.
By 1968 a group of Cuban refugee optometrists had banded together to form the Cuban Optometric Association in Exile (COAE) with America Parla as President. Dr. Parla was a lady of dynamic personality and had a history of leadership in Cuba as one of the organizers of the “Colegio de Optometristas de Cuba” in the late 1940s. One of the first items on the COAE agenda was to contact the American Optometric Association (AOA) for assistance. The AOA in turn notified the Florida Optometric Association (FOA) in Tallahassee, which passed the request on to its Immediate Past President Emanuel Pushkin, O.D. in Miami. That is how the Dade County Optometric Association became involved.
Optometry was not alone within the Cuban professional exiles. Others had also organized for the same purpose: medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine, pharmacy, and nursing, as reported in research by Raul Moncarz on behalf the U.S. Department of Labor. He studied the adaptation of these occupations throughout the country and discussed the restrictions facing them between 1959 and 1969. He stated, “Cuban optometrists suffer in their professional adaptation because their Cuban training is deemed inferior, and probably is, when compared with their United States counterparts.”
At the University of Miami their Department of Medicine established the Office of International Medical Education. Appointed to direct this program was Dr. Rafael Penalver, formerly of the University of Havana. This group understood the necessity of amending licensing laws governing the health care professions. Subsequently, on numerous occasions, Dr. Parla led her contingent of lobbyists to Tallahassee where she met Edward Walker, O.D., a stalwart FOA leader, who shepherded them through the halls of the Florida Legislature. Their lobbying efforts were apparently successful as members of the legislature were convinced of the importance of such amendments in order to better care for the increasing numbers of foreign speaking residents. Governor Reubin Askew agreed and signed the laws in May, 1974.
Examples of changes in the Florida Statutes:
455.10 “No person shall be disqualified from practicing an occupation or profession regulated by the state solely because he is not a United States citizen.
455.11 (2) “Any person who has successfully completed, or is currently enrolled in an approved course of study…shall be deemed qualified for examination and re-examination…which shall be administered in the English language unless 15 or more such applicants request that said re-examination be administered in their native language.”
So the stage was set for the establishment of continuing education courses for those who expected to take the State Board exams in optometry. Through the cooperation of the University of Miami’s Department of Medicine and its Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, courses were given in Spanish as well as in English during the years of 1974 and 1975.
It is important to interject that while the above events were taking place in Miami, the Pacific University’s College of Optometry in Oregon offered courses leading to the O.D. degree, which appealed to a group of Cuban refugees in Miami. As a result, four attended classes there and were able to apply for licensure in Florida.
(We have been assisted in gathering information for this report by one of the original group of Cuban optometrists in exile: Felix M. Mondejar, OD, who now at the age of ninety-six has a fantastic memory of these events. Following is a segment of a treatise submitted by him.)
“Instructors were Dr. Rosa Revuelta, who at the time was teaching at the Indiana University School of Optometry, Dr. Saba Millares and Dr. Charles Pappas. This course was offered in Spanish. The above mentioned courses were offered at the University of Miami Bascom Palmer Eye Institute. They commenced in the summer of 1975 with 56 students. Four hours, four times a week. Throughout the classes, as things became more challenging, several students dropped out. This was due to the fact that some had families to support, had full-time jobs, and the course was very expensive. The class ended in September of 1976. At this time we were almost ready for the state board exams, but first we had a refresher course that was taught by Dr. Carreno M.D., a teacher in Tallahassee, and other refresher courses by Dr. Pappas and Dr. Revuelta. All those that have had to take state board exams know that it is not always sufficient to pass. You must know how to take that type of exam.
Here we go. February of 1977 approximately 44 of us went to take the Florida State Board Exam. It was impressive because there were over 250 candidates to take the exams. To us the exam was offered in Spanish, but the translation was so poor that many of us opted to take the exam in English. A month and a half later we got the news: of the initial 44 only 14 passed the exam. There was another exam in the summer of the same year. Four of them passed it then. Another exam was offered in February 1978, by this time we had 26 Cuban ODs that had gone to the Florida State Board and were licensed to practice the profession in the State of Florida.”
Dr. Mondejar continues by noting that an additional four passed the Boards at a later date, making a total of 30. He further comments, “It is a great pleasure of the writer to mention that of those 30, six of them were women.”
These newly licensed optometrists immediately became active in organized optometry by joining the Dade County Optometric Association, FOA and AOA. Within a short time, three of their leaders were elected to the presidency of DCOA: Drs. Gerardo Palmeiro (1980), Mario Perez, and Felix Mondejar (1992).They and their Cuban colleagues joined with the FOA Legislative Committee in trips to the State Capitol to influence the legislators and defend our profession upon the proposal of new legislation.
Thanks to Raul Moncarz, PhD for access to his study “Effects of Professional Restrictions on Cuban Refugees in Selected Health Professions in the United States 1959-1969”
Thanks to Felix M. Mondejar,OD for his personal reflections: “The Exodus and Saga of Cuban ODs After Communism”