by Sean McManus
When Giselle Carson was nearly 15 years old, the equivalent of the American “Sweet 16,” her parents told her she was going on a trip to Prague for her birthday. For Cubans living under Castro in the 1980s, the more obvious choices for European vacations, such as Paris or London, were out of the question.
But when the plane landed in Montreal for refueling, the birthday girl was escorted to immigration where her parents proceeded to negotiate political asylum with the Canadian government. It was all part of an elaborate ruse her parents had contrived to get their loyal communist daughter, and themselves, out of Cuba.
Today, Carson is an associate at Marks Gray, Jacksonville’s oldest law firm. She’s no longer loyal to Castro, which is preferred if you want to practice law in Florida. But she is still conscious of her Cuban roots and talks almost every day to her parents in Miami.
Like most Cuban immigrants, Carson looks with horror at the political oppression that continues to play out in her home country. Being a lawyer, she is acutely aware of the nature of justice and the deficiencies in the Cuban system. And she said all of it makes her more vigilant in her desire to help people.
“It provides perspective,” said Carson from her office on the Southbank overlooking the St. Johns River. “My husband and I talk every day about how lucky we are.”
Carson was attending Lenin High School (as in Vladimir) outside Havana when her parents put her on the one-way flight. Recognized as an exceptional student, Carson was exposed to a heightened level of indoctrination at what she said was essentially a boarding school.
“It was based on the Soviet system,” said Carson, who thought that in many ways her peers at Lenin were better informed than American high school students, just about the wrong things.
“We would be up at six where we would meet in the central plaza for a news briefing,” she said. “Anything bad that happened in the U.S. would be celebrated.” When President Reagan was shot, for example, students were told that was one of the best things that could’ve happened for Cuba.
“I imagine they must have had a field day with the sniper in Washington,” she said. “It would be billed as one of the horrors of living in America.”
With no sense of the irony, it was 1984 when Carson’s father, Cuba’s director of ballet and theater, maneuvered to get his entire family on a plane for Canada, and out of Cuba forever. Carson and her mother were on different planes until her father made some last minute changes to get them all together.
“Of course, it was all who you know,” said Carson, whose father’s position as an ambassador for Cuban culture made it all possible.
When her family landed in Montreal, to keep up the cover, her parents told her they were having problems with their passports.
Carson never would’ve agreed to get on the plane if she would’ve known they were leaving Cuba forever. It wasn’t that the 15-year-old would miss her friends or her life in the militaristic confines of Lenin High School. It was that she was completely brainwashed to believe that North America was a terrible place, democracy didn’t work and that things like school didn’t happen outside of Communist countries.
“As soon as I realized what was going on, I told my parents that I was going to march down to the Cuban Embassy to ask to be sent back to Cuba,” she said. “My parents had to take turns watching me in the middle of the night to make sure I wouldn’t sneak out.”
According to Carson, Canada has sophisticated systems in place to handle the influx of Cuban immigrants. Her parents both spoke English, which made it easier; they often served as Spanish translators for other immigrants from Latin America.
“It really only took one trip to the grocery store to realize that maybe this wasn’t going to be that bad,” Carson said. “I had heard that there wasn’t enough food to eat in other countries.”
Carson stayed in Canada for nine years. She graduated from McGill University in Montreal in 1989 with a degree in physical therapy. It was there that she met her husband, a Canadian named Jeff Carson. The two practiced physical therapy in Ottawa for a year after college.
Her parents had since moved to be with Carson’s other relatives in Miami, where they now are part-owners in a restaurant near Florida International University called Latin America.
“My father’s family had left in 1959 right after the Revolution,” said Carson. “My mom’s family had come during the Muriel boat lift in the 1980s. There were some professionals that were part of that.”
So, in 1990, Carson and her husband applied for jobs in Florida. They landed at the Halifax Medical Center in Daytona. Carson took a job with Beverly Enterprises, which was once the largest nursing home chain in the country. She worked her way up to director of rehabilitation in Ormond Beach, where she first got a taste of the legal machinations of the health care industry.
“I had already started a master’s in business from the University of Central Florida,” she said, “when Florida Coastal opened.”
Carson said after plenty of internal debate she eventually decided there would be more opportunities for her in the world of law. The Carson’s were living in Flagler Beach at the time, and Carson started making the commute to Jacksonville.
“My mom bought me my first cell phone and talked to me the whole drive back,” Carson said. “She would tell me about all the family news so I wouldn’t fall asleep.”
Carson stayed with Beverly for three years then finished her last year as a full-time student at Florida Coastal. She credits the school with intense preparation that she said she’s already applied in the courtroom.
“Judge Gary Flower was my personal instructor and coach,” she said. “I learned a lot from him.” When Carson graduated from Florida Coastal last year, she was number one in her class.
Carson interned for a federal judge who recommended Marks Gray. She said her experience in the health care field made assimilation into personal injury, medical malpractice and insurance defense that much easier.
“I’m a little more comfortable dealing with doctors than most, I guess,” she said. “I don’t have to refer to the medical dictionary as much when reviewing medical records.”
She has won two bench trials since starting with the firm eight months ago and there’s a nursing home litigation case on her desk right now.
“It’s such a rush to win a trial by arguing on your feet,” she said. “I’m learning a lot just by attending as many hearings and depositions as possible.”
Carson said the conventional wisdom is that you’ll know if you like being a lawyer within the first six months. “If that’s the case then this is going to work out,” she said.
Carson and her husband, who works at Mayo/St. Luke’s and is pursuing a graduate degree in physical therapy from a school in St. Augustine, are serious cyclists.
She just finished a race in Georgia in September, and said you can often find her racing down San Jose Boulevard on the weekends.
“Biking is good for you and it doesn’t kill your knees like running,” she said.
And for a young trial lawyer, it’s important to be able to stay on your feet.