A friend gave me this book while I was in Miami. That was fitting. Miami is the gateway to America Latina, the landing spot for Cuban refugees from Fidel Castro’s Revolution. Now it is a multi-lingual city with a cosmopolitan mix of Spanish, Spanglish, and numerous other tongues. Carlos Eire came to Miami with 14000 other children exiled without their parents from Fidel’s Revolutionary Cuba. What surprised me most was the similarities in lives which have been so different– his and mine.
I grew up in the Ybor City barrio of Tampa. Tampa is a boring place with no character, a racist holdover from its’ Southern past and theme park present; but Ybor City had its’ own presence. It was a community of Cubans, Mexicans, and Jews with great Cuban restaurants like The Columbia and Las Novedades. There were deviled crabs and boiled peanuts in the street, smells of hot Cuban bread and strong café con leche. It was my childhood in a little Havana created by refugees from the Spanish-American War. I exiled myself when I was old enough to flee to the strange Yankee world of New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Woodstock, NY for 30 years and finally ended up in Mexico learning Spanish and fighting lizards as Eire had to learn English and left his lizard murders and lizard dreams and lizard-shaped island behind.
Carlos Eire, has a PhD. in religion and history from Yale. This, they say, is his first book “without footnotes”. It is heartfelt and real and describes both pre-Castro Cuba and the post- revolutionary world of the “Maximum Leader” and of …Ché (who) came up with the great idea of doing away with money altogether… No money at all… So all the banks have been closed, and all accounts have been seized…”. A different reality than he felt when Castro came down from the mountains smoking a cigar, mounted on a Sherman tank.
I was as entranced with that image of Castro and his guerillas coming from Oriente Province in 1959 as was he. It was even lauded in Junior Scholastic magazine back in salute-the- flag Florida, this freedom fighter winning with American help against the evil dictator. The reality of the Revolution was shown him even quicker than to us. He was there . How different was growing up in Havana with a judge-father who thought himself the reincarnation of Louis XVI! He was of the elite under Batista, the privileged class as only a two-class society can be privileged. I was rather poor. He is exiled alone and has to scrounge for food. I was an American with all that offers and entails.
I was brought up in a religious house that was not Catholic and I, unlike Carlos, did not go to a religious school. He is Catholic with a vengeance, now professor of history and religion at Yale and is forever haunted by the Catholic school legacy of confession and guilt and all the things that, even living now in Mexico; are beyond my understanding. He, the religion professor, winds much of his thoughts around Kant’s proofs for the existence of god and his, Eire’s, personal “proofs”. I don’t think about it much even now that I have a terminal disease. We are different no matter how very American he has become. That is one of the reasons to read Eire, to find a whole new realm of thought and belief and history.
He eats the Cuban food I grew up on, Arroz con pollo, ropa vieja, arroz con camarones. All the good stuff I began to eat on Sundays when the family went to The Columbia. The original owner was a pal of my grandfather. Now it belongs, I think, to some chain. The rest of Ybor City, the only interesting part of Tampa, was bulldozed by city fathers who wanted no part of history or culture or the “spics” who brought it to Tampa.
But no matter how much time I lived in Ybor City nor lived in Puerto Rico, I am not part of Spanish culture. No Catholicism. Less fiestas; no piñatas and when I stopped being told that Santa Claus brought some of my presents these were not my thoughts, “The veil lifted, and I beheld, virginally, the dreadful treasure unearthed by my ancestors. Desengaño. Disillusionment. The scorching, incandescent cornerstone of Spanish culture… (which) is built upon one warning: beware, all is illusion… nothing you can embrace in this world will ever fill that yawning void in your soul. Nothing. No thing. No one. Nada. Ninguna cosa. Nadie.”
And “waiting for snow”? I waited years to see the stuff with the same expectation of its’ pristine goodness and, perhaps, the fun it would be. He waits in Havana with his Galician Spanish grandparents asking “What does snow look like? What does it feel like when you touch it? Does snow smell like the frost in our freezer? What does it feel like to wear coats and hats all the time…?” I waited at the train station for my great-aunt from New York to arrive on the Silver Meteor with her fur coat and ask the same kind of things.
In 1966 he is in Chicago where “The air was a huge, all-enveloping knife… the wind coming off Lake Michigan… would plunge the blade deep into you…”. I was there in ’67 on the elevated platform in my Florida version of an overcoat in the blizzard of ’67 waiting for a train to the law firm where I worked thinking that this was the way Yankees always spent winters. Finally, frozen through, I called the partner I worked for to be told to go home since even the courts were closed and the train was not going to come. Crazy Yankees!
I have a whole different view now of Cuba, Cuban refugees, if not of the Cuban community, which, like the Mexican; I often feel I fit into a little too well. But I never had times when “Quite a few bombs went off in Havana those last few years of Batista’s regime. To this day, as I am drifting to sleep I often expect to hear a bomb or two going off in the distance.”
Eire, however, wasn’t lulled to sleep by flights of B-47′s from the airbase nearby carrying their loads of nukes, nor the sirens as the convoys of stockpiled arms and bombs were brought through the city in the small hours to MacDill Air Force Base. His friends’ fathers didn’t tell him that they had returned from Cuban overflights with holes shot through their planes’ fuselages. He didn’t look at the sky that fall of ’62 in high school checking contrails for the missile heading for us.
“Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy” is a little slow at first. Like the Revolution, and the revulsion to the Revolution; it builds a world of memories of a place and time that are gone. It does it now as Latin America becomes stronger and more important. It does it at a time when US-Cuban relations are bound to change because Fidel may be the Maximum Leader but he cannot live forever. Nor can our crumbling blockade. In a postscript Eire says “the most immediate trigger…” for him to write this “…was the Eliàn Gonzalez affair”. The little boy internationally battled over who had been sent to live in Miami as was Eire.
It is a book of history (not surprisingly), a bit of philosophy and religion, and a story that becomes hard to put down. Especially for a boy who was a boy at the same time. But boys are always the same. There are stories of firecrackers and shoplifting and getting in trouble even if not in the big breadfruit battle. He makes it real and funny and frightening and touching.
The Cuban refugees in their over-reaction to the horror of totalitarianism have a tendency to be overly conservative. One poll this year showed them going for the junior president from Texas, a wannabe Maximum Leader. But the story tells me why they feel that way. It tells of the Bay of Pigs which I never quite understood and for many readers it will be a new take on what is now almost ancient history. Therefore, his story of a childhood in Havana waiting to see snow is real and needed, by him as catharsis and by us for a look into that time and place. And then to rejoice for him for creating his successful life that he had to wrench from dislocation and loneliness.