The Cuban Thing (Coda: Fly Away)

Douglas DC-6B, N6522C, Pan American World Airways (PA / PAA), August 1964. (Credit:  Ralf Manteufel / Wikimedia Commons)

Douglas DC-6B, N6522C, Pan American World Airways (PA / PAA), August 1964. (Credit: Ralf Manteufel / Wikimedia Commons)

Here is the story I promised in my last post. This is the way I wrote it in my unpublished book about Cuba, The Gospel of Scarface:

On 1 January 1961, exactly two years after the triumph of the Revolution, a lone Cuban refugee arrived at the Miami airport with one suitcase full of carefully bought new clothes and $5 in his pockets. He also carried with him the written address of relatives of a friend who were willing to put him up for his first few days in a new country. Wishing to save his money, he began to walk on the modern American highway leading out of the airport.

A police car stopped him. “You cannot walk on the freeway here.”

“I don’t have money for a taxi,” he replied in his broken English learned in night classes.

The policeman called a taxi cab. Did he have enough money to go where he wanted to go?

“$5 will be enough,” said the cabdriver.

When the cabdriver left him the fare had added up to $4.35.

When my father tells this story of his arrival to the U.S. he throws his hands up in the air in amazement and wonders, without self-pity, at the impossible situation that he faced starting a new life in a new country without friends, without a job, and with only 65 cents. But always the story resonates with a clear, silent message which is the reason why he tells it, an irreducible moral made all the more powerful by the fact that it is left unspoken: if ever you find yourself with only 65 cents, put your money in your pocket, keep on walking, and remember that you are a free man.

For Cubans who left the island during the first years of the Revolution—before Miami became what it is today, essentially a Latin American capital city—there was no other way: follow your star, keep on walking, and do not look back.

Besides, my father did not so much leave Cuba as come to the United States. He never joined the Bay of Pigs invasion, nor was he ever sympathetic to Kennedy’s Operation Mongoose project, which attempted to subvert Castro’s government through terrorist acts. What he did do was work for the U.S. Navy as an employee for ITT in Vietnam (1964-1965). He thought he needed to help his new country in the fight against its Communist enemies.

My mother, on the other hand, never played the piano again when she reached U.S. shores—she claimed it brought her too many memories about Cuba. And she refused to speak English, both in solidarity with the Puerto Rican people and in revenge against the destiny that prevented her from ever seeing her mother and her older brother again before they died. Later she learned enough English to pass her U.S. citizenship test; she decided she wanted to have some influence in the country where her grandchildren would live.

So if you ask me what I think of the new development in U.S. Cuba relations, I shall tell you that it comes both too early and too late in the day.

Too late because the opening of U.S.-Cuba relations should have happened a long time ago; what is the point of nations not talking to each other? 58,000 Americans died in a decade-long war in Vietnam and yet we talk to the Vietnamese.

Too early because the Batista scum that brought about the rise of Fidel Castro may not have died off entirely in exile. After a half century of suffering by the Cuban people, it is important that Cuba never again return to what it was during Batista.

If you ask me if I have ever visited Cuba after exile I will say, categorically and definitively, NO. While my parents were alive I knew it would disturb them if I did so. Out of the profoundest respect for their decision to leave their country—with all that it entails—and become U.S. citizens, I never did.

Will I do so now that they both have passed away? I do not know. One of the consequences of the exile experience in my case is that I do not like to travel outside the United States. If I ever do so, I would like to see the houses of my grandparents, and pay my respects at José Martí´s grave, and visit the house of Ernest Hemingway. But then again, I would like to visit my maternal grandparents’ ancestral country of Barcelona, Spain, and see the Noh Theatre in Japan.

For I have come to believe what Gabriel García Márquez tells us in One Hundred Years of Solitude: one does not belong to where you came from; one belongs only to where your loved ones are buried.


Downtown Phoenix, viewed from South Mountain, 10 February 2009. (Credit:  Bigmikebmw / Wikimedia Commons)

Downtown Phoenix, viewed from South Mountain, 10 February 2009. (Credit: Bigmikebmw / Wikimedia Commons)

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