WASHINGTON — On May 18, 1956, Mario and Oriales Rubio walked into the American Consulate in Havana and applied for immigrant visas. The form asked how long they intended to stay in the United States.
"Permanently," Mr. Rubio answered.
Nine days later, the couple boarded a National Airlines flight to Miami, where a relative awaited.
So began a journey that seems as ordinary as any immigrant story, but decades later served as the foundation of an extraordinary and moving narrative told repeatedly by their third child as he became one of the most powerful politicians in Florida and then a national figure.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio has come under fire for incorrectly linking his parents to the Cubans who fled Fidel Castro beginning in 1959. He insists they are exiles nonetheless and angrily denounced the suggestion he misled for political gain.
"My upbringing taught me that America was special and different from the rest of the world, and also a real sense that you can lose your country," Rubio said in an interview this week.
But the visa documents cast clearer divisions between his parents, who came for economic reasons, and the Cubans who scrambled to leave their homeland but thought they could soon return. And the documents come to light amid new discrepancies since Rubio's time line came under scrutiny last week.
In a 2009 interview with NPR, then-Senate candidate Rubio explained his mother returned to Cuba in 1961 to care for her father, who had been injured in an accident. He said the family wanted to go home to Miami but were blocked by Castro's government for nine months, and that influenced their thinking about leaving for good.
In a widely read piece in POLITICO on Friday, Rubio did not mention the accident and said his family was making preparations to move to Cuba but "after just a few weeks, it became clear that the change happening in Cuba was not for the better. It was communism."
Rubio, 40 and Miami born, mentioned the accident in this week's interview and said he only recently got access to passports showing his family's travel.
The haziness he expressed from events decades ago was echoed by his older brother.
"It was one of those things where they really didn't share much information," said Mario Rubio, who is 61 and lives in Jacksonville. "Their whole life was trying to make a better life for us."
The Rubios filled out applications for immigrant visas and alien registration, not tourist visas. "That expresses an intention to remain indefinitely," said Joseph Reina, an immigration lawyer in Dallas.
Documents show Mr. Rubio was sponsored by his sister-in-law, who was already living in Miami and who signed an affidavit in 1956 stating the family was "desirous of entering the United States of America as permanent residents."
Reina and other experts said that puts the Rubios in a different context but cautioned it was not uncommon for immigrants to seek permanent residency while expecting to return home some day.
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Mario Rubio was 29 when he filed for his visa; his wife was 25. They met in Havana. He was a security guard at a five-and-dime; she was a cashier, according to the senator.
They were not politically active, Rubio said, which may discount one possible motivation for leaving. While Castro had not taken over, 1956 was a violent year in Havana with Fulgencio Batista's regime trying to quell the revolution.
"Certainly they felt at that time that they would have a better opportunity to pursue and accomplish their dreams here than they did there, for multiple reasons," Rubio said.
Some who left before Castro took over looked to his takeover, and their return.
"They were hopeful that this was a new beginning for Cuba, that things would get better and they were hoping maybe they can be part of that and made plans to do so," Rubio said, referring to several trips his parents took back to Cuba.
Rubio said his father held various jobs in Miami in the years after arriving but mostly was a bartender. His mother, he said, worked at one time in a factory that made aluminum chairs. Later, she worked at Kmart, a detail he worked into his political narrative.
For reasons unclear still, Rubio's parents waited until 1975 to become U.S. citizens. Experts say that was not uncommon.
On the petition for naturalization, Mr. Rubio, then working as a bartender at Sans Souci Hotel on Miami Beach, was asked if he was ever a member of the Communist Party. No, he wrote. At 9 a.m. on Nov. 5, 1975, he showed up for his hearing at Barry College Auditorium and left a citizen.
A few years later, Mr. Rubio moved the family to Las Vegas, where he tended bar at Sams Town Hotel, and his wife cleaned hotel rooms, according to the senator's biography. They returned to Miami in 1985.
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Years later, the Rubios watched their son become the first Cuban-American speaker of the Florida House, then defy naysayers and run for U.S. Senate against a sitting governor. Mario Rubio, 83, died amid the campaign, but his wife was on stage on election night, a euphoric occasion that minted Rubio as a Republican star. (She recently suffered a stroke and is recovering.)
All along the way, Rubio talked eloquently of the Cuban exile experience — words that last week surfaced in a Washington Post article that said he embellished the facts. Rubio was forced to correct a Senate biography that said his parents came after Castro took over, but he angrily rebutted the suggestion he was deliberately misleading.
Miami's exile community rose to Rubio's defense amid questions about whether he was the son of exiles. But some wondered just how he could have gotten his facts so wrong. Every politically active, first-generation Cuban-American knows Castro officially overthrew the Batista regime on Jan. 1, 1959.
"I was pushed out for political reasons. His parents were pulled in for economic reasons. There's a major difference," said Miguel A. De La Torre, a professor at Iliff School of Theology in Denver who grew up in Miami and has studied exiles.
"Does it change the suffering that his parents could not go back? I think every Cuban has that as part of their history. I don't want to minimize that. But that he did not know when his parents came, I find that harder to understand."
Miami Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.