Hilda De La Guardia, 83, recalls the scared silence among the airplane’s passengers as they taxied down the runway and prepared to depart Havana, Cuba. It was 1962, and Hilda and her husband, Mario, and their 1-year-old son, Mario, Jr., were on the brink of escaping Fidel Castro’s communist Cuba and flying to freedom.
The Cuban government allowed the De La Guardia family permits to visit the United States and permission to bring three changes of clothes – but no money – with the understanding that they would return.
“Everybody in that plane was very quiet,” Hilda said. “But as soon as that plane landed in Miami, everybody started shouting, ‘Hooray! We’re free!’ And those people (on board)? None of them came back, I’m sure. We had family in Miami and they helped us out, and also the United States government. They helped us in the beginning. We were refugees. We only used that help for a couple of months because Mario got the job here in Savannah. We were very grateful to the United States because they helped us out. But, as I said, Castro sent us here with three changes of clothing. And no money. Not even a cent.”
Before Castro ruled Cuba from 1959 until his death in 2008, the country was ruled by Fulgencio Batista. Mario, Sr., earned a chemical engineering degree from Georgia Institute of Technology in 1953. He returned to Havana and worked in a glass factory until 1962. Hilda said Mario, Sr., was content to remain in Cuba until it became apparent to them that Castro’s dictatorship was worse.
“Everything that was prosperous, (Castro) ruined it,” Hilda said. “All the people who had some knowledge started to leave. Mario, my husband, worked for a factory that made glass. Mario said the first thing (the Cuban government) did was fire the manager of the company. The (new) one who was put in charge of the plant was the garbage man because they said he was a good communist. Things like that happened. Everything went downhill and it was terrible. It was sad to see everybody being unhappy. But we left and I’ve never been back.
“It was hard because we left our family, our music, our food, our customs,” Hilda continued. “But, on the other hand, we were hoping that things would work out for us. And they did. We are very blessed. My husband was very a hard worker and he accomplished what he wanted to do to raise his family and not to have to ask for money from anyone. He was a successful person. We appreciate everything the United States did to let us in, first, and then the opportunities that we have had here. Mario, my son, he also has been very prosperous. He is very grateful. My daughter tells me that, too. She says, ‘We are so glad you didn’t keep us in Cuba’ because they have cousins who eventually left, but they said there wasn’t a lot of stuff there.
“We knew for our son, Mario, there was no future in Cuba with this type of government,” Hilda continued. “If you would say something in your house and your child would hear it, not when he was a year old but as he grew older, if he would have repeated that in school that would end up with the government. Honestly, you were afraid to talk out loud anything against the government because you ended up in jail. We knew many people, many friends, who ended up in jail. And some were executed.”
A LIFE OF FEAR
Ironically, most Cubans were ecstatic when Castro overthrew the government of Batista on Jan. 1, 1959, Hilda said.
“In the beginning, everyone was happy to have a new person in charge of Cuba because Batista was a dictator and he was bad,” Hilda said. “But when Castro took over, everyone was jubilant. They thought everything was going to be fine … and the government was going to benefit the poor people. That’s what we wanted; the whole country wanted. But then Castro came down from the mountains … after a few months, we knew Castro was no good. He was trying to change completely the government to a communist system. He even said it on television. I heard it. He said, ‘This is a Marxist, Leninist government and that’s it.’ So everybody started trying to get out of Cuba.
“It wasn’t easy,” Hilda continued. “By the time we left Cuba, Mario, our son, was a year old. Everything had been confiscated by the government. Everything. All you could think of. Hospitals, churches, schools. My school was an American Dominican Academy, and they made the priests and nuns leave. They simply closed the schools.”
Hilda said her breaking point came when a friend talked about her son’s day at a Castro-run school.
“I had a friend who had a son, a child who was 4 years old, and she was telling me, ‘You know what they did in school today? They asked (the students) to close their eyes and ask God for candy,’” Hilda said. “Everyone was asking God for candy and when they opened their eyes there was no candy. Then the teacher said, ‘Ask Fidel Castro for candy.’ And when they opened their eyes there was candy on all of the desks.’ This started from the very beginning, this indoctrination, and we knew you couldn’t say anything in front of people that worked for the government because you were afraid that they might turn you in and you ended up either in jail or executed.
“Cuba was a terrible place to live,” Hilda continued. “On every block they had a house that was watching the block. They called each one ‘the house that defended the revolution,’ and they were watching everything. If they saw people come in and out (of your home) and they thought it was not right, they would get in and ask you what was going on. It was terrible. We had ration books. There was not enough food. (Castro) did the agrarian reforms and all the big farms were taken over by the government. Smaller farms were allowed to continue, and smaller farmers were allowed to continue to live there and cultivate, but they couldn’t really sell to the government. (The government) would pay (the farmers) whatever they wanted (to pay). It started the black market. Today, 62 years (later), they still have the black market.
“If you had four people in the family, they allowed you to have four eggs per week, and maybe half a pound of beef,” Hilda continued. “But when you came to the store, many times they said, ‘Sorry, we’ve run out of eggs’ or run out of whatever. That was the only way you could eat – the black market. The same with the gasoline. At the service stations, the gas was maybe a quarter, 20 cents, a gallon but they would say, ‘No, we don’t have any gas today but come around the back and bring your car, and they would sell it to you in dollars. Maybe it was a couple of dollars, or a dollar, per gallon. Everything was like that when we left, and I hear it’s still the same. Today in Cuba they are rebelling because they have hardly anything to eat.”
A LIFE OF ACHIEVEMENT
Mario, Sr., died Feb. 11, 2021, at his Wilmington Island home surrounded by his family. He was 89.
“We were married 62 years,” said Hilda, a classically trained ballerina who owned a studio in Savannah for 18 years. “He broke his hip, and that was four years ago, and he went downhill. I’m sure he’s in heaven with God because he was a good person. Everyone who knew him really, really appreciated him. He was very generous.”
Mario, Sr., was honored by the City of Savannah with Mario Jose De La Guardia Day on June 10, 2011. Also that month, he was honored by Gov. Nathan Deal as a Distinguished Citizen of the State of Georgia. While working as a chemist at Savannah-based Carson Products, a health and beauty care company, Mario, Sr., invented a revolutionary no-lye relaxer, Dark and Lovely. He retired as president in 1996. While at Carson Products, Mario, Sr., created a literacy program for employees.
Mario, Sr., was a longtime supporter of several organizations, including Benedictine Military School, St. Vincent’s Academy, Bethesda Home for Boys, Old Savannah City Mission, West Broad YMCA, St. Mary’s Community Center, and Georgia Tech, where a swimming scholarship is named in his honor. He also was a communicant of St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church, a member of Savannah Yacht Club, Chatham Club, and American Society of Cosmetic Chemists.
In 2000, after Carson Products was sold to L’Oreal, Mario, Sr., and Mario, Jr., created Strength of Nature, Inc., one of Savannah’s largest and most successful manufacturing companies, a 300-employee multi-cultural haircare production facility with gross sales of more than $20 million annually. Strength of Nature produces some of the world’s most popular haircare brands. In 2006, L’Oreal sold the Carson Products production facilities to De La Guardia.
“When he was growing up, his father went to NYU and got a civil engineering degree,” Mario, Jr., said of his father and grandfather. “There were others in the family who were chemical engineers. My mother would know in a little bit more detail how we got interested in chemical engineering, but to make a long story short, (my father) made a decision to go to Georgia Tech in ’49. He was 17 years old. He went to Tech, got his degree. By ’53, he went back to Cuba, and that’s where he started being more entrepreneurial. He worked for some people that started a factory that made an ingredient that helps make paint more effective. He and a few investors built out the plant, and the way to process the material, and that’s what he was doing. Of course, he married my mother in ’58, and everything started really getting controlled by the government by the time Castro took over in ’59. Everything began to get confiscated.
“When my father left the country, his objective was just to feed the family,” Mario, Jr., continued. “Fortunately, he found a job that he spent most of his life at, which was product development and chemistry in the health and beauty care industry. And that was in Savannah, Georgia, and that was the reason we lived here so many years. My mother continues to live in the same house since probably ’82. She lived in Wilshire, Largo Drive, when they just started developing Largo Drive in the Windsor/Wilshire area. In the ‘80s, they moved to Wilmington Island and she’s been in that house for quite a number of years. But Savannah has been our home. We’ve been very fortunate to be in Savannah all these years.”
A LIFE OF GRATITUDE
Mario, Jr., like his father, is philanthropic throughout the Savannah community. He has made two leadership gifts to the Forward, Always Forward Capital Campaign. Benedictine Military School recently celebrated the naming of the new chemistry laboratory in the Brown STEM Wing in honor of Mario, Sr., and Hilda. Mario, Jr., and his wife, Deannie, also committed $1 million, with funding going toward a new athletic complex. And Mario, Jr., and Purest Hygiene provided several Digital Temperature Check stations and hundreds of boxes of Purest Hand Sanitizer to Benedictine Military School Cadets to safeguard against COVID-19.
Mario, Jr., is the eldest of three children to Mario, Sr., and Hilda. He graduated from St. James Catholic School and Benedictine, and played football at Georgia Tech. His sister, Hilda Maria (who goes by Maria), is the middle child. She graduated from St. Vincent’s Academy. Richard, the youngest De La Guardia child, graduated from Saint Peter the Apostle Catholic School and Benedictine in 1991.
“In Cuba, if you had the means, you sent your children to Catholic school,” Hilda said. “My husband, Mario, went to Catholic school in Havana and I went to American Dominican Academy in Havana. We knew we wanted our children to go to Catholic school because we believe in Catholics and what they teach. We always like BC. Mario, my son, loves the football. Mario, his father, used to go and watch him play all the time. And at practices. Especially the games, of course. It was a good education. Plus, they teach you to be a decent person, not to be selfish. That’s what my children got out of the Catholic schools, a good education but also how to have a good heart and help the less fortunate ones.”
Mario, Jr., visited Cuba for the first time in 2011 when he was 50 years old. He went with Mario, Sr., Maria, and Richard. Hilda refused to join them.
“It was a great trip,” Mario, Jr., said. “I’m so happy I was able to do it. My sister and my brother went. The whole family, except for my mother, went. She didn’t want to go, and everyone understood. My father was able to walk me by some of the homes that they had lived in, and my uncle is still in Cuba, and we went to the house where I was pretty much living the first six months of my life with my grandparents. I was able to see the house and stay there a few nights with my father and my uncle. It was a very nice trip. I saw where my mother went to school, where she danced ballet in Cuba. She was a very good ballerina. She taught ballet in Savannah. She started a business to teach classical ballet in Wilshire. She was an only child. She came to this country with zero relatives. Her mother stayed (in Cuba). He aunt stayed. And they all died in Cuba without her ever even having the opportunity to go to the funerals, their burials.
“There’s a lot of sadness in not even being able to see your parents or aunt be buried,” Mario, Jr., continued. “It was a lot of pain. When this happens to a country there is a lot of pain that goes on. You see your parents go through that. Not a lot of visibility of it but you know it’s got to be painful. And she will never go back. She told me, ‘I will never go back to Cuba. I will never go back to that country.’ Fidel is gone but his brother (Raul) is still there. Until they can overthrow and have a change in the government, it’s never going to be free. There are some rumblings and people are disenfranchised. There may be a day when Cuba goes a different direction.”
Mario, Jr., said being able to visit Havana helped strengthen his sense of heritage.
“It gave me a better perspective of how our life was under Castro,” he said. “We were able to see the cemetery plots of our grandparents. We were able to see how it all worked, how the whole society and city worked.”
Mario, Sr., enjoyed telling people “We moved from Havana to Savannah,’” Hilda said, laughing. “It was something he used to say frequently, and people laughed.”
Mario, Jr., said he and his family will be eternally grateful to the U.S., especially their relatives in Miami who helped them get here and the friends they’ve made throughout Savannah.
“The great thing is the U.S. is this melting pot of people and our parents came here,” he said. “They did speak English so that was an advantage. The owners (Abram Minis and family) of the company, Carson Products, really helped my father get established here. They were very instrumental in helping us get accustomed to the U.S. way of life. We were fortunate to have them support us. They helped us get into Savannah, find a place to live, and really get started here.”
Mario, Jr., said he and Deannie are passionate about giving back to Benedictine Military School and investing in the next generation of Cadets.
“The years of friendship that I shared, the great education, and the leadership training I received have all greatly influenced and guided my life,” he said. “Benedictine is a unique institution which improves the individual. We need to invest in Benedictine to remain in the forefront of education and athletics.”