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María Leopoldina (Polita) Grau Alsina was born in Havana, Cuba, on 19 November 1915 to Paulina Alsina Fernández and Francisco Grau San Martín. She was the second of five children: Paulina, Francisco, Ramón, and María Dolores Sánchez, the latter who was taken in by the Grau Alsina family upon her mother’s death. Along with her two sisters, Polita attended the Teresian school in Vedado.
Polita’s father Francisco died on 30 November 1930, and the family was taken in by his brother Ramón Grau San Martín. Grau San Martín was a professor of physiology at the University of Havana, and when students there began organizing and protesting against the administration of General Gerardo Machado, Grau San Martín joined them. He was imprisoned for his activities and released on the condition that he leave the island. In January of 1931, Grau San Martín and the Grau Alsina family went into exile in Miami, where they joined many other Cubans who opposed the Machado government.
In 1933, Machado was ousted from Cuba and the Grau Alsina family returned to the island with their uncle, who became president of Cuba. Teenaged Polita served as his first lady until January 1934 when Fulgencio Batista led a successful coup against Grau San Martín. The family was once again sent into exile, this time to Mexico and later Miami. Polita returned to Cuba in May and in September 1934, she married Roberto Lago, a leader of the student movement. Their continued political activity led to Polita’s third exile, arriving in Miami in 1935. On 21 August of that year, her husband Roberto died of appendicitis at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, and Polita returned to Cuba to bury him. In 1939, Polita married José (Pepe) Agüero, with whom she had two children, Ramón (Monchi) and Hilda.
Along with her uncle, Polita was very active in the Partido Auténtico (Authentic Party). In 1944, Ramón Grau San Martín was elected president of Cuba, serving until 1948. His protégé, Carlos Prío Socarrás, succeeded him. In 1952, Fulgencio Batista led another coup d'etat, and Polita became active in the opposition which was led by Prío Socarrás. She gave shelter to many anti-government activists and helped them gain political asylum at various foreign embassies in Havana. Because of her activities, Polita was once again forced into exile in Miami, where she remained until 1959 when the Castro-led revolution succeeded in ousting Batista.
Once again in Cuba, Polita joined her colleagues from the Partido Auténtico and was soon involved in the anti-Castro movement, becoming part of a group known as Rescate led by Tony Varona, coordinating the women who participated in the resistance. They helped the counterrevolutionary forces that were still fighting throughout the island, aided political prisoners, sheltered counterrevolutionaries, and helped move arms and munitions throughout the island.
After the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, Polita’s brother Ramón (Mongo) was recruited to help Miami-based priest Monsignor Bryan Walsh, who was trying to help Cuban parents get their children out of Cuba. With Mongo and Monsignor Walsh, Polita formed the core of Operation Pedro Pan which succeeded in getting over 14,000 unaccompanied children out of Cuba and to the United States. The siblings were arrested in 1965, accused of plotting to overthrow Fidel Castro, and received 30-year sentences.
Polita was released in 1978 and entered her final exile in Miami. Mongo Grau Alsina was freed in 1986 and joined his family in South Florida. From 1978 until her death, Polita focused her activities on raising awareness and garnering assistance for Cuban political prisoners, especially women, and on working with the Partido Auténtico reorganized in exile. She passed away on 21 March 2000 at the age of 84.