About the author… In 2003, Cristina published her first non-fiction book, Finding Francis, about finding someone she hadn’t seen in twenty years (Author House). She is currently working on her second book of letters to a lost friend, Letters to Helen. In addition, she writes short fiction, personal essays and poetry. Read the rest of her bio here. ———————————————————–
My parents are both Cuban immigrants who fled communism right after the arrival of Fidel Castro into their native country. They were teenagers who met and were married in Astoria, Queens in 1963. They always drive by the site of their first date, what used to be a Carvel ice cream shop, now an all-night grocery on the corner of 31st Street and 21st Avenue.
About the author…
In 2003, Cristina published her first non-fiction book, Finding Francis, about finding someone she hadn’t seen in twenty years (Author House). She is currently working on her second book of letters to a lost friend, Letters to Helen. In addition, she writes short fiction, personal essays and poetry. Read the rest of her bio here.
My parents are getting older now. Not old, mind you, but older. Everyone discovers that time when they see their parents as real people, as human beings like anyone else. I don’t see my parents like everyone else. I see them as being very different, from me and from my older brothers. They are from a different world. One that I’m not sure they’ve ever let go.
When I was young, my house was filled with other Cuban-born American citizens, some my parents knew back in Havana, others were friends met here in the United States. Some could not speak English. They worked in factories or in other places where skill, not language, was the necessity and they made their way. Others already knew English, having been taught back in Cuba as a second language, or learning it upon arrival in order to get by. As my father would say, his first few weeks in the United States he ate western omelettes exclusively because it was the only thing he could pronounce. You learn what you need to survive, he said. But my parents did more than survive.
My living room Christmas Day was Cuba transplanted. There was Cuban food as far as the eye could see along our dining room table, from empanadas to bocaditos, lechon, arroz, frijoles negros and flan. There may only have been 15 or 20 people but from the basement, where all the English-speaking Cuban-American kids hung out, it was a herd of Cuban elephants storming around upstairs. Would the house collapse from all the chubby, animated Cubans waving their hands to tell their stories? Or would they laugh themselves into a stupor that would go on throughout the night, into their cars and back into their own homes in Queens and New Jersey?
Those nights were filled with the stories and the talk of their Cuban homeland. It was about Cucita and Panchito. It was about what movies were playing the month they fled Fidel. It was about all the things they’d do and say and see when they returned. It was a waiting game. This was all temporary. The food, the house, the life, it would all have to end once Fidel was gone. We’d pack up our things (because their children would certainly not be left behind) and go to this place I’d never been. I did not understand and secretly wished that my parents would just forget this Fidel character so I wouldn’t have to go back to this never-never land where no one spoke English. I never really understood what was being anticipated. But I always knew that my parents were waiting for something. It took years for me to understand what.
When I began grade school, my parents began to interact more with other parents from the parish and from the school. Women like Molly and Grace filled my house on weekdays with their own children and we’d play in the basement while our moms drank coffee and gossiped upstairs. I could still hear the cackles of laughter or the creaks of the floorboard as someone got up for something to drink. But it was much more subdued and decidedly more reserved.
In those days, the dinner parties were polite and often so quiet that I wasn’t sure if people were still over my house and I’d feel compelled to come downstairs in my pajamas to find out. My parents would boil water for tea instead of putting the tiny espresso pot for Cuban coffee on the stove. They tried very hard and seem to truly enjoy their new friends, but it was always as if they were sampling the water. It had been twenty years since they had left Cuba. It was time to make other friends, mingle with other parents and make some sort of investment in the community where they were raising their children.
Christmas in those years was like a gathering of UN representatives. People were speaking in two different languages shouting “Merry Christmas” and “Feliz Navidad” to try and bridge the language barrier. There was a ”lechon” on the table next to a turkey. My parents spoke less Spanish so as not to be rude to their guests. The Cuban-American playmates I once knew were “too old” to come over and hang out in my musty basement so, at the end of the night when only some Cubans friends remained, I would go out with my school friends or lay down upstairs and watch TV. In those late hours, after all the American guests had gone home and were surely in bed, more noise came out of our house from the five or six who remained than in the entire day with a house full of guests. There was something unreserved, wild and uncontrollable that went on when the others would leave. Shoes would come off and my dad would get out some exotic cognac and then the stories would start! If I had been out I’d come home late to find my parents still awake cleaning. They were always talking, analyzing, trying to make sense of this social structure that had been created. But it never made sense to them. It was never supposed to get that far.
Then the world began to change again. In the early nineties, something very serious started happening to the Cuban exiles living in the United States, something I believe they knew would happen here, but had refused to truly except: they started to die. Some of the older Cubans, my grandparents’ siblings, my parents’ friends, even my grandfather, died. This may seem very obvious to most, but it was a shock to an exile community expecting to someday return. It was a shock to people like my parents. No Cuban who fled to the United States, or any other country for that matter, expected to die there. No one expected to die in exile period. They thought they’d stay here for a few years, work, save money and eventually go back to their homes, their land, their apartments and their businesses. They thought they’d return to the lost Cuba I had heard about through the basement ceiling, the Havana they laughed about when they told their stories, the country they had loved always no matter how long they were away.
Suddenly, people like my parents started looking at their calendars, their date books and their photographs only to ask, “How long have we been here? I thought I’d be home by now.” Suddenly, forty years had gone by and here they were, married with children grown up, a grandchild or more on the way. They were happy. They had a good life. But they still felt cheated. Cheated that their Italian friends could go home to Italy and their Irish friends could go back to Ireland, but the Cubans had never seen home in forty years, couldn’t see home for fear of reprisal and wouldn’t see home because home was gone. Havana was in ruins and what they had always dreamt of was no longer.
When the Cuban exiles began to die, their dream of the Cuba they had known in their childhood died with them. But something else took its place: the need for justice. My parents were no longer able to keep quiet. Their children were grown up, their careers were winding down, and it had been too long. They wanted to make their voices heard, especially at a time when everywhere they turned, Cuba was becoming “hot.” The Latin culture became the in-thing and with it Cuba turned into a vacation spot, a “Lost Paradise.” No one ever asked the question, “Lost by whom?” My parents had fled a place that lacked fundamental rights for its citizens like freedom of speech and freedom of religion and yet students were making their way to Cuba and religious groups were organizing pilgrimages to travel to Havana. Suddenly, all their reasons for my parents’ leaving, the violations and abuses that had not been addressed or changed in forty years, were being ignored because there was money to be made off of that little island. Cuba became profitable to newspaper companies, clothing manufacturers and resort organizations. Cigar Aficionado was putting ads in the New York Times to drum up tourism to Cuba. My parents and their friends were outraged.
So, the inevitable happened. I came home from college to find my conservative Cuban parents too busy to spend time with me because they were out protesting. They had fliers and banners and press releases. My parents knew whom to call to get permission to have a public demonstration. My mom joined the Coalition of Cuban American Woman and demonstrated outside the Cuban Mission in Manhattan. They held press conferences, they got media exposure and they got a spokesperson. I was shocked that my father who wouldn’t come down for dinner until the television program he had been watching was finished, was out in the cold with my mother chanting “Cuba Libre.”
I myself went to a protest with my mom outside the United Nations to demonstrate against a representative from Cuba attending a conference regarding environmentalism. Cuban Americans wanted to make known that the Cuban government was actively destroying its own environment through salination and other abuses. The morning of, I could not believe that we had to drive the guest of honor, Fidel Castro’s daughter, Alina, to the press conference in our old car. I thought perhaps an unmarked sedan or limo, but our blue 1987 Toyota? As we pulled up my mom told me to be careful because there had been threats on Alina’s life. I gave her the dirtiest look I could muster and opened the back door to let our guest in to the back seat.
Upon arrival, my mother expressed worry because she had called in sick from work and CNN had shown up. She was afraid her manager might see her on TV and know she wasn’t sick. She was more concerned about that than being killed by a hit man out for Castro’s daughter and I sensed that this protest was going to be more like a circus than anything else. I was wrong. While we were inundated and overpowered by the counter-protesters nearby, our group focused on its meaningful chants. When someone could, they would make a statement on television, but I’m not sure if the camera captured the fact that almost everyone was dressed in black. There was seriousness to the affair, a sense of dignity and of duty that lively and boisterous Cuban people often have trouble projecting.
A few years later I again met my parents at a rally. The cause this time was Elian.
Knowing so many imprisoned and persecuted for speaking their minds in Cuba, both then and now, the exiled Cuban community couldn’t stomach the idea of sending the boy back. Even less could they stomach the media spin that Cubans in exile were using Elian as a political puppet. Every parent there that night kept saying, “I’d want it for my child. I’d want a better life for my child.” Who better to testify than those who had left their lives behind for a freer one?
It was a cold night and we had our flashlights as stand-ins for candles that with a strong wind might blow out. With the best intentions, the Cubans had decided on a silent vigil for Elian, but the truth was that the crowd could never be silent. I mean, they were Cuban. With the noise level above the legal standard for that time of night in a residential neighborhood, they were forced to disperse.
I caught my father inviting a family friend for a cup of tea in a nearby Chinese restaurant to warm up while my mom talked to a friend of hers about my nephew, her first and only grandchild. My parents were protesters but when I looked at them just then, I realized that they were grandparents. They were excited for things like cups of tea and chats with friends and that no matter how serious they were about their cause, it was a hard battle to fight at the age of sixty. My mom was a diabetic with high-blood pressure and my father, well, he was just an older Cuban guy and you just didn’t put those kinds of men out in the cold for long periods of time without some type of buffet. This evil thing that they had lived through, escaped and worked around was still there facing them. Whenever the media puts Fidel Castro on the news, whenever he makes a negative comment about the Cubans in exile, my parents are wounded. “Forty years and he is still trying to hurt us. How far do we have to go? How much do we have to suffer?”
Some Cubans have had enough and gone back. Via Spain or the Caribbean, they have obtained means to enter Cuba. Some have even invested in property there for when Castro dies. There is a schism in the exile community. Those that go back are seen as caving in and yet they are acting on the fear that all other Cuban exiles share: they may never see Cuba again. Everyone fears dying. Cubans fear dying before their dream of going home comes true. So some make it happen. Others, like my parents, are holding out.
After the protest, we sat in a nearby Spanish restaurant and watched the onslaught of protesters pour in, my parents looked tired but happy. They had done their part this time around: written letters to the media and Congress and the protest that night. Someone sent over a pitcher of sangria as a gesture. When we toasted to them, the man called out “Para Elian.” The restaurant was the quietest it had ever been. Then the noise built up once again.
On our way home, my mother begged my father to drive uptown to see my nephew. “Please, I just want to spend an hour with that baby! He’s so cute.”
“I’m tired. We’ll go tomorrow. Right now, I just want to go home,” my father said quietly as he drove onto the ramp of the Queensboro Bridge.
I knew he meant Fresh Meadows, but I sometimes listen more closely to comments like that. Home changes in their vocabulary from time to time. After a lifetime away, my parents really can’t go back to what was. After building a lifetime here, it’s hard to see why they’d want to. It is difficult to know that buried beneath their hope to return is the naked truth that, when it’s all said and done and communism falls and Castro is gone, there will be nothing left of what they remember; that the homes, businesses and people of their Cuba are all gone, either dead or removed. The Cuba that was their home, the church where they prayed, the beachfronts where they played, are gone. The people there now don’t remember the Cuba my parents do.
It doesn’t hurt me to know what my parents often mean when they say home. I’ve never seen Cuba and I might never know it like they did, but I know I’m a part of that place because I’m a part of them. I have secret wishes that they go back there and can somehow see beyond the ruins and the poverty to find peace in what’s left. I wouldn’t blame them if they thought about staying. I’d be glad that they finally had the choice.
Cristina T. Lopez