The Journey and the Aftermath


I

My dad writes long, sad, beautiful stories about his past and throughout my teenage years I pretended not to care. This accomplished nothing, and I knew it hurt him. Sometimes I would go on his computer when he wasn't home and read them. Afterwards my stomach would hurt, my head would flutter, and I'd feel a sinking feeling in my eyelids for lying to him about having read them. He wanted so badly for me to know where he came from, what he was made of, and what had tested his faith to the limit when he was my age. I didn't want to hear it from him, because immediately after I would only guilt for not having my own test of will. I feared I would always be soft and naive.

I did, however, love to listen to the stories he told my younger brother nearly every night before he fell asleep. From the next room, I could listen to him speak without having to confront this enormous pre-teen guilt I felt every time he mentioned his childhood. I learned of how his grandfather had been banished from his home in a small town in Spain by a stepmother who found him arrogrant and useless, and how he found his way to Cuba.

From there his story became the classic American dream, the story of a businessman who worked his way to the top. However, it wasn't in America and the dream would come to a crashing halt two years after my father was born, in the same small town in which his grandfather had built his lumber empire. The Cuban Revolution took everything. 1959, and not the year of his birth, 1957, is where my father's story begins.

That year his sister was born on a kitchen table while Castro's rebel army waged war in the streets outside. There was no time for celebration; the next day the family's things were inventoried and redistributed. My father's grandfather's lumber mill was repossesed, and from there on everything they owned was scrutinized, then plucked out of their hands. Some of the things taken were practical — pots and pans, mosquito netting for the tropical environment — and other things were luxurious by Cuban standards. That night they took their television, the only one in the neighborhood. The man with the clipboard carted off those things and brought them to, as my father calls them, those who "believed the slogans and sang the songs of the Revolution."

Material things didn't matter as much when they knew it was time to leave ten years later. They gave away what they had kept during repossession or had accumulated since and flew to Mexico on false pretenses, to live hundreds of miles from anyone they knew in a boarding house in Mexico City. My grandmother worried and my grandfather sold pinapple pies door-to-door. My dad and his sister didn't go to school.

I'm familiar with this part of my father's story because he tells it when he thinks about soccer. The year that the Mexican government kept him out of their public schools, and his family barely have money for rent, let alone private school tuition. He spend his days outside, where he learned to play soccer from street children and unemployed older men. I heard this story repeatedly, often in the back seat of the car while he drove my brother or me to expensive soccer camps or club team practices. My guilt about my father's difficult past and my comfortable one started to grow the year I made the travel team.

They never intended to stay in Mexico, but what they thought would be a quick hop over a fence turned out to be a year-long wait for the visa. Facing the prospect another missed year of school, another year of just scraping by, they developed a more agressive tactic.

One day a neighbor, Mario, knocked on the door to say goodbye, and that he was leaving for the border the next day. It was the worst window of opportunity they could hope for, but one nonetheless. Mournfully, reluctantly, my grandmother turned her only son to Mario with an envelope of cash. For 250 dollars, the men who ran an escort service on the top floor of their rooming house promised to get illegals to any city in the United States. Coyotes, my abuelo called them. That evening my grandparents informed my eleven year-old father that they were entrusting him with the family's future, and that he was to set off for the border in the morning.

Unlike the soccer anecdotes, this story never made its way into my childhood. I heard it my junior year of high school, when a student in my math class told it to me. My dad is a teacher at the school I attended, and is known for telling wild stories to the students in his Spanish classes. The boy who told me this wasn't a close friend; I barely knew him. But he was close to my dad and shared his love of soccer, which I had since abandoned. "Your dad's a badass," Greg told me. "He crossed the Mexican border alone when he was eleven." I didn't know what to make of it. Anyway, we were in the middle of class.

On the train to the border, my father rode with the coyotes in a nicer compartment, mostly to entertain their girlfriends. The women liked his Cuban accent — an oddity in those parts much like a British accent in the United States — and thought it was hilarious coming out of a scrawny little boy. They bought him steak and cookies and giggled at him while he ate. Anything he said could make them laugh. He was too young to know that he was playing the fool to survive. Years later, it would make him furious. But in that moment, they were laughing and he felt safe.

One of coyote's girlfriends, Marta, took special care of him. She brought him food and listened to him; it never dawned upon my father that there was a little boy on nearly every trip she took to the border. When he grew tired of being the man and supporting his family through his journey, he retreated to Marta, his surrogate sister for a mere four days.

The next day the train stopped in Monterey, four hours from the border at Nuevo Laredo. The coyotes put him in the back of a crowded station wagon, and hopped into the sports car that had been brought to the train station for them. They sped off, yelling through open windows that they would meet up with them that night to talk them to dinner. For the next few hours the would-be immigrants drove through the desert, pressed against each other in the August heat. No one had brought water. Towards the end of the journey they saw a roadside stand in the distance, and pleaded the driver to stop. The driver hesitated, then quietly pulled off the road. My father drank a Coke, the one he tells me tasted better than any other Coke he's had in his life.

No matter what diet he tries or what my mom tells him is healthy, my dad drinks a Coca-Cola nearly every day. They're always the small ones: the ones that in glass bottles he buys in six-packs at the Puerto Rican market a few blocks away from our house. Coca-Cola was one of the first casualties of the revolution, and by the time he had developed a taste for it as a small boy, it was off the shelves. In a country built on sugar, the only cola was Soviet-produced and bitter. In Mexico he made up for lost time and drank as many as his wallet could afford. Now he drinks as many as his health can afford, or as many as my mother will allow him.

The coyotes kept their word. Later that night they showed up to take the group to a restaurant a block away from the motel. While they sat waiting for dinner, a man who noticed that they were Cuban went up to the jukebox and put on Fernando Albuernes' song Cuando Sali de Cuba. The lost motherland and the hopelessness of refuge were they last things they wanted to think about, and one woman began to cry. Mexicans in the restaurant — it seemed at the time like all of them, but in reality was just a few — laughed out loud. "Look," one them yelled. "The counter-revolutionary Cubans are sad because Castro took their money!" Mario got furious and stood up to go say something to the people having a laugh at their expense. But Marta, a young woman who was traveling with her parents stopped him. "It's not worth it getting into a fight with those idiots, Mario. We're just passing through. We'll be in Miami soon." He sat down again. They ate their tacos quietly and walked back to the motel.

It wasn't safe in the streets, mainly because border towns like Nuevo Laredo thrived on the anxiety of illegals. Gangsters and local police officers, between which there were often few difference, sought out people who looked as though they were about to make the border-crossing and made them pay hefty bribes to keep them from turning them in. My father and the rest of the group spent the whole day in the rooms playing dominoes until the coyotes returned from carousing to pick them up. They drove to the edge of town by night, as music was blaring and people celebrated a holiday my father can no longer recall.

The van dropped them off at the Rio Grande, the official geographical border between the United States and Mexico. There was an air of disappointment and disallusionment in the crowd; How could it be that the river they built up in their minds was no wider than an average city street? They crossed three at a time in a wooden row boat that, rickety as it was, had probably brought thousands across the river. The other side was glowing, lit up from behind the embankment and chain link-fence.

Holes in the fence weren't hard to find, and they emerged from one into an abondoned parking lot. It seemed a little too easy. They had burst forth from the desert into a concrete oasis, with headlights from the car that would bring them further into the country turned on them. They were in the country, but their fears hadn't yet subsided. They feared that he coyotes gave them false airline tickets, and fearfully watched the men duck back under the fence and turn away. My father worried that every step he took towards the car was a chance for an INS officer to catch them.

From there on hours and minutes stopped feeling like days and months. They were in the United States. Everything went quickly and smoothly, perhaps only because he was too mesmerized by his surroundings to notice that one of the other Cubans had been orchestrating his movements, his plane rides, and his car rides until he walked up to the front door of a house in Miami. It was dark and hot, but in a way he had never experienced. Every house on the street was quiet when Marta knocked on this one, stopping to check the slip of paper he had kept in his pocket since my grandparents gave it to him.

A petite, attractive woman answered the door, shocked. The letter saying he was coming to them had not yet arrived.

Thirty years later, this same woman would pick me up at Miami International Airport. My parents had sent me to spend a few weeks with her to practice my Spanish. I was twelve and couldn't understand why someone who had only met me once before would be so eager to see me, so happy to have me in her home. I was baffled that she wanted to cook complicated, filling dishes for me, and show me her extensive doll collection. The hospitality was overwhelming and I chalked it up to loneliness, as her children had long since moved out and started families.

She looked at my father, whom she had not seen since she fled Cuba weeks before the Revolution exploded across the countryside. She recognized his cheeks and high forehead — the same as her sister's — and immediately understood the situation. "Come inside," she said. She took to the stove, and he sat in a kitchen chair trying to understand household objects he had never seen before. Over the sounds of potatoes frying, he could hear her cry.

II

"Was it hard," I ask my grandmother, "leaving? I mean, coming here."

I'm eleven and I'm writing the typical person-I-admire essay. Like the rest of my sixth grade classmates, I'm writing the person-who-was-around-to-be-interviewed-on-a-Sunday-night-before-the assignment-is-due essay. She stares slightly over my head and sighs lightly. I can sense she doesn't want to talk about it, that she would rather have me ask her these questions in Spanish with a better purpose than getting a good grade on a middle school report card. But my Spanish is useless from growing up in a Boston suburb and I'm already a shameless grade grubber at that point. I ask her again.

"Yeeess," she purrs, then looks out the window. She's too accomodating to me; she knows I can understand Spanish, but that I don't want to speak. So she responds in English, rusty from being out of the American workforce for a decade.

"Why?" I push her. I'm oblivious to the fact that she doesn't want to talk about it. She wants to tell me about her childhood on the family farm, the one that her grandfather kept as a supplement to the family, in case his lumber mill ever went under. She wants to tell me about going to accounting school in Havana, and how that made her the most educated person in her family. She wants to tell me about her beautiful younger sisters and the adventures they went on in their sleepy village. She wants to tell me how she fell in love with my grandfather and tamed his wandering ways. She doesn't want to discuss the hardest decision she ever made with her pre-teen granddaughter.

I first heard the story when I was sixteen. It just came out. Crossed the border? By yourself? After I heard snippets of it from my schoolmates, my father told me the rest of the story in the car to school one morning. It was the cleanest, most simple version he could have told, and since then he has further complicated it for me.

He didn't tell me the truth because he didn't want me to hate my grandmother. Deep down, I knew it had to be that. All the times I had ignored little anecdotes from his past, I was worried it would change my perception of the present. The truth made me see my grandmother as a deeply complicated being, and drew me closer to her.

The year before I left for college, I went to Good Friday mass with her.

From an early age I had decided that I would distance myself from religion. I have never felt comfortable in the churches I went to, and by the time I was seven or eight I decided that there was something fundamentally different about me compared to other parishioners. Later on, I would say that it's because I'm pro-choice or in support of gay marriage, and even later after that I would come to the realization that race and social class probably played into it, but at that point I didn't have arguments for why I was different: I just was.

But at this point in my life was going through a reconnection phase, and trying in earnest to cast aside my prejudices and attitudes in order to appease the only link to my heritage I really had left. My grandfather had died two years before, and my family stopped speaking Spanish altogether. My father withdrew and stopped trying to remind us of out Cuban roots. After that, we lost a little more every month. Aside from our last name and a tradition Cuban Christmas Eve dinner, my brother and I could practically go the entire year without remembering the place out father wanted so badly for us to understand and embrace.

When I stepped into the church I had been baptized in, it still smelled like worn carpeting and dusty windows. It was exactly how I remembered it, except that instead of feeling intimidated by this threatening building, I found comfort in all of its imperfections; the aging wallpaper and worn benches seemed to take away the sting of alienation.

My grandmother was no longer the lively, fashionable middle-aged woman she was when she used to take me here in a car seat sixteen years ago. She is noticeably frail, and my only reason for accompanying her was that I knew she could not climb the wide marble stairs as easily as she once could. It would break her heart to sit at home during one of the most important Catholic holidays.

She sat in her customary seat, towards the middle of the church, and looked around for a friendly face. Almost everyone there was from Central America, a recent immigrant still wearing a uniform from their job. It seemed odd to me that she didn't know anyone there: she had been going to this Brighton church regularly since she arrived from Cuba thirty five years ago, she baptized her four grandchildren there, and held the funeral for her husband of over forty years there.

But the reason was that her generation no longer saw themselves as part of this church. When they were recent immigrants, it was their refuge. They received solace and assistance from this place, and in return dedicated their Sundays and a portion of their meager wages to it. And when that generation moved into comfortable houses in Framingham or Waltham, or any sprawling suburb west of Boston, with large cars and Bush-Cheney 2004 signs on their front yards, the next generation of Latin American immigrants took their place as the guardians of the church. My grandmother and her friends had raised their social classes, and given birth to Latin-American history professors and Spanish teachers who wanted even less to do with the church, who wanted to make a living discussing their culture and experiences, but no longer really associated with it.

It is both my nature and my training to see social problems in this situation, and I was alone in the room. Everyone around me was finding peace in this place. It was only me looking for problems. I imagine that everyone there had seen what my father had seen thirty years before, felt what he felt. The church was peace to them, and for a minute I wished I belonged. I could forget all of the reason and politics that drove me away from the church if only to feel what everyone around me felt when they heard the words, sang the songs, recieved communion.

I looked over at my grandmother and saw how deeply she prayed. I could never believe so deeply. I had an acceptance letter to an Ivy League university and a decade of New England liberal cynicism to hide behind. She didn't need to hide. She had already faced the biggest demons of her life and emerged unscathed.


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22 December 2007