Summary of Interview with Dr. Juan Weiss

Interviewed by: Eirini Giannaraki

Interview Date: Spring Semester 2019

Reasons for Migrating to the United States

In 1961, Dr. Weiss emigrated from Cuba to Miami, Florida. At the age of nine, he came alone on a plane. His parents were not able to obtain a visa to leave Cuba, so they sent him away alone. Dr. Weiss was one of the thousands of unaccompanied minors who arrived in the United States through “Operation Peter Pan,” which was initiated by the U.S. Catholic Welfare Bureau and provided air transportation to the United States for Cuban children between 1960 and 1962.

The main reason for his migration was political.  His parents wanted him to flee a dictatorship where there were no elections, no freedom of the press, religion or speech, and no democracy. Back then, many Cubans were trying to leave before all exit routes were closed and young children were subjected to communist indoctrination at school. Dr. Weiss’s brother left before him and fled to Venezuela. As adults, his parents had the most difficulty obtaining exit visas. They finally obtained their visas to immigrate through Venezuela and they joined their son in Miami in 1962.

Struggles upon Arrival

When Dr. Weiss first arrived in Miami, FL he lived with his grandmother, who was a U.S. citizen. Even with a U.S. citizen grandmother, it was very difficult to get a visa for the U.S. for Dr. Weiss and his family. When the family reunited in 1962, all four of them lived in one rented room within a house. Dr. Weiss’s father worked as a dishwasher and his mother was an English teacher. “We were very poor, we had nothing, and for several years both of my parents took a bus to work. My dad worked two full-time jobs for several years,” he says. “I grew up in Miami, Florida in a very poor, horrible, crime- ridden neighborhood where gangs were common. One of my friends was shot and died as a teenager in that neighborhood. I attended elementary, junior high and high school there. I learned English faster than my peers in elementary school and excelled academically. My grandmother instilled in me: ‘You’ve got to learn English and you’ve got to excel. We don’t speak Spanish here anymore.’ I was top of the class. I knew that I wanted to be a doctor by 5th grade,” Dr. Weiss says as he remembers his childhood. “I started working at fifteen while still in junior high school. I worked as a dishwasher, pumped gas, mowed lawns and picked aluminum cans out of garbage cans to sell. I also played music professionally at seventeen while still in high school,” he says.

Integrating into U.S. Society

As a high school senior, Dr. Weiss earned two academic scholarships to go to Miami Dade Junior College. Dr. Weiss remembers: “I did not even apply anywhere else. My parents needed me to stay in Miami and work and my high school counselor advised me to stay and take the scholarships. One was from Mount Sinai hospital. So, I continued working mostly on weekends while in college.” The Mount Sinai scholarship continued for four years. After two years and an Associate in Science Degree in Medical Lab Technology, Dr. Weiss became licensed as a Medical Technician and worked at the Mount Sinai hospital lab. However, “At about this time, my mom started having serious medical problems and had to cut down her work hours. So, my dad became the main bread earner with help from me and my brother,” he says.

In 1972, Dr. Weiss transferred to Florida International University in Miami and obtained his B.S. in Medical Technology in 1974. He passed the Medical Technology National Registry Exam (ASCP) and the Florida Medical Technologist and Cytotechnologist licensure exams.  While still at F.I.U. he did some pro bono lab work for the Miccosukee/Seminole Native Americans in Everglades, FL. Also, he attended and observed many autopsies at the Miami Dade office of the medical examiner.

“After finishing college, I could not apply to medical school immediately because I had no money,” Dr. Weiss says. He passed the National/American Academy of Microbiology exam and became a general Microbiologist with specialties in immunology/serology, mycology and pathogenic bacteriology. “I worked mostly as a Medical Technologist and then as a Microbiologist for about three years in a hospital. I befriended and hung out with the doctors and pathologists often. Friendships forged during this time period later became pivotal in my success.” Dr. Weiss states.

In 1977, Dr. Weiss sold all of his belongings and started medical school in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He obtained the Medical Technologist license in Puerto Rico. “Puerto Rico is a U.S. Commonwealth. I thought of it for one main reason: My dream was to become an infectious diseases specialist, which I later did.  Puerto Rico is a tropical island and, back in the ‘70s, one could see all kinds of tropical infectious diseases and parasites that did not exist in mainland U.S. There I saw diseases and pathology that I would have never seen in mainland U.S. As a Latino, I was embraced there for my knowledge in lab medicine and microbiology and my fluency in both Spanish and English. In Puerto Rico, I did not observe any prejudices against blacks or Latinos during that time. While there, I never sensed that I was being judged by anything other than my character, moral worth, knowledge and credentials.”

During medical school, Dr. Weiss states: “In violation of medical school rules, I secretly worked on weekends while in medical school mostly as a Microbiologist or Medical Technologist, but often I also cleaned and washed laboratory glassware and would also clean the lab floors and the bathroom. I would be allowed to stay at night and sleep in the lab and continue working the next day. The typical mode of payment for the above was in food, mostly canned items, fruits and nonperishables. Again, friendships forged then, became crucial to my success.” Dr. Weiss obtained his M.D. degree in 1982.

Connection to Cuban Culture

Dr. Weiss emphasizes the importance of maintaining contact with other individuals of the same ethnic origin and retaining connection with the Cuban culture: “I retained my Cuban connections while living in Miami, Florida. This is mainly because in the ‘60s, and ‘70s, south Florida was populated by many Cubans. I lost that connection when I left south Florida and went to Georgia in 1985. I did not encounter any Cubans in Atlanta Ga., and here in Virginia, I found some Cubans in Winchester, but so far none in Manassas.”

“I’ve never gone back to Cuba,” Dr. Weiss says. “I truly want to go back and visit Cuba. However, I am having health problems and I found out that my health insurance would not cover me there. So, I do not want to run the risk of suffering a major health emergency or problem while there and not be covered. And the other thing is that currently I am also afraid of the ever present possibility of some major internal political event occurring while I am visiting there in which case since I fled that same Castro regime as a child I could possibly then be targeted as an individual who had once dissented with the Castro regime. That fear is compounded by the fact that the current U.S. administration does not share the same political nor philosophical ideals that existed during the previous administration. My parents died before political ties were formed with Cuba during the Obama administration and I do not know if they would have had any interest in visiting the island.

Occupational and Economic Upward Mobility

Living in the United States with all of its freedoms contributed tremendously to Dr. Weiss’s successes and achievements. It was drastically different than a Communist dictatorship.  After medical school, Dr. Weiss did a medical internship and residency in Pediatrics at the University of South Florida, FL from 1982 to 1985. He passed his medical licensure exam in 1985. Dr. Weiss did a fellowship in Pediatric Infectious Diseases and Immunology at Emory University, GA (1985-1987). At Emory University, he was part of a landmark lab research study on HIV/AIDS. It was a collaborative study with Harvard and Duke University during which Dr. Weiss discovered what still stands today as the first and earliest infection with HIV in a human (1959). The patient resided in Zaire, Africa, which is now known to be the epicenter of the AIDS pandemic. The same investigations showed that the patient had antibodies in the blood to the Simian Immunodeficiency Virus, thus providing pivotal support for the Simian Immunodeficiency Virus origin of HIV. This investigation was first presented publicly by Dr. Weiss in Belgium at a world conference on AIDS, and then published in the Lancet Medical Journal in 1986. In 2017, this work was chosen to become part of a chronological bibliography for medical classics and of the most important contributions to the world’s literature on medicine and related sciences dating back 4,000 years, known as the “Garrison and Morton/GM” medical bibliography which is now a web based entity at http://www.historyofmedicine.com/id/11513.

While at Emory University, Dr. Weiss also taught medical students, residents, and attending physicians. He also consulted on and treated patients with complex infectious diseases and immunodeficiency disorders.

In 1988, Dr. Weiss passed the written and oral Pediatrics board exam.

In 1987, Dr. Weiss moved to Virginia with his wife who is a nurse and a native-born U.S. citizen. From 1987 to 1989, Dr. Weiss was in private practice in Pediatrics and infectious diseases in Wytheville, VA. In 1989, he became the Medical Health Director at the Lord Fairfax Health District in Winchester, VA. “I directed all the medicine and public health, communicable diseases, and environmental health programs. I also worked at the health department clinics. I worked pro bono at the free medical clinics. Around 1992 I became an outside contract Pediatrics physician for the military in Virginia. I was not active duty military. I also became a registered clinical and technical laboratory consultant,” Dr. Weiss says.  

Around 2002, Dr. Weiss became a part time adjunct faculty member at ECPI University in Manassas, VA while still practicing pediatrics full time. In 2005, he became a full time faculty member of the School of Health Sciences at ECPI University. He taught medical courses until he retired in 2014.