Photo above: Osvaldo and Noris Mujica taken in 2016.
By Bill Rauch
The patriarch and matriarch of one of Beaufort’s foremost families just celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary. Osvaldo and Noris Mujica came to Beaufort in 1962 with their three children, Ozzie, Omar and Lizette, and the Mujica family now 33 strong has flourished here since. A fourth child, Otto, was born here.
Theirs is a great American story.
The Mujicas came to the US on one of the last planes out of Cuba before the Cuban Missile Crisis shut down flights to the US. Osvaldo had been running Sumner Pingree Jr.’s ’s 65,000 acre cattle ranch, Hacienda San Andres, since as a U.S. citizen Pingree had been forced to leave Cuba by the rise to power of the revolutionary Fidel Castro in 1959. These were desperate times. As the Castro government, the communists, consolidated power in the 1959-62 period they nationalized more and more of the Pingree family’s ranch.
In its day Hacienda San Andres was the chief rival of Texas’ King Ranch as the world’s top cattle ranch.
Osvaldo Mujica, assigned by Pingree to run the ranch in his absence and the family’s adjacent 20,000 acre sugar-producing operation too, watched helplessly as the government piece-by-piece took over the majestic place. Yet he was clearly so inventive and so competent at running its operations that Castro ordered him to prepare to come to Havana and run all Cuba’s nationalized cattle operations. It was then in 1962, with the red handwriting indelibly on the wall, and after secret conversations with and firm assurances from Pingree, Osvaldo and Noris Mujica secreted their family out of Cuba to the US. With them were just the clothes they could fit into a couple of suitcases.
Exotically good-looking, smart and fun-loving – and with a brilliant and discreet father, and a doting mother — the Mujica children were popular from the moment they stepped out of the station wagon in Beaufort. Grown up and parents (and grandparents and great-grandparents!) themselves now, each of Osvaldo and Noris’ four children has achieved success in their own ways. Ozzie and Omar each ran automotive businesses here for many years. Lizette was a Spanish professor at the University of South Carolina until she came home to Beaufort two years ago, and Otto is All State Insurance’s catastrophe specialist for the Southeast US.
Sumner Pingree, a leading Beaufort philanthropist, lived for many years at his Bray’s Island Plantation in Sheldon. In those days Osvaldo and Sumner were like brothers. More than a plantation manager, Osvaldo functioned more like a chief of staff or consigliere for Pingree who was biding his time raising cattle and hogs in Sheldon, and shooting and fishing around the world, while he awaited the opportunity to return to Cuba and reclaim his rights to Hacienda San Andres. It was an opportunity that never came to him.
Sumner Pingree, Jr. died quietly at his home on Bray’s Island, a few days before last Christmas. He was 88.
Osvaldo had been with him in Cuba, at Huspah Plantation, at Bray’s Island while Bray’s was operated as a family-owned farm, and at Bray’s in the years after 1988 when Sumner transitioned the plantation to the outdoors-oriented community it is today.
Now, with the gradual re-opening of Cuba to US citizens, in the upcoming years there will be opportunities for those who left in the 1959-62 period to revisit Cuba. Some Mujicas may take the opportunity to visit as tourists, but probably not Osvaldo and Noris. “South Carolina is our home,” Osvaldo says. “People ask me what I would change about my life … and I say nothing … I’ve had a wonderful life.”