Scenes From a Cuban-American Life
Family, History, and Stories of the Revolution
You are six months old. It snows in Miami for the first time in remembered history. Your mother swaddles you in the thickest blanket she can find, holds you up to the window, and says, Chanty, look at that. Snow. It melts as it hits the thick, St. Augustine grass. For years, your mother will remind you about the day it snowed in Miami, and you will tell her that you would like to see snow someday, and she says, perhaps you will. But neither she nor you are sure about that.
You are five years old. Your mother, divorced for three years now, earns enough money to send you to a private school. It is a shabby place, the classrooms situated in what once was an apartment building. But the uniforms are nice, and the teachers speak Spanish. In the mornings, your teacher asks you and your classmates to stand. You put your hand over your heart, and you sing the Cuban national anthem. Al combate, corred Bayameses, you sing. You cannot know that you are singing about the war against Spain in the 19th century. You won’t connect those dots until much later in life. You sing, que morir por la patria es vivir, and that you understand. To die for your motherland is to live, you translate in your little head, and it scares you, the way the crucifixes over each doorway scare you, the way the principal, and her enormous bosom and perfect blond bob scares you. You are an easily frightened child. When your abuela tells you that Miami Beach waters are full of bull sharks, you decide that you prefer the sand. You will be like this for a long time, frightened of what you can imagine but cannot see, including sharks, and wars, and certain kinds of patriotism.
You are eleven years old. Your mother tells you that your cousin, whom you do not know, is coming from Spain to live with you. He is eleven, like you, and you remember that he has lived in Madrid for a year, but that he’s from Cuba. In a shelf in your room, you have placed a little toy station wagon, chipped yellow paint on the tiny chassis, miniscule doors that open and close. Your cousin sent it to you when he first arrived in Madrid, and wrote you a letter in Spanish, which you read again and again. Mi prima, he called you. When you meet him at the airport, he hugs you hard and calls you prima. In your house, he sleeps in a pin-pan-pun, a foldaway cot so named for the sounds it makes when it’s opened. He hoards food under the bed. He eats a box of ex-lax and pays the price. He tells you he used to go hungry in Cuba and in Madrid. He tells you his favorite singer is Whitney Houston. I wanna dance with somebody, he sing-yells all over the house. Your abuela puts a lock on the medicine cabinet.
You are fifteen years old, and all the girls in your class are having quinceañera parties. You are not having a party, because your mother has recently switched jobs and cannot quite afford the banquet hall rates, and because you secretly think to yourself that you wouldn’t ever find fourteen boys and fourteen girls to agree to make up your “court.” But you are invited to other parties, and get to be a part of other courts. You are paired up with boys named Alain and José and Freddy, respectively, and you meet once a week at the feted girl’s house to practice the choreographies for the day of the party. You learn salsa, merengue, cumbia, cha-cha-cha, mambo, casino, and rueda. You learn that you are not very good at these things. You prepare for the parties with friends, choking on clouds of hairspray. As you dance, you look out at the parents in the audience, who are singing the words to the songs that you’re dancing to, songs that were recorded in the 1950s. Cameras flash. Arroz con pollo and flan are consumed in mass quantities. When the choreography is over, the DJ plays Vanilla Ice and 2 Live Crew, and you get out of the hoop skirt and heels at last.
You are seventeen and applying to colleges. Two colleges, specifically, because they are the only suitable colleges in the city of Miami for a student like you, on the honor roll and with a couple of AP classes on your transcripts. Each day, face book catalogs come in the mail. You throw them away, mostly, but you keep the one from Mount Holyoke for the longest time. You don’t know where it is, exactly, but the kids on the cover of the face book are real Americans, you think, though you were born in Florida, the 27th state of the union. You do not bother thinking about applying. Nor do you consider the dormitories as an option for the schools in Miami. Your abuela reminds you that she still makes your bed in the mornings, and does your laundry, and that she has done these things for you since you were born, that she will do them until you find a man to marry, and that then, you will have to do them for him. Then, she reminds you that when she married your grandfather, she left Cuba with him, and never saw her mother again. She was twenty-five years old. Her voice catches whenever she says this, but you are too young to understand such grief and loss, mainly because your bed has been made for you for so many years. Your girlfriends, Cuban girls too, also apply to local places. One of them dares to apply to a school in northern Florida, and her parents threaten to take her car away if she goes. You console your friend. It’s nice here, you tell her. It’s warm all the time, it never snows, the nightclubs are good. What more could you want?
You are twenty. When you write short stories, they are about your stepfather’s family in upstate New York. The people in those stories collect Belleek china. You put glistening, tiny shamrocks in all your fiction. You earn B’s and are okay with that. You are writing the kind of story that you think Henry James would like. Or Theodore Dreiser. Or Saul Bellow. But then you start to read Cristina Garcia, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Sandra Cisneros, Pablo Neruda, and you get it in your head to tell the story of a woman and her baby in Cuba, though you’ve never been there. You think of your cousin, the one who ate the ex-lax, and how frightened his mother must have been to see him go hungry. So, you tell a kind of version of his story, though you invent, invent, invent. You earn an A. Everyone you see now is a story. Every face in Miami, every curse you hear, every song on the radio. All of them are a story. You write as if you are remembering something. You aren’t remembering of course. You’re inventing. But it feels like you’re tapping a vein of remembrance, sucking it dry.
You leave Miami at twenty-five. You think of your abuela at twenty-five, leaving Cuba, and you console yourself that you will see your mother again, at least. You live in Pittsburgh, and Connecticut, and Alabama. You build snowmen at last. Cold, a space heater warming your feet, you write books about an island you’ve never seen with your own eyes. You think: I’d like to visit Cuba some day. I’d like it to be legal. At readings, you think: I’d like to answer questions about plot or character development or scene building instead of politics. You learn the term “micro-aggression.” You explain that Cubans don’t eat burritos. Again and again you explain things like that. You are asked about embargoes and Che Guevara. You think of your uncle when you are asked these things, and you remember how he has a framed portrait of Elian Gonzalez in his office. You think of your cousin when he was hungry. You write a novel about the Cuban War of Independence from Spain, and you learn at last who the Bayameses were. The song, which you still know by heart, takes on greater meaning. Al combate corred, Bayameses, you whisper as you write, urging them on in their fight against Spain. You tell your abuela about your book. She tells you that you and your family are isleños, islanders, but she means the Canary Islands, and not Cuba. She tells you the story of her grandfather, who was shot by Cuban rebels for supporting the crown. She says this with sadness thick in her throat. We could have been Spaniards, she laments, and you blink at her and think: how quickly such histories get lost. You wonder about your abuela as a child, singing about the Bayameses. Did she feel anything at all?
You are thirty-five. You live in Auburn, Alabama, and your abuela, who is in her eighties, has come to visit you. You take her to The Cracker Barrel for a real American breakfast. The waitress is a wiry, older woman, with blond-gray hair worn in a long braid. Her eyes are blue and watery. She takes your order, and when she gets to your abuela, you watch in horror as your abuela grabs the woman’s wrist. Mi mamá, she says through tears and in a thick accent. You look just like mi mamá. You remember the only picture of your great-grandmother you have ever seen, and yes, you think, this woman does resemble her. The waitress is shaken, and does not return to our table. Your abuela apologizes again and again, saying, You don’t understand what it’s like to say goodbye forever. Only ninety miles away, and just like that, goodbye forever, she tells you in Spanish.
You are thirty-nine. You see the news on Facebook first. President Barack Obama has announced a thawing of relations with Cuba. You start fielding text messages from your more progressive Cuban friends. Is this really happening, they write? Looks like, you text back. Ay, mi gente, one friend texts, and You know how she feels. Our people, our people, both on the island and off, how this rattles us all, in good ways and bad. Your aunt jokes with you, Let’s take a cruise to Cuba. Your uncle says nothing. You imagine him staring at Elian Gonzalez’s portrait, thinking it all over in silence. Later, you watch as pictures of celebrities in Cuba start to appear on the Internet. First Paris Hilton, posing in front of what was once her grandfather’s Havana Hilton. Look at this, you tell you husband, who replies, Don’t worry, she’ll own it again soon enough. Then, Conan O’Brien films his show on the island. Everyone gets to go to Cuba but me, you complain, but you’re not sure who is stopping you anymore. At Christmas, a cousin’s mother-in-law pulls you aside. My husband, she tells you, was a political prisoner. The guards put bombs in their cells and threatened to blow the prisoners up during the Bay of Pigs, she tells you. He and his cellmates diffused the bombs. You are a writer, she tells you, and so these are things you need to know. You hug her and tell her, of course, of course, and thank you, but you don’t know what to do with that story, except to tell it now, like this, which feels cheap and wrong.
You will be some other, older age, and Fidel will die at last. You will watch as people in Miami take to the street with pots and pans. There will be celebrations. There are rumors that the city has already planned for this event, that the stadiums will fill with revelers and concerts will be heard. You have saved just the right pot and pan. It is a corroded, ugly thing, but it makes a resonant sound. You will beat on it in the quiet of your house, and your children will think you’ve gone mad. You will think: I have gone mad. You will think: mi gente, mi gente. You would like to bury Fidel like a pharaoh, but instead of riches, you would fill his tomb with things like the Elian Gonzalez picture, and your old Mount Holyoke face book, a quinceañera’s hoop skirt, a Cracker Barrel breakfast menu, and your cousin’s toy station wagon. You will tell yourself: they will mummify the man like they did Stalin, put him behind Plexiglass. You will tell yourself: this changes nothing. Later: this changes everything. You will ask yourself: who are we now if not in opposition to anyone? You will wonder whether you will now be asked questions about plot or narrative engines. And if you are, you will worry, how will I answer?