Felix Sabates' story American made

Felix Sabates' eyes are darting, and they are dampening.

"There is where I went to school ...

"If you make a left here, that's where our family store was. "

The video is being projected onto a wall of the sprawling trophy-lined headquarters of Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, located just north of Charlotte, North Carolina, the place he calls his hometown. Charlotte is the city in which he has become a red, white and blue American success story. A rental-lot car washer-turned-luxury automobile and yacht sales guru. He is an NBA team owner, helping bring the original Hornets franchise to Charlotte and the only member of that group to also have a stake in Michael Jordan's new Hornets.

He has dabbled in pro football and minor league hockey and spent the past 25 years as a NASCAR team owner. On Saturday night, his team won the NASCAR All-Star Race with driver Jamie McMurray. The left hand he uses to dab away the beginning of tears is adorned with a Daytona 500 championship ring.

The images are of his original hometown, Camaguey, Cuba, a video walk-around of the city blocks on which he used to work alongside his entrepreneurial parents and play alongside countless cousins. He has not seen as much as a photograph of these streets in 5½ decades, until today.

"I know that movie theatre ... I kissed my first girl in that theatre ...

"I know that building, too ... God ... another empty building."

The last time his eyes looked onto Camaguey, he was 15 years old. It was 1960. Those eyes -- like these streets -- were young and vibrant, naively wrapped in the warm, secure embrace of family and friends, laughter and hope. Both with an eyes-wide-open, yet totally blind, vision of their futures.

Now, his eyes are framed by the wrinkles of a 68-year-old man finally daring to look into the rearview mirror. But this mirror is like a fast-forward button, leaving behind the Camaguey he remembers and replacing it with the town that exists there now: block after block of abandoned storefronts and construction left perpetually unfinished, frozen by revolution. Sabates' notoriously -- and deservedly -- proud eyes well up, and his stiff upper lip begins to quiver as the realities of adulthood sweep in to erase the romanticism of youthful memories.

"If you hadn't told me where this was and shown me this, I would have thought it was somewhere out in the Congo ...

"That wall right there. That's where I watched those guys get killed."


On New Year's Eve 1958, the voice of Argentine revolutionary leader Che Guevara, who was one of Fidel Castro's trusted leaders in the Cuban Revolution, crackled over Radio Rebelde, the station he'd founded to create a thread of communication connecting those who stood with him and Castro, seeking to liberate their nation from dictator Fulgencio Batista. Guevara announced that, after three days of fighting, his forces had taken Santa Clara, the anchor city of central Cuba. The news traveled west to the nation's capital, Havana, and, within hours, Batista had fled the island. One week later, Castro marched triumphantly into Havana.

"I was a teenager, a kid, just havin' a good time," Sabates recalls now. "And that day when Castro won the revolution, I think I became a man that day."

More than 300 miles away from the capital, the Sabates family was making their way in Camaguey. Compared to noisy, tourist-packed Havana, Camaguey was downright quaint. A town founded by Spanish explorers in 1515 was located originally on the coast but moved inland because of a recurring infestation of pirates. Felix Sabates was born in Havana but raised in Camaguey.

"We say that Camaguey is home to the rednecks of Cuba," he explains, laughing.

His grandfather, like so many others in the province, made his living growing sugar.

But after a fire destroyed that business, the family turned toward the city, in which they opened a jewelry store in 1936. Felix's father, Dr. Feliciano Sabates Sr., was one of 10 brothers and sisters. He married Maria Tavio, and soon, they, too, started having kids, with Felix being the first of seven. Known throughout the city, the Sabates family built a diverse financial portfolio, adding businesses as quickly as it did offspring.

"They had a jewelry store, they had optical stores, they had a service station, they had a car dealership, they had insurance and they had appliance stores. My dad ran the business, but he also taught school at night," Sabates recalls, adding that all of the children and grandchildren were expected to pitch in and learned their sales skills from working shoulder to shoulder with Dr. Sabates. "My father always said, 'Tu Palabra.' That means 'your word is your bond.' He did everything on a handshake."

Initially, the family joined with most in the Camaguey province and supported Castro's revolution when it began in 1953. At one point they even allowed revolutionaries to spend the night on the family property just outside the city. But once Castro was in control, he quickly revealed his socialist vision for Cuba and then went to work forcing that vision on its people. That included stripping those citizens of their individual wealth.

"They started taking the businesses one by one," says Sylvia Sabates, Felix's sister and third oldest of the seven children. "One day, they came into the drug store and they said, 'OK, this is gonna belong to the government, and if you want to stay here, you can work for the government now.'"

They also seized the schools and churches. Sylvia recalls with great detail sitting in class when the Mother Superior walked in, visibly distressed, and whispered to the nun conducting the class. They turned to the little girls and told them that school was being taken over, to stuff whatever Christian symbols they could into their pockets and follow them out the door.

"Everybody was crying," Sylvia said. "And we were carrying crosses and whatever we could get, a statue of the Virgin Mary. And outside there was the military with machine guns. This was a major, major impact for me to see those guys with machine guns."

Felix, then 14, had been commuting from Camaguey to a military school in Havana ("My parents had to send me somewhere to straighten me out. I wasn't a bad kid. I just wanted to do things my way.") Because of that, his perspective on what was happening to post-revolution Cuba was more educated than most, himself having been a direct target of Castro's "re-education" efforts.

"[Castro's] son was my bunkmate," Sabates said. "I didn't like his son at all. They put some kids that they claimed that they were rebels, that were 15 years old. They put them in the school with us and they shoved them down our throats. I didn't have a very difficult time fighting with them, 'cause I beat 'em all up."

While home for the holidays, Felix informed his father he wasn't going back to Havana and enrolled in the Camaguey Institute. What he didn't realize was the Institute was located across the street from what Castro loyalists called the "shooting wall." One day while leaving school, the teenager watched Cuban soldiers line 12 men up against that wall. Seen as resistors to Castro's regime, Sabates said they were executed.

"That's one thing that I think about that, probably once a month," he said. "I think about those 12 people with their faces ... every one of those brave men. They faced the guys with the guns. Nobody put anything on them. Boom. They shot them. That was it."


The Sabates family was not alone in their disenchantment. By early 1960, a broad anti-Castro movement was beginning to take root. Felix was already a small part of that movement.

"He would go out and give, spread pamphlets," Sylvia says of her big brother. "He would go to meetings with all his friends, and they were all planning to do this and planning to do that. We were not part of it because he felt that we would tell on him. He was very much against the government, even at that young age."

An unlikely patchwork of men, former loyalists to both Batista and Castro, began taking up residence in the Escambray Mountains that line the island's south-central coast. These counter-revolutionaries were known as the Alzados, and they began a guerrilla and propaganda attack on Havana. Castro labeled the conflict the "War Against The Bandits."

Felix, barely 15, was on his way to becoming one of those bandits.

"I mean, that was it," he said. "I was never gonna see my parents again. I wasn't going to see my family again. I was going to the mountain to fight.

"At the time, I never thought anything about it," he said. "I just thought it was the right thing to do, and, I'm going to the mountain and I'm gonna go fight and I'm gonna liberate Cuba."

The truck was a converted milk transporter with a metal cover overhead. There were a dozen men and boys on board. It stopped in Camaguey to pick up Felix, who would be the youngest to join in for the four-hour ride. When he climbed aboard, he was handed a machine gun and told that if the truck stopped and someone opened the door that he was to start shooting.

It hadn't gone but a few blocks when it was stopped.

"When they opened the door, it was my father and a priest," he said. "They opened the doors, and they got me out of the truck. He never said a word. He just, he went like that," he says, motioning with his hands to tell Felix to "get out of there."

"He took the gun. He put it in the back of the truck, and he just grabbed me by the arm and just walked me to the car and put me in the backseat and closed the doors. And never said a word."

When Felix returned home, he waited for a punishment that never came. Instead, his grandmother came to him with a sense of urgency, saying, "You need to learn to speak English."

Shortly thereafter, his parents, with little to no warning, put their son on an airplane to the United States. They had no idea what was waiting for him there, but it was certainly better than where he was headed here. Today, as he tells the story of his mother and father sobbing as they snuck him to the airport, he, too, fights tears.

"I looked like a little boy," he said. "They were holding my hands, and I'm going to myself ... 'What am I ... what am I doing?' And I remember my dad started crying, and everybody was crying because they thought that they'll never see me, you know? And after a while, after I'd been in this country a year, I didn't think I'll see my parents again. I didn't think I'll see anybody again."


It was June 9, 1960. Mere hours after being hustled out of his homeland, teenage Felix Sabates sat on his little suitcase outside the Miami airport with no idea where to go or what to do. He'd secured a little cash by selling two boxes of cigars in the airport lobby, but that was it.

Then, a car pulled up. It was a friend of his father's who had fled Cuba just a few months earlier. Even from 300 miles away, his parents were looking out for their little boy.

"I didn't know this guy," he said. "He was a friend of my dad. I didn't know him. I met him maybe one time in my life, so it was like, 'Oh my God.' I went to his house. He lived in a very, very humble home -- one bedroom and one bathroom -- and there was no place for me to sleep, so I slept on a couch. It wasn't even a couch ... So that's when I realized, 'Boy, I am in America.'"

A few weeks later, a letter arrived from his father. It was packed with advice -- how to treat people, the importance of growing from one's experiences. "You get a lot more with a smile than you do with a sour face" and "You need to sleep at night, 'cause the problems you have today, they're going be there tomorrow. So staying awake is not going to solve them."

Soon, he was on a bus and headed to Boston to live with an aunt and uncle, but their relationship soured. From there, he lived in secondhand motels. He cleaned furnaces, washed pots and pans at a hospital and unloaded boxes at convenience stores. Eventually, he landed in Columbia, Missouri, as a hospital orderly.

Meanwhile, the other Sabates children were coming to America as part of a massive undertaking known as Operation Peter Pan. Fueled by whispers that Castro would be rounding up Cuban children to be sent to Soviet Russia-backed military programs, parents throughout the island scrambled to have their children rescued.

More than 14,000 were secretly moved from Cuba to South Florida via an elaborate system orchestrated by the Catholic Charities of Miami but backed by the Eisenhower Administration and funded by the Central Intelligence Agency.

In total, five of Felix's younger siblings were now in America. (The youngest, Art, was too little to be in the program and stayed behind with his parents.) The children of Operation Peter Pan were spread out over 35 states, some landing with family and friends. The Sabates children ended up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. There, they were split up and sent to separate homes. Manty Sabates, another of Felix's sisters, still breaks down when she recalls her brother Jose hanging out the window of the car as he was being driven away from his sisters.

"I think everybody that sent their children to this country thought it was going to be a six-month separation," Manty explains. "The United States was not gonna let this happen to Cuba. It was a vacation. We were going to be apart for a very short time."

Felix was beginning know better. He'd been in America for three years now. After a childhood surrounded by family, his late teen years had been spent nomadic and alone. When he finally made it to New Mexico, the tease of finally seeing family was more cruel than comforting.

"I remember running to him and just hugging him and hugging him and didn't wanna let go," Manty says of his arrival, adding that her little sister clung to Felix's leg. "Here's our father figure. Here's some -- here's the big brother coming to see us, you know. And that was -- you know, that was big, having him come and see us."

Then, reality once again crashed in on Felix.

"Then it hit me," he said. "I gotta get on a bus and go back to Missouri. That was probably the saddest trip I ever took in my life because I left them behind, and now, I don't know when I'm going to see them again or not. I had a feeling of emptiness and hopelessness because there was nothing I could do."


Sabates spent a year and a half in Missouri. He ached for some sort of communication from his parents. Letters that used to come every few days started coming every few weeks and then suddenly stopped. He also kept tabs on his siblings, returning to New Mexico to have words with the foster family who were keeping his sister, Joy.

"They were getting paid by the government to keep her, and they were abusing her," he said. "Not physical abuse. But she was like their maid. I mean, she's 13 years old. They're making this girl cook, clean house, all that, and when I found out, when I went to Albuquerque, I had a conversation with those people. Then, they moved them out of one of those places and put her somewhere else."

In late 1963, his mother finally made it to the United States, bringing little Art. She settled with extended family in Lexington, North Carolina, squarely in the heart of furniture making and stock car racing.

One by one, Felix and his remaining brothers and sisters did the same. In 1966, their father finally made it out of Cuba.

I hadn't seen him in six years," Felix said. "He was just 45 years old, and I thought he looked like an old man. The last time he'd seen me, I was a kid. Now, I was standing in the airport holding my kid, my daughter."

A burning cross planted in the front yard by the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan sent them south to Charlotte, where Felix started washing cars in the National Car Rental lot at the airport.

His jovial personality and relentless work ethic pushed him up the ladder, from washing to parking to renting to selling. One day, he walked into a car dealership in downtown Charlotte to apply for a job. The manager responded by calling him a "spic." Sabates had no idea what that meant, "but I knew it probably wasn't good," and he walked out. For a moment.

"I turned around and went back," Sabates said. "I said, 'What did you call me?' And he's a little bitty guy. I said, 'You give me a job. If I don't sell more cars than anybody here the first month, you can fire me.' And he said, 'You got a deal, kid. You won't be here in 30 days.' Well, I did pretty good."

He was a natural salesman. After all, it was in his DNA. He sold cars. A lot of cars. In the late '60s, he began moving product for Top Sales, Inc., a Charlotte-based manufacturer's rep, peddling everything from hair dryers to transistor radios for distribution at major retail outlets.

He bought Top Sales in 1974, just in time to recognize the leading edge of the American video game obsession. It was Sabates who helped escort Atari's Pong and Nintendo into American homes. And it was Sabates who saw an opportunity in one of the nation's original Christmas must-have toy crushes, hollowing out a passenger plane and sending it to Japan to be crammed full of the talking teddy bear, Teddy Ruxpin.

Now, he deals in top-shelf luxury cars and even more luxurious "mega-yachts." Those with the means to shop on that tier trust Sabates with their millions because he sticks to his father's mantra: Your word is your bond.

"When I started in the United States doing business, I did everything with a handshake," he said. "I believe when a man looked at you in the eye and said, 'We have a deal,' and you shake hands with him, then you have a deal."

"Felix just has that sales sense," says longtime friend Rick Hendrick, fellow NASCAR team owner and fellow former car lot salesman. It was Hendrick who convinced Sabates to get into racing, and the two worked together to bring the original Hornets to Charlotte. "He treats people the right way. Like people. He's genuine. You know that old phrase 'don't forget where you came from?' He's never forgotten where he came from."


The sadness in Sabates' eyes as he watches the video of his hometown isn't merely rooted in the disappointment of seeing what Camaguey has become. There's also a part of him that remains incomplete because he knows this is the only way he will ever see his old neighborhood again ... from a distance.

"When I left Cuba, I thought that someday I would be back there ... but I haven't been there in 54 years now, so I don't know," he said.

So, what keeps him from returning? A man of his wealth, with an armada of yachts and private planes at his disposal, could certainly make that trip happen. From Miami, where his parents eventually settled and started a new chain of businesses, the trip would take no time at all. But it's because of those parents that the homecoming will never take place.

"We suffered so much that my mother always said, 'We're never going back.' And my father says, 'We're never going back while they're [the Castro regime] there,'" Manty says. "And that was from the beginning. It was embedded into our minds that this is it. We're not going back."

Her big brother, even surrounded by images of their beloved Camaguey, is just as resolute.

"I made a promise to my mother that as long as Fidel Castro was alive, I would not go to Cuba. He's alive. If he dies tomorrow, I might go to Cuba the following day, if they'll let me. But I made a promise to my mom, and I'm gonna live up to that promise."

Tu Palabra.