At the height of the Depression my family lived a half mile from the Tropical beer plant. “From our yard you could see the bottles of green, cut in half, piled as high as the eye could see,” she said. I learned about her uncle — her father’s brother — who accused her of stealing five pesos. The rupture was so complete that her parents never spoke to him again. For the fiftieth time l learned about her executive job for the Royal Bank of Canada, where she met my grandfather and she defied stereotypes about submissive Hispanic women; although subtler forms of sexism may exist in my family, every woman was encouraged to work, and every relative appreciated the potency of wage earning.
On Sundays I visit my grandmother for ninety minutes. We watch Paula Dean’s show, both of us marveling at the cheerfulness with which the bauble on her left ring finger gets dunked in damp flour or egg batter. A recipe will remind her of a delicacy her own mother cooked in Cuba. I will hear for the twelfth time about the Chinese man who sold cherry tomatoes for pennies. I will hear about the house she and my grandfather bought for nine thousand dollars. Like a song whose chorus cuts into two-line verses, each memory she punctuates with a variant on the phrase, “How I miss Cuba. We were so happy.” Memories harden into pieties after fifty-two years. It’s useless and not a little cruel to explain the burden of history: how Cuba, from the Jefferson administration until the Spanish-American War, was a prize sought by the United States, a potential slave state, a verdant land with the best natural resources in the Caribbean. If a middle class flourished in the autumn of Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship — it became a dictatorship after a coup d’etat in 1952 to which the intelligentsia responded with a shrug that my grandparents acknowledge was a grievous mistake — it evinced a self-protective streak that would not win support after Fidel Castro’s own golpe de estado.
In a piece for The New York Times Magazine, novelist John Jeremiah Sullivan recounts a trip to visit his wife’s homeland. I’m struck by a comment by one Ernesto Llano:
My entire family used to live in a series of modest homes on one street in the Regla neighborhood of Havana. When each of the many young girls in the family neared her 15th birthday, all of the cousins would get together to learn and practice a choreographed dance for the party. The terms “friends” and “family” were almost indistinguishable, both because your best friend was usually your cousin and because any friend you made outside of the family was quickly added to the family tree. People didn’t dream of leaving Cuba because, why would they?
What startles me, fifty-two years after my maternal and paternal grandparents boarded a Miami-bound flight, is the degree to which the tradition persists — the degree to which tradition persists. Sullivan doesn’t address a couple of the other realities about which brave young blogger Yoani Sanchez has written in the last several years and with which I’m familiar from teaching the children of the Cubans who didn’t leave in 1961, 1980, or 1994, the ones who are my neighbors: the prostitution, the impressive educational system which prepares them for success in the States but in their home condemns them to read, in the words of the late Christopher Hitchens, state-sponsored agitprop that isn’t worth reading and actually numbs the spirit of rebellion; any American leftism worth its pedigree must see past its own recidivism and acknowledge these facts. Leftism that ignores the average Cuban’s spiritual death must reckon with its attraction to a necrophiliac romanticism as gross as the American right’s fascination with plutocracy.
But this essay of mine will neither recount the ancient hurts nor redress the waning influence of the Cuban hardline which has wielded so much power over foreign relations for half a century — an influence that mystifies Beltway elites and calcifies stereotypes. As Sullivan’s narrative makes clear, as my grandmother’s biography demonstrates in a wealth of detail buttressed by regret and pain, the gnarled ties between Cuba and the Unites States — the most fraught relationship with a foreign power in its two hundred-year history — there are no answers that don’t come in sighs or the anguished, embarrassed staring of feet. And no stories in which prayers are expected to be answered.