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Joe Perez recounts his experience of growing up in Cuba, emigrating to the US and his inspiration behind dedicating his life to promoting friendship between Cuba and the US.
I was raised in Cuba in the 1930s, 40s and 50s when the country had a few very wealthy people and lots of poor people. My family was the latter. My father worked building railroads, and my mother was a seamstress. They worked day and night to make ends meet to support their three children. By the time I was 19, in 1955, I was ready to move to the US to receive a good education and have more options in life.
In those days, the only way to be accepted into the US was to have lots of money or family in America to sponsor you. I had neither. Fortunately, my sister had a friend who worked at the US Embassy who told me to go there and say, “I want to enlist in the armed forces of the United States of America.” I did exactly as she said, and several months later, I was a member of the United States Air Force.
In 1956, I was stationed at Johnson Air Base in Saitama Prefecture, Japan, where I met my beautiful wife, Junko. My wife joined the Soka Gakkai in 1960, which is the year we got married. She would often encourage me to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, but I was too embarrassed. By my late 20s, I had already moved to the US, made it through the Air Force and worked my way up the corporate ladder to vice president of a company. I didn’t feel that I needed a religious practice.
Inevitably, my company faced financial setbacks. In the early 70s, I decided to test the practice. I chanted a few times while flushing the toilet so that no one could hear me.
I started to see results from chanting. I had more ideas and felt more confident about my work situation.
Even in hiding, I started to see results from chanting. I had more ideas and felt more confident about my work situation. In 1972, I officially became an SGI-USA member.
Around the same time, Junko and I moved from Los Angeles, California, to San Antonio, Texas, with our two children. I worked very hard and became the CEO of a private telephone company. I enjoyed life as a very successful businessman until 1986, when I lost everything.
That year, I accompanied the mayor of San Antonio to Japan to meet with executives of certain Japanese corporations and promote business opportunities for the city. While there, we were also able to create an opportunity for the mayor to meet with SGI President Daisaku Ikeda.
While in Japan, the San Antonio mayor and I met with the president of a Japanese business federation. As the mayor was leaving the meeting, he said that he would be meeting with Daisaku Ikeda the next morning. The president of the federation said, “If you meet Daisaku Ikeda, you can forget our investments in San Antonio!”
We now know that such attacks on Mr. Ikeda were due to a campaign orchestrated by some politicians in Japan whose agenda was to destroy the Soka Gakkai’s growing people-centered movement. As history has proven, their plans ultimately failed, but the mayor knew none of this at the time.
After considering his options, the mayor called me the next morning and said: “Joe, a man who was as severely attacked as Mr. Ikeda was last night must be doing something extraordinary for humanity. Let’s go and meet Mr. Ikeda!”
related article “I Am Master of My Mind”: Unleashing the Power of Transformation in Prisons by Sabra Williams, USA Sabra Williams is an SGI member and a successful film and television actor, whose career includes credits in Mission Impossible III and recurring roles in ABC’s Injustice and CBS’s Three Rivers. After making her mark as an actress and TV presenter in the UK, Sabra moved to the US in 2002, where she created the Actors’ Gang Prison Project. Launched in 2006, the project employs highly physical theatrical techniques based on the emotive 16th-century Italian “people’s theater” culture of commedia dell’arte. The work has proved transformative for inmates of the California prison system and has significantly reduced recidivism rates. Sabra was recently honored as a Champion of Change by the White House. He was deeply moved by Mr. Ikeda’s humanity. In fact, the day before their meeting, San Antonio had experienced severe flooding, but the mayor had not heard the news. When they met, President Ikeda told him: “I’m so sorry to hear of the flooding in your city. I also heard that a boy nearly drowned and was rescued by his neighbors. I was praying for the safety of the people.” This stunned the mayor. He thought, “This leader in Japan knows more about my city than I do!” They went on to have a heartfelt discussion.
When I returned home to San Antonio, the promised backlash followed. The Japanese corporations refused to give contracts to the city of San Antonio, and I was blamed for it. I faced severe repercussions from the business establishment in San Antonio. All my business contracts were soon canceled, and my loans were called in. Even my home and cars were repossessed.
Through the darkest times, I drew on Mr. Ikeda’s example of taking action to change my situation. This is what sustained me. I was determined to prove to the world that my mentor is a great man who has benefited humanity in irreplaceable ways and that we all can—and should—do the same!
I moved back to Los Angeles in 1990 to look for new work opportunities. I rented the cheapest apartment I could find, and I lived off of cheap fast food. When I wasn’t eating, sleeping or looking for work, I was chanting desperately for a breakthrough and engaging in local SGI-USA activities.
I finally got the idea of starting an advertisement installation company. I would work each night with a crew to install advertisements on buses and buildings around the city.
In June 1996, because of the relationships I had developed in my home country of Cuba, I was fortunate to be able to make arrangements for Mr. Ikeda to have a meeting with then Cuban president, Fidel Castro.
Mr. Ikeda later wrote of his decision to meet with Castro:
“I am a Buddhist, and as a practitioner of Buddhism, I have no anti-US or anti-Cuban sentiments in my heart. My sole concern is that the people living in these countries become happy. As long as we share the fundamental goal of peace, then I firmly believe that we should seek possibilities for human solidarity with any nation.”
I’ll never forget how their encounter began: Mr. Castro, who always wore military fatigues, put on a suit and tie to meet Mr. Ikeda. We were told that this was the second time he had worn a suit as president. Mr. Castro told his staff that he felt he needed to wear a suit to meet Daisaku Ikeda, because he was a “man of peace.” It was deeply profound to have two very different revolutionists—one who led with military force and might, and the other with a pen and dialogue—meet and discuss humanity’s future.
I was able to meet with Mr. Ikeda in July 1996. At that time, he encouraged me to chant and take action for the happiness of the Cuban people and to become the “bridge of friendship between the United States and Cuba.” I took his words very seriously and made every effort to make them a reality. Eventually, in January 2000, I was able to establish a charter airline that services flights between Los Angeles and Cuba. It was the first of its kind.
Since its establishment, my company has transported many members of the US Congress to Cuba, and many of them have been able to pass legislation that paved the way for the restoration of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba.
Today, my travel company has 22 weekly flights to six cities in Cuba. I also own an advertisement service, with advertisements appearing on 2,700 buses in southern California and in locations nationwide. I have three other companies of my own, and all of them are doing very well.
Through following Mr. Ikeda’s encouragement to chant for the happiness of the Cuban people and take action, I now live a life that is beyond anything I could have imagined, and I get to share it with my supportive wife, Junko, our children, grandchildren, friends, colleagues and all our fellow SGI members.
Adapted from the January 2016 issue of Living Buddhism, SGI-USA.