From Issue Three of the Gear Patrol Magazine.
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I am a born-and-raised-in-Miami Cuban-American, not quite first generation (my mom was born aqui), not quite second generation (my dad was born allá), never quite certain what to make of any of it. My childhood conception of the patria was built on impassioned grandparental anecdotes (with occasional photos), blowout Nochebuena parties (now legend among my sisters and cousins), seemingly constant local news coverage of the Coast Guard escorting bedraggled balseros from the shore (which, harrowing journeys notwithstanding, came to feel like watching a fireman save a cat from a tree), national news coverage of Elián González (remember him?), and Cuban exemplars that my superego still collects like baseball cards: Desi and Celia were the starter deck, and today I count Oscar Isaac on account of his dad.
Beneath all the fun stuff, there’s the inherited trauma. There are a million lectures from my mother about sacrifice. There’s the gulf between me and my father, sometimes narrow, sometimes 330 miles wide. There’s the silence that followed a loud and lengthy back-and-forth among all my grandparents, rooted in some decades-old drama, over breakfast one Christmas morning, my abuela‘s gaze resting just beyond the cold croquetas, her mind somewhere else entirely, somewhere I’ve never known.
Marc Maron has a joke about his relationship with Israel: “There’s this drumbeat, beneath all American Judaism: You will go to Israel. And you will LOVE Israel. Israel was BUILT for us. You will go there, and love it, and send it money, and let it do whatever it wants to whomever it wants to, even if it’s WRONG.” For me and many other Cuban-Americans, the drumbeat feels reversed: You will NEVER go to Cuba, you will HATE it, you will denounce everything it does — but you will send money if you have cousins over there.
I find myself envious whenever I hear any of my Dominican or Puerto Rican friends refer to their respective patrias: “DR” and “PR.” They have their own baggage, of course, but I’m sure the hip acronyms help a little. I wish there were such an acronym for Cuba. Its name is as monolithic as its many martyrs, from Che to Martí to Hatuey. It looms like a mosaic formed from a million fragments of memories. So, to me, when CNN reported that, “For the first time since severing ties in 1961, [the United States and Cuba] reopened embassies in each other’s capitals,” the news might as well have read, “Atlantis has risen from the briny deep.”
Beneath all the fun stuff, there’s the inherited trauma. There are a million lectures from my mother about sacrifice. There’s the gulf between me and my father, sometimes narrow, sometimes 330 miles wide.
Among Cuban-Americans, opinions over this one island have been split for decades. The reasons transcend politics, though politics receive much of the attention. Often forgotten are the many families that were pulled apart during, and after, the Revolution.
Take my own family. On my mom’s side, my grandfather, the son of wealthy Spaniards, and my grandmother, born to poor Canarians, fled to Miami a few years after their wedding and a few years before the Revolution, intending to work and raise money to sponsor their families’ journeys stateside. Both their fathers died of health complications shortly after the Revolution; neither was able to return to the island for the funerals. They still have cousins there, whom they haven’t seen since. So does my father, whose father fought for the revolutionaries, only to head stateside with the wife and kids in tow after nearly a decade of making ends meet through under-the-table dealings with his comrades.
Separation is still a shared experience among many migrating Cuban families. At best, it plays out as prolonged, but temporary, separation anxiety. At worst, there’s tragedy. Earlier this year, Alejandro Barrios Martinez was counted among the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting. He had come to the States two years prior, after failing to complete his mandatory period of military service in Cuba because of his health. His friends and family back home learned what happened days later, through Facebook.
I’ve found that people outside of this experience, more often than not, have a jarringly simplistic view of the whole thing. And of us. I have heard that Cubans are “the whitest Latins,” and I have heard that they are “Mexicans in boats.” I have heard that exiles are “whiners,” and I have heard that they are tantamount to Holocaust survivors.
Assumptions about the Revolution itself are more varied, but no less simplistic. Those who accept the narrative from the loudest and oldest sect of the Cuban expatriate community have a vague notion of Havana as a glittering paradise, flattened by the trundling wheels of communism. Recently, an American rum manufacturer sent me a “Cuban-Inspired” bottle with a label that read: “This Cuban-inspired rum is an homage to the pre-communist period of Cuba when the entrepreneurial spirit of independent rum producers was celebrated as opposed to stifled and censored.”
The first president of the Cuban Republic was accused of securing his second term through fraud. An American proxy president, Charles Edward Magoon, followed him, the grand marshal of a parade of puppets whose strings eventually made their way into the hands of Fulgencio Batista, whose reign as a dictator culminated in the secret police hanging dissidents from lamp posts. The States controlled a great deal of sugar and farmland; the Mafia controlled a great deal of Havana; common Cubans controlled nothing. Long live the entrepreneurial spirit.
The figurative wall between America and Cuba has — for millions on either side, and over the course of 40 years — served as a blank canvas, perfect for projecting one’s own worldview.
On the other side are those who romanticize the Revolution. My second cousin, who emigrated at the age of seven, told me about a time he met an American NYU professor in her apartment in the ‘80s. She spoke of the brave young communists in poetic liberal histrionics, espousing the triumph of commoners over imperial heirs.
The professor’s apartment was an opulent townhouse on Fifth Avenue. She had never set foot in a Cuban forced labor camp, nor had she witnessed an execution by firing squad. One would hope, for her sake, that had she known about those things, she wouldn’t have spoken so glowingly of their perpetrators in front of someone who, as a child living on neither side of the conflict, was torn from his home because of it.
It’s easier to imagine what’s on the other side of a wall than it is to really see. The figurative wall between America and Cuba has — for millions on either side, and over the course of 40 years — served as a blank canvas, perfect for projecting one’s own worldview. But as the wall comes down, so too must the projections.
I am one of millions of stories. So is everyone in my family. Time after time, I’ve asked to hear their stories to try and understand it all. So for you, the reader, I’ve gathered four stories, each from a different Cuban-American. Each of them left under different circumstances, in pursuit of different opportunities. All share values of sacrifice, hardship and hustle. Let their memories, musings and opinions serve as the clearest possible roadmap for what you view as uncharted territory.
Fabio Marzoar: 26, Havana
Manhattan Associates Supply Chain Consultant for Ralph Lauren
I came in September 2013; I turned eighteen when I moved to Miami. I would say that most of my life, while I was in Havana, I was privileged. I grew up in the ‘90s, when the Soviet Union fell and the Special Period started. Every day the struggle of my parents was, “What are we gonna eat today?”
When I was thirteen or fourteen, they got better jobs, and started doing what they call, in Cuba, inventando, which every family has to do to survive. My dad worked at the transportation department; he was in charge of buying bus parts from Germany, China, Canada and so on. One of the vendors would give him commission; that’s illegal. He said, “If you buy from me, I’ll give you two thousand dollars.” That’s a lot of money. You can imagine, at that point my life started to change.
Everybody gets paid the same, but people who get good grades get to work with tourists. And tips are not illegal. If you make ten dollars a month, and a tourist gives you three dollars — that’s something, you know?
Inequality is always gonna be there, in Cuba. You have my case, and then you have people from the upper class. I dated Che Guevara’s granddaughter and saw her house; she had DirecTV, a swimming pool, centralized air conditioning. We have national markets and special markets where, if you have family in the States who send you money, you can buy a five-hundred-dollar TV that, in the States, was probably two hundred dollars.
My father’s father fought with Che Guevara. My grandparents knew what my dad was doing and stayed quiet about it. They knew that whatever they had believed their entire lives wasn’t real. Did they get rewarded for dedicating their whole lives to the Revolution? They didn’t. After sixty years, people my age are doing everything they can to get out. People are saying all the time, “We’re done.” A lady the other day was publicly complaining about scheduled power outages; she put signs up in her neighborhood, abajo con Fidel.
It’s going to take a while before there’s actually change in Cuba, and people going will definitely help. The last time I went, there were amazing, privately owned rooftop bars in Havana. That’s going to help the economy; that’s gonna be an improvement for the people, for their quality of life. And I’m excited about it.
Nilo Cruz: 55, Matanzas
Playwright, Pulitzer Prize Winner for Drama
My father was imprisoned for leaving the country illegally when I was two years old, and released when I was four. My family was sort of tainted by this experience. I remember the head of the neighborhood committee coming to our house; I remember the threats. That sort of fear has an effect on a child.
I remember a different kind of fear in the United States. During the time that we came to Miami, there were some riots dealing with race, so my family was very protective of me. There was a certain kind of liberty that I had in Cuba, besides the military presence, being surrounded by family and childhood friends. My parents wanted to protect me, and as a result I lived a sheltered life. Which made me discover books. I was able to encounter solitude, which is something that’s needed in a writer. I look at it in a positive light.
Among exiles, there was always the hope of going back eventually; that Communism would collapse, and we’d go back to our country. I wanted to be American.
I work with a lot of actors that have recently come from Cuba. They don’t feel hopeful, they don’t think things will change. I think things will change, eventually, probably slowly. Some of them, like my parents’ generation, see the world as just the United States and Cuba. If I could, I would tell the people of Cuba that we’re more than the place where we’re born.
Americans should go. I think it’s important to see how people live under different regimes. But not because of this mystery, of what was forbidden at one point. That’s not interesting to me at all.
I’d like to go back and walk the same streets I walked as a child, sure. I’ve been invited to go; my play was presented in Havana a couple years back, and I was asked to be part of the festival. I didn’t want to, under the circumstances; it would stir up a lot of memories. I would possibly remember my father, who’s no longer alive. If I go back to Cuba, I would like for it to be a personal trip, before I go there as an artist. It’s almost like a wound; one does a lot of work to heal it, but somehow, it’s always — it’s so much like a scar that reopens.
Oscar Montero: 66, Cienfuegos
Professor (Also: Independent Researcher, Translator, Writer)
I was twelve when the Revolution happened. Things changed very quickly; a lot of people supported the Revolution, including my family. My father owned a bodega, very modest property. As his store was in the process of being taken over, we got ready to leave. My mother, who had been educated in North Carolina, had a college friend who could claim us.
I was excited to come — but really I was more excited to get on a plane. I had no inkling of what we were doing. Later, I realized, “Oh, my family’s gone. My father’s not even here. I’m never going to see these people again.”
I returned in ’81, ’89, ’93, ’99 and ’04, for research and family reasons. The economy has been in a nosedive at various points. I always tried to be pragmatic about the Revolution. Here, you were either for it and a communist, academic pinko; or, you were against it, and you think it’s a dictatorship and so on. Once you’re in Cuba, you realize not everything is black and white.
Looking at what was going on in the fifties, you see the Revolution coming; you understand one hundred percent how it happened, and why. Now, it’s extremely ironic to see the Revolution selling a culture of dance, folk traditions — clichés, in my opinion, about Cuba, the tropics, what great dancers we are — the very things that the Revolution officially marginalized during Sovietization. Nightclubs with women in scanty clothing? Decadent. Art that doesn’t connect to the people? Out. Music? Some was tolerated, once they could integrate it into their narrative — but jazz? Foreign, decadent. And censorship of writers is well documented.
In 2014, they decided, “Oh, we can sell this to the tourists; let’s do it again.” It looks superficial and contrived — these people dancing in the street; it’s staged. Other countries do it, too — but Cuba had this moral high tone. “Oh, we’re not like that.”
By all means, go to the Tropicana. It’s a lot of fun. But be aware of what was going on in clubs of that stature. The Montmarte, for example, was closed during the Batista years, because someone gunned down the head of the secret police in the lobby; a government bigwig was wounded, along with someone’s wife. That’s the background of those clubs. Just have some perspective.
Dario Suarez: 24, Havana
Midfielder, Fortuna SC
I’ve been in the States for about a year and two months. I explained to my father that I wanted to play as a professional; my dream is to return and defend the Cuban team colors. So I left during the Gold Cup in the U.S., to play on a bigger level than before, and to return.
Two to three players are hand selected to leave Cuba with professional contracts. It’s practically impossible to be selected, so I decided to build my future myself instead of waiting for someone else to do it for me.
Before playing Charlotte during the Gold Cup, they took our team to Walmart to buy things to take home to our families, and I decided it was time to leave. I walked away from the group and changed my shirt and exited the store, and one of the security officers from the team asked me what I was doing. I told him, “I’m looking for a pair of shoes.” He started walking toward me, so I ran. I kept running to a library, where I called a friend who picked me up in a car. Then a friend from Miami picked me up and drove me there.
I ran like five miles. You can find videos of another player that defected; it looks like an action movie.
Defectors have to wait five years before they can return to Cuba; all my family is in Cuba, which makes it very difficult, and makes you think twice about defecting. That’s why many people don’t do it. Many of them retire from playing; they have families to support.
I am not very materialistic. I know people in Cuba who are living through some problems, but I only came to the U.S. to play at my maximum level. My dream is also that the rules will change to allow me to come back and play for the national team at my maximum level; that is the dream of all the Cuban players here in the U.S.
It’s good that Cuba and the U.S. have come together; we all think so. Americans coming to Cuba will find very social, very good-hearted people. It’s a beautiful country with beautiful beaches, places like Old Havana, Sancti Spiritus. But definitely the best thing is the Cuban people — they are open-hearted people.