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Tom Llamas on his parents' escape from Cuba and growing up the son of refugees

The NBC News anchor, who grew up in Miami, recalls sending medicine and food to relatives in Cuba.
Collage of Tom Llamas on pink background
NBC News' Tom Llamas is a proud Cuban American who loves to teach his kids about the culture. TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Tom Llamas is a senior national correspondent for NBC News and the anchor of an upcoming streaming show on NBC News NOW. He's also the son of Cuban refugees who fled the country during Fidel Castro's communist regime and a proud Cuban American in New York City.

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, he shared how he's teaching his children about Cuban culture, as well as what he remembers from his own childhood as the son of parents who made their way from Cuba to Miami, where he was raised.

My dad grew up in the eastern province of Cuba, in an area called Oriente. My mom grew up in Havana. Right after Castro took over, my mom got out. My dad's family left a few years later. They both came to this country with nothing and they worked their way up. They were happy to be in a country where they had freedom of religion and freedom of speech and all of these things that make the United States a very unique and special place. They met in high school in Miami.

The author with his maternal grandmother as a baby. Courtesy Tom Llamas

Growing up in a Cuban American household, the news was constantly on. We were always following news out of Cuba. At night we would talk about it at the dinner table. We would send medicine and Kool-Aid packets to our relatives back in Cuba. Kool-Aid has sugar and nutrients, so they could mix that with water and have something to drink with a high-calorie count. But the government would go through packages and sometimes take things, so we would have to hide them in greeting cards.

It was hard. I had everything I needed and my relatives in Cuba literally had nothing. Cousins would manage to leave the country sometimes and I remember going with my dad to visit them — they were usually put up in a motel in downtown Miami. I can remember to this day how skinny they were because there was no food. You could see the desperation on their faces. I'll never forget when we went to see some family members, and the children — they were 4 or 5 years old, maybe older — were walking up their mother and breastfeeding. The mother had to breastfeed because they didn't have enough milk. They didn't have enough nutrients for their children. And that was common.

Llamas, second from left, helps hold the Cuban flag during a march in Miami when he was a teenager. Courtesy Tom Llamas

I've always felt a responsibility to never forget what happened in Cuba and to remind people — through social circles, family and also as a journalist. There are amazing people in Cuba. They have a vibrancy to them. They love life. But Cuba is a country that, as long as I've been alive, has always needed help.

Cuban culture a big part of my life. I listen to music from Cuba every single day. I speak Spanish almost every single day. Usually when I meet you, within the first few minutes I will tell you that I'm Cuban American. It's something that I'm very proud of and it's something that I was taught to be very proud of; 99% of the people I grew up with in Miami were Cuban American. The mayors were Cuban American. The representatives were Cuban American. From a young age, it was instilled in me to be proud of where I came from.

Llamas with his parents, who fled Cuba when they were young. Courtesy Tom Llamas

I have three children. We've been introducing them to the culture their whole lives. We read books about Cuba. My oldest is starting to learn about the Cuban American experience. We just finished reading a book about Operación Pedro Pan, or Operation Peter Pan, which was this airlift of Cuban children — parents sending their children on an airplane and getting them out of Cuba and flying to the United States, where they were put in orphanages. It's an emotional story. Imagine putting your child on a plane to a country that you don't know? But they wanted them to live in a free society.

My kids know they're Cuban American. Their grandparents speak Spanish. They love pastelitos, which are Cuban pastries. We celebrate Nochebuena, which is Christmas Eve. In Cuban tradition, there's a lot of roast pork. We've roasted pigs — it freaks them out a little bit, but I've explained to them that this is part of their culture. We listen to a lot of music. I'm showing them how to dance (at least, I’m trying!). As far as speaking Spanish goes, it's something that we're working on. Our oldest has started taking classes. We go over words and the kids are surrounded by the language when we're in Miami. It takes time, but we'll get there. Language is the key to culture, so it's a big focus.

Llamas with his wife and children on vacation. He said sharing Cuban heritage with his family is an important priority. Courtesy Tom Llamas

I want them to understand and appreciate the immigrant experience. They are the grandchildren of immigrants, people who came here with nothing and took a chance and started from scratch because they wanted something better for their family. In Spanish, they call it el exilio — the exile. It's a heavy topic, but they seem to understand that.

My parents didn't speak English. They had no money. Yet this amazing country allowed them a path to citizenship and gave them opportunities. They became professionals, raised a family, put their kids through school and now their son anchors a network news broadcast. People are always curious about how that happens. It happens because you believe in hard work, you take nothing for granted and you have a good support system. Family has always been first for us. As an immigrant, when you have nothing but your family, you never forget that, and you maintain that and you keep those relationships close. I talk to my parents almost every day.

I love months like Hispanic Heritage Month because we're able to share our culture and expose our culture. The more we share our culture, the more we educate people. And when people become educated, they lose their prejudice. It creates a better understanding of where other people come from.

As told to Rheana Murray. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

For more of our Hispanic Heritage Month coverage, tune into TODAY All Day’s special “Come with Us: Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month”, hosted by Tom Llamas. Watch Wednesday, September 29th at 12:30p, 4:30p and 8:30p at TODAY.com/allday.

During Hispanic Heritage Month, TODAY is sharing the community’s history, pain, joy and pride. We are highlighting Hispanic trailblazers and rising voices. TODAY will be publishing personal essays, stories, videos and specials throughout the months of September and October. For more, head here.