(Here’s part one: And then there were 10,000)
On May 1, 1980, Cuba’s traditional Labor Day, the government organized a huge rally in Havana. Hundreds of thousands of people, close to a million, showed up — to, in six words or less, show their support for the Revolution. How many came of their free will is hard to say because most were put on buses and trucks and shipped to Revolution Plaza much as my schoolmates and I had been put on trucks and sent around town singing slogans. Still, an awful lot of people turned up in central Havana that day.
Late in the afternoon, Fidel Castro took to the podium, a still-young, handsome man with a Roman (or perhaps Greek) nose, beard, fatigues, and the devil’s tongue. It was hard not to be in love with him as a young kid in Cuba — he was the Revolution; he was us; he was Cuba, or so we were constantly told. And even I, Miami athletic shoes and all, couldn’t keep my eyes off him. He was the father I never had, the coolest grownup in the country, the only person in Cuba who was free to do and say as he pleased, with the authority and presence and sex appeal that went with that.
My fantasy, after years of enduring taunts of “worm,” “priest” (though I explained repeatedly that Baptists had pastors, not priests), and “anti-revolutionary scum,” was that one day soon Fidel would come to town and sit me on a podium next to him and proclaim to all that I was, after all, a faithful revolutionary, a true friend, a deep agent only pretending to be anti-revolutionary scum in order to infiltrate the anti-revolutionary scum. And all glory would be mine, and all praise would be mine, and everyone would feel horrible for calling me names while all the time I had been one of them, fighting for a better Cuba.
(What standing that would leave me in with my infiltrated anti-revolutionary comrades did not enter into my fantasy. I was so used to being seen as a “traitor” that which side thought me so made no difference.)
On that May 1, Castro gave a rather incendiary speech. He hurled insults at all traitors to the revolution (me, waiting for my ship out) and called on true Cubans (not me) to rise up against the anti-social elements who did not have the requisite and true revolutionary ardor in them (me). And even knowing my father was in Mariel about to whisk us to Miami, the cesspool and epitome of all that was untrue and lacking revolutionary ardor, I sat glued in front of the t.v. listening to Castro while my grandfather tried to suppress snorts and clicks of the tongue at almost every sentence Fidel uttered, unsuccessfully. Needless to say, my grandfather didn’t like me watching Castro speeches, and he tried to balance things by having me listen to WQBA in Miami as often as he could. Truth be told, at thirteen my attention span couldn’t handle a full Castro speech, so after fifteen or twenty minutes I went off to play in the back yard.
(You can see a few seconds of that speech in the opening of the film Scarface. Curiously, the Cuban sensors have since excised that particular bit of Castroian vitriol out of the official speech transcript. Who knows why?)
By this point, my mother’s nerves were under serious stress. After the phone call with my father, she’d heard nothing else and was, in effect, in social limbo: she was no longer going to work and no longer earning a living, and yet she had heard nothing about her chances of leaving the country. She began talking about going to Havana (with my sister and me in tow, of course) to see how things would play out. Her friends at church discouraged her. Her residence was known to the government, their argument went, and if they wanted to find her, they’d come to Caibarien, not Havana. But what if something had gone wrong, went her argument, what if she stood by waiting while everyone left and the Mariel boatlift ended (as it surely would) leaving her stranded again for maybe another eight years of waiting for a way out
One morning, WQBA reported that Cuba was no longer allowing anyone into Mariel, an ugly, industrial non-town about 30 miles west of Havana. If you had been called up and were waiting to leave, you’d be let out. But if you hadn’t made it to Mariel by now, you could no longer leave Cuba.
My mother freaked. After a morning of extreme anxiety, she decided to go to the police station and ask whether people were still being taken to Mariel. She did not take my sister and me along. I now realize she was braving the egg-throwing mob outside the station by herself. I also know she knew that if she had taken us, the chances of the mob leaving her alone would have increased enormously. But she didn’t want to take the chance to put us at risk, so she went alone.
She stood in line for about an hour, watching people who were leaving the station run the gauntlet of thrown eggs and chanted insults. One or two men, my mother saw, were hit by rocks, not eggs, and had to run to avoid being beaten. When it was my mother’s turn, she asked to see a particular officer who handled immigration and was familiar with my mother’s status.
“I’ve heard,” she told him once they were in his office, “that no more people are being allowed into Mariel.”
“Where did you hear that?”
“From people at church.”
“That is not so,” the officer said, after a long, incredulous pause. “We’re the ones who decide when the boatlift ends, and it’s not ending any time soon.”
“Should I go to Havana?”
“No,” the officer said. “Stay at home. We’ll come get you.” And then, almost as an aside as my mother turned to leave his office, “It won’t be more than a couple of weeks now.”
The officer, my mother said, did not look at her as he said this. She looked back at him to thank him, but he was looking away, the conversation over. My mother got the impression he had opened up for a second and then shut down again, like some sort of trapdoor.
She left the police station looking down, not making eye contact with anyone. After a few steps, people were calling her “worm” and “scum” but nobody was throwing eggs. My mother walked on, a little faster, and still all she got was insults. After about half a block of expecting eggs to start landing on her, she reached the central plaza and was out of reach of the mob.
My mother and her friends talked about this deliverance, ascribing it to God’s intervention. Women were egged and worse, so the fact that my mother was a woman was not what had gotten her off so lightly. What then? My mother was well known in town as being married to a political prisoner who had left the country; she was well known as a church-goer, another black mark; she was well known as just biding her time to leave Cuba, the worse of all offenses at that time. And yet no eggs were thrown.
We did not know this yet, but no mob would show up at our house to stage an “act of repudiation.” My mother and my grandfather expected it at any minute, and they talked about it in front of me, so I certainly expected it. They decided we’d just lock and barricade the door with furniture and head for the back yard and wait it out.
And yet days went by and nothing happened. In hindsight, I am sure the mobs were not as spontaneous and as out of control as the government made them out to be. I believe there were government officials who had authority at the scene and who essentially acted as mob commanders. They could pick out who would be fully attacked, who would be simply egged, and who would be let go. And as my mother walked out of the police station, after eight years of almost monthly visits to check on visas and exit permits and notarized affidavit statuses, she was well known to someone on the scene who made the decision to let her pass unharmed.
My mother was known as a “serious” woman in town. After my father left, she basically went to work, went to church, and took care of my sister and me. She did not smoke. She did not drink. She did not go to parties. She had nothing to do with men. She was, essentially, the model patriarchal wife waiting faithfully to join her husband abroad. In our small town of under 30,000 people with the same mores one would have found in a small U.S. town in the 1930‘s, her behavior mattered enormously, and it might have been all it took to tilt the sympathies of the local officials in her favor. But honestly, who knows why?
In the meantime, my uncle Elizardo had been informed that his wife (my mother’s sister, Olga) and his son (my first cousin Edgar) could leave with him but that my mother’s parents could not, even though they all lived in the same household. The news induced yet another panic attack for my mother who had believed her parents would be allowed to leave too.
This time instead of tempting fate and visiting the police station, she waited one block away until she saw the police officer she’d dealt with before regarding immigration (the same officer of the prior interview) and called out to him. He recognized her and stopped to talk. My mother explained the situation.
“What you do,” the officer said, “is have the old people” (my mother remembers he used that exact phrase, “the old people”) “sign a letter saying they are members of the household, that they want to leave for the U.S., and mention that they have engaged in anti-social activities. Notarize the letter and give it to me. I’ll take care of the rest.”
My mother’s father had been a rural guard under Batista (a mounted police that patrolled the countryside) and had been arrested in the early days of the revolution but then released with no charges. My mother’s mother sold sweets and roasted peanuts on the black market — that phrase sounds overblown, but any sale of food by a private citizen was illegal, and thus part of the black market. Even though my grandmother’s customers were mostly the students of a nearby middle school, she had committed a crime.
The letter duly written, signed, and notarized, my mother went back and stood a block away from the police station to deliver it. She had to go two days in a row, but finally spotted the officer in question and handed the letter over. Then it was back to waiting.
On Friday, May 16, 1980, my uncle got word from several friends that the police were serving exit papers on political prisoners in town, and that his turn would come either that night or on Saturday. Before heading home that day, he dropped by our house with the news. That night must have been hard for my mother because no one knew whether her parents were included in my uncle’s exit permit. Next morning, she, my sister, and I took the bus for the twenty minute ride past the small zoo, the cemetery, and a huge tannery to El Crucero, just outside town, where my maternal grandparents lived with my uncle, aunt, and first cousin. That was the second to last time I’d ride out of town on that road. I didn’t know that then, of course.
When we got to El Crucero, the police were already there. My grandparents had been included in the exit permit after all, and as no member of the household would remain behind, the house was being inventoried and sealed for the government to do with it as it pleased. The inventory was already under way when we got there: perishables were allowed out of the house, but furniture and other household items, including jewelery, clothing, and shoes, had to be left behind. Each person was allotted three changes of clothing and a pair of shoes. Even for five people, this didn’t fill up one suitcase all the way, so my aunt, uncle, and cousin put their items in a small brown paper bag and my grandparents put theirs in another. Most of the food in the house was put in two cardboard boxes to be taken to my grandfather in town. Some of the food was handed out to neighbors who were dropping by to say their goodbyes, and who perhaps expected more.
At about 3 pm, the police finished the inventory. They informed my uncle he’d have to be out of the house shortly and report to Santa Clara the next day to be taken to Mariel; no transportation would be provided. When the police left, my sister, cousin, and I went outside on the front porch, which in Cuba meant an open space outside the front door but still covered by the roof. [See this photo to get an idea of what I’m talking about: http://tinyurl.com/3lpjq67 ].
Our porch had a low wooden fence badly in need of paint, much like every other fence in the neighborhood, flush to the sidewalk and enclosing the front of our house, and we often played there as it was in the shade and had a nice breeze. My sister was 8 years old. My cousin was 6. I think we were throwing a baseball around.
And then three huge trucks full of people chanting and banging on the sides with sticks drove down the street and parked right in front of us. We just stood there, watching them innocently. “Worms, scum,” the people on the trucks were chanting, “Scum, worms.” I’d heard this chant so many times in the last few weeks it didn’t seem personal. They kept rhythm by beating baseball bats and pieces of lumber against the trucks.
The driver of the second truck got out and came to the driver of the first truck. I remember both were slightly overweight and were wearing off-white wife-beaters made of some rough cloth. They spoke for a few seconds, and then the driver of the second truck headed back.
“There are children here,” he said outloud, and someone on the back of his truck shouted to the people in the third truck, “There are children here.”
“Ok, let’s go!” the driver of the first truck shouted, and off they went, chanting and banging away. It all happened so fast that by the time my mother came out to get us inside the house, the trucks were already leaving.
The head of the block’s Committee for the Defense of the Revolution came by shortly thereafter to request the keys to the house and to put a piece of white tape on the front door. My grandfather handed the keys over, and we all walked to the bus stop hauling our two brown bags and two boxes of food. And into a bus we hefted all that was left of my grandparent’s six decades in Cuba. As the bus passed the tannery, the cemetery, and the zoo on the way into Caibarien, I had no way of knowing that’d be the last time I’d ride that road into town.
That evening, my uncle went to his parents’s house in Cambao, about ten miles east of town, to say goodbye, and spent the night there. Everybody else stayed at my paternal grandparents’s house. Sometime that evening my maternal grandmother decided she was not leaving my mother behind. My mother said she was sure she’d be getting the notice to report to Santa Clara shortly. My grandmother said that my mother had been told many times before she’d be leaving soon and nothing had come of it. My mother said if my grandmother stayed behind, and then she (my mother) got her exit permit, my grandmother would be stuck in Cuba with no way to leave. Also, my mother pointed out, my grandmother had lost her house, and where would she live? My grandmother was unmoved: she wasn’t leaving without my mother.
First thing on Sunday, my mother put caution aside and headed to the police station to find out about the status of her exit permit. As she got near the central plaza, she saw the officer to whom she’d delivered the letter a few days earlier. Without even waiting for her to speak, he told her to go back home.
“I got your papers,” he said, “You’re leaving today.”
And so my mother went back home, and a few minutes later the police arrived with her exit permit and told her to be at Santa Clara, the province capital, to be shipped out to Mariel by 5:00 in the afternoon. My mother ran off to tell a few friends we were leaving, and one of them knew of an elderly couple who had rented a car to take them to Santa Clara; they had room for us if we wanted to ride along.
And so my mother rushed back home and packed our three changes of clothing and got us ready to go. By this time the house was full of people who had come to say goodbye, mostly church members. The daughter of my mother’s best friend wanted my bicycle, and I said she could have it. Another church member wanted my Bible, and I said he could have it. Then the car was honking outside, waiting for us, and we got in the car, my mother, my sister, and I, and my paternal grandfather came out and said, “Don’t I get a hug?” and my sister and I left the car and hugged him. That was the last time I ever saw him. My paternal grandmother was inside the house somewhere, and we never really said goodbye to her, as far as I remember — things were just happening too fast even though it wasn’t yet 10 in the morning. I did not get a chance to say goodbye to any of my friends.
As the car pulled out, my mother shouted to her mother, “I’ll see you at Mariel,” and then the house with people waving on the porch was behind us, and we kept rolling, past the zoo and the cemetery and the tannery, and that was the last time I ever saw those places.
Much, much, later, when I was able to pin down the moment my life in Cuba ended, this was the image that came into my mind: my grandfather waving surrounded by people who were waving too, and the car pulling away, out of their sight, out of town, out of their lives, and then the realization, in hindsight and too late, that I’d never see any of them ever again.