Well before dawn on Sunday, the fifteenth of April 1961, the day we left Cuba—a dreaded day, an ashen day without a single blush of blue in the skies over Havana—my mother ensconced herself in a back room of our apartment, arranging a series of clear glasses of water under a small effigy of Saint Jude, the patron saint of impossible causes.
“This will help purify us,” she said carrying in the tumblers, filled not with tap water but with the sanitized kind that came in huge blue bottles.
If my mother’s Saint Jude looked a little shiny compared with the other saints on her altar, that’s because he was fairly new to her pantheon. My mother’s prayers usually went to the Virgin of Charity, Cuba’s patron, to whom she’d entrusted my mortal soul if I survived those delicate first hours of transfusions and gunfire.
Even as she lit a white candle to Saint Jude to help us on our journey, which seemed impossible enough, her preferred icon was carefully wrapped in newspapers, plastic sheets, and a double-folded yellow cotton blanket. It was then tucked into a box to which my father had fashioned a handle from thin rope and the inside of a toilet paper roll. Regardless of Saint Jude’s divine jurisdictions and whatever seemingly untenable situations we might encounter, it was the Virgin who was traveling with us, the Virgin who would be settled at the pinnacle of whatever new altar my mother constructed wherever we might wind up.
I’ve always thought of the Virgin of Charity as the perfect mentor for Cuba: Cradling her child in her arms, she floats above a turbulent sea in which a boat with three men is being tossed about. One of the men is black and he is in the center of the boat, kneeling in prayer while the other two, who are white, row furiously and helplessly. (It’s unspoken but understood that it’s the entreaties of the black man, not the labor of the white rowers, that provides their deliverance.)
I’ve always found it poignant, if not tragic, that Cuba, whose people are constantly seeking escape and entrusting their fortunes to the sea in the most rickety of vessels, should have early on foreseen this fate and projected it onto its sacred benefactor. When her feast day rolls around each eighth of September, devotees like my mother dress in bumblebee yellow and wink knowingly at each other in church. Also known as Ochún, this particularly Cuban madonna is the Yoruba goddess of love, patron saint of sweet water. She’s a beauty, the pearl of paradise, a flirtatious but faithful lover to Changó, the capricious god of thunder.
It’s these very elements, I think, that make my mother’s choice of this vision of Mary—la Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre—as my patron a perfect guardian: I am a child not just of revolution but also of exile, both of which have so much to do with love and faith.
Even then, on that gloomy gray dawn in 1961, as my father waited for my mother and paced on the third-floor balcony of our home, there were Cubans leaving the island on anything that would float and looking to the skies for signs of salvation. The Cuban Revolution was two years old then, and already defying expectations.
What fueled those who were leaving was less fear of communism, which Fidel had only hinted at at that point, or shortages of any kind, because the U.S. embargo was still a distant concern, but the persistent rumors of invasions and imminent combat that were sweeping Havana. From the countryside came reports that cane fields were being torched, the flames like red waves. What were thought to be American planes constantly buzzed the city. Weeks before, El Encanto—Havana’s most exquisite department store and perhaps its most conspicuous link to the United States—had burned to the ground. Its destruction had traumatized the city no less than the break of diplomatic relations between Cuba and Washington, D.C., back in January. Not an hour went by without the breathless dispatch: “The yanquis are coming, the yanquis are coming.”
Perhaps no one would admit it now, generations later, but until that spring, when Fidel’s police began to sweep out its enemies, real and perceived, and to make chants of “¡Paredón! ¡Paredón!” a part of every Cuban nightmare, few people aside from Fulgencio Batista’s operatives had left Cuba because of political persecution or economic opportunity. Though sugar prices were flat, no one believed they’d stay that way. What was actually propelling people off the island was a sense that things were beginning to look more and more like another one of those bloody skirmishes the United States periodically undertook in Latin America.
We knew, through my mother’s cousin José Carlos, who’d call us surreptitiously from Guatemala City, where he was engaged in a training mission with American military and CIA advisers, that there were Cuban exiles amassing in Nicaragua, waiting to assault the island. José Carlos’s voice was always anxious, almost giddy, on the scratchy line from Central America—surely, had anyone known about the calls, they would have been sufficient grounds to kick him off the invading refugee-composed Brigade 2506.
“Peru is very beautiful, yes, and we’ve met Indians from all the tribes,” he’d say in his own convoluted code in case the lines were tapped, meaning that there were Cubans from all over involved. “Some are a little savage,” he’d add, and my parents would imagine that the men were simply more rugged than José Carlos, a gentle soul who’d been a second-grade teacher in Sagua La Grande before the revolution.
It was only later that they learned that José Carlos, who’d worked arduously for Fidel in the early days of the revolution, was finding among the ranks of the 2506 men who’d served in Batista’s secret police, murderers and torturers who had personally abused him during his short stint in jail just before Fidel triumphed.
“They have no shame about what they may have done in the past,” he wrote in a letter to his wife, Eliana, which she received much later, when a friend who’d also been in the 2506 tracked her down and delivered it for José Carlos, who died without firing a shot, drowned in the warm coastal waters just off Cuba. “Orejón Ramos, the man who slashed my throat in jail, just laughed when he saw me. ‘You? Here? But weren’t you one of Fidel’s best friends?’ he taunted. He pointed me out to everybody: ‘See this guy here, this skinny hero of the 2506? If it weren’t for him and his friends, none of us would be risking our lives here today!’ ”
It was because of José Carlos’s letters and calls just before the invasion of Playa Girón that my parents came to the conclusion that we had to leave Cuba, at least for a while.
The first thing my mother did was sign me up for a foster child program sponsored by the Catholic Church, which would have placed me with an American family in, say, Iowa or Indiana. In her thinking, at least one of us—me, the baby, the important one, the hope for the future—would be passed over, spared whatever was going to happen in Cuba and sent off with the hope of finding a modern pharaoh’s daughter.
It never occurred to my mother that I’d disappear, become an American, perhaps not too outwardly, but in those small imperceptible ways in which people don’t even realize that they’ve made irreversible changes. She never considered that, away from them, I might learn to slouch, that I could feel cocky enough to hurry people along when they tried to tell me a story, or that, in the golden fields of Iowa or Indiana, I might pick up a fear of the dark, a revulsion for the predicaments of faith.
That something happened anyway; that I eventually lost some of my equilibrium, even with the two of them present, didn’t matter. In the end, my mother didn’t have to think about those possibilities—not about the wheat and corn of the American Midwest (with which we would become familiar later, but by our own choice), or about whether they’d lose me for a month or a lifetime.
Certainly my father didn’t want us—and especially me—to be anything but Cuban. “It’s better for you to be Cuban,” he’d say, as if I had a choice then, as if I understood any of it enough to have any input in the matter.
To my father the island was as much the caiman-shaped rock that’s Cuba, with its breathless beaches and poverty, as wherever the three of us might be living. He could manage with an imagined isle, but not without the substance of us. We—my mother and I, the weight of us—were the necessary elements to anchor my father in the physical world. As soon as he heard about my mother’s plan to send me off to the United States without them, he immediately and without discussion canceled my trip.
“We will not be separated,” he said gravely, “never. The act of separation itself is what’s evil.” And he tore the application forms in half very carefully in front of an unnerved priest, who told him in no uncertain terms what a selfish man he was to deny me safe passage to a good Catholic home in the United States.
“This program is run by the church—what could be safer, Señor San José?” the priest implored.
My father just smiled. “Yes, yes,” he said, his hands trembling, “I’m very familiar with your programs. And, no, thank you.”
As my parents explored their options, there was never any question about where we would go. (By the mid-1960s, Cubans would be welcomed with open arms in the United States, enrolled in special welfare programs, eventually even given unique financial aid packages to help us get through college.) We were prized, frisky, and smart, and, perhaps most important, we would surely return to our sunny island once the United States had toppled Fidel. This is what had always happened: Nobody who displeased Uncle Sam stayed in power very long. A few months, maybe a year or two, and then the dictator himself would be in exile somewhere—usually Miami—and we’d be back to our normal lives, our real lives, the lives we were destined for in Cuba.
After the foster parent program fiasco, my mother signed us up—all three of us—to leave Cuba through one of the regular flights to the United States. She took me to a local photographer, who snapped me all giggly for my passport photo, and had us all vaccinated, fingerprinted, and examined by the government authorities who would decide whether we could get a visa. All the while, she saved her pesos—which had had, until just a few months before, an even exchange with the U.S. dollar—for three round-trip tickets on Pan American Airlines: Havana-Miami, Miami-Havana.
At my mother’s insistence, both she and my father began to learn English during this time, practicing by reading to each other every night and inadvertently starting my father off on his life’s work. For textbooks, they used an old English-language Bible, the revised standard version with the more contemporary approach, and compared its verses to the old Bilbao Spanish-language Bible my mother had inherited from her father. My mother would read entire English sentences in a rush, barely flirting with each word, waiting for their purpose to emerge through banter and play.
“For everything there is a season,” she would say, but it was all as cryptic to her as the original Hebrew and Aramaic. All her life, my mother would decipher messages as much from facial expression and posture, tone and attitude, as from any etymological knowledge.
My father, who would go on to become one of the most sought-after literary translators in the United States, would read aloud slowly, savoring each word on his tongue as if it were an essential oil, a delicate spice, or water for the garden.
“. . . and a time for every matter under heaven,” he would breathe, each consonant crisp, each vowel like a musical note through his peony lips.
He’d write down the English words believing each letter contained the formula for happiness and, after he and my mother were through reading for the night, look them up in his gold-leaf Oxford English/Spanish dictionary. After he found the Spanish translations, he’d cross-reference them back into English, discovering synonyms, searching for the new words in prayers of deliverance to see how they stood in context, if he could tell by the company they kept if these were helpful words, if they were friend or foe. He was fascinated by the pursuit of meaning, by corralling significance in a word or phrase from the vast array the universe offered.
As time went by and I began to share some of his curiosities, he would tell me about his frustrations with heaven, how he searched in vain for a Spanish equivalent. “The dictionary said cielo, but that’s sky,” he explained. “I looked up paradise—paraíso—I looked up nirvana, Valhalla, Eden. But still the closest thing was cielo, as if, in Spanish, the enigma of the sky could never be penetrated, as if the stars were just the stars, the moon just the moon.”
Over the years he would compile a catalog of words that refused to convert from one language to the other. Heaven was at the top of his list of stubborn English; in Spanish, it was escampar, which is what happens when it stops raining.
For my father, these were fascinating dialectic conundrums: What was the purpose of any one word? What came first: the concept or the sound? How do words mean?
But for me there was something much more crucial at stake: If it is true that speech reflects the realities of life, that it is, for example, precisely the everyday abundance and diversity of snow that feeds the dozens of Eskimoan terms, or the handful of Taíno words for tobacco, what does it say about us—Cubans, Hispanics—that we can’t even imagine heaven enough to name it?
Most of the time I like to think that our inability to express heaven is simply a measure of our respect for a higher power; that, like certain Orthodox Jews who insist on never pronouncing or writing the word for god, we have a deeper understanding, a profound humility about our role in the cosmos. I hold fast to this notion, always praying that it is not just a fatal lack of imagination.
The rest of the time I remember escampar, with its promise that the rain will cease, and that the skies will once more be clear and full of heavenly light.
From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Days of Awe
by Achy Obejas
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