The Son of a Bartender and a Maid

A few months ago I was invited to an intimate lunch reception at Gaviña and Sons Coffee Roasters. As you well know, I never turn down an opportunity to visit them as it's always a wonderful time, so I went. 

The guest of honor was none other than Senator Marco Rubio. He was in town trying to make a Big Decision and was wanting to connect with the Cuban community here. 

Again, it was a relatively small group (as these things go) and we waited patiently for his arrival, made easier by the generous donation of Cuban pastries by Gigi's Bakery, but that's not important right now.


The Senator came in and asked not to be videotaped as he was just talking with us "entre familia." (As family.)


And he spoke to us from his heart. 

He answered every single question thoughtfully and not at all like you would imagine a politician would. He was genuinely wrestling with big questions, big policies, big problems and said so. He didn't know for sure at the time, but was considering a presidential run. 

His family was the biggest factor in this decision. 

He spoke in both English and Spanish as many of us Cuban Americans do in our own homes and with our people. I just loved that.

Picture a group of loud, enthusiastic, opinionated Cubans asking tough questions and pushing for serious answers. I was more impressed than ever that the Senator held his own with us.

And when he was finished, he stopped and smiled and took a moment and a photo with every single person in attendance. I was super impressed by this. Of course, we all loved every minute of it.


The lunch was catered by a local Cuban restaurant (of course) and it was right at the moment I sat down to eat and catch my breath and Senator Rubio was behind me getting his food that I thought, "A Cuban-American may actually be President of the United States one day."


And then the tears began. 

He sat down at our table and I was too overcome to even speak. Here was a wonderful embodiment of the fruit of the sacrifices of our Cuban parents. They came here to America to find a better life and hopefully give their children more opportunities. 

Also, how crazy is it that at the very moment that HE SAT DOWN AT OUR TABLE that I was overwhelmed and weepy and unable to speak. *sigh*


All of this hit home yesterday as Senator Rubio made his announcement that he would indeed seek the GOP nomination for President of the United States. 

Here's a two minute recap from Bloomberg. 

Let me be perfectly clear: I have no crystal ball or way to predict what will happen over the next 18 months, but I'm super happy and proud that so far there are 3 GOP contenders for the Republican nomination and two are of Cuban descent. 

Of course, that's not a reason to vote for anyone. My point in taking the time to write about this today is that it's a big deal for those of us whose families came here fleeing tyranny and hoping for a better tomorrow. Here's one of our own chasing the biggest office in the land. Go, Marco, go! 

From his speech yesterday:

"I live in an exceptional country where even the son of a bartender and a maid can have the same dreams and the same future as those that come from power and privilege." ~Marco Rubio


I'm also super delighted that I got to be present as history was being made when the Senator spoke to us from his heart about his vision and his profound belief that America is indeed an exceptional country. It's been way too long since we've heard that articulated from the seats of power in this land.

It's a proud and wonderful moment and I'm going to swim around in it until my fingers get all pruney. 

As the daughter of a Cuban engineer and a housewife who came here looking for a new life, I too have dreams for a wonderful future for my own family.


Also, the Senator takes a great selfie. 

Please visit the Senator's website to get involved in this historic campaign.

I'm not looking for a debate here. I'm just telling my own stories. Please be kind.

The Thing About Being Cuban Right Now

I don't usually post political opinion here on my blog. I have on occasion written about politics regarding Cuba because it's not just politics to me. It falls more under the umbrella of home town gossip. 

Cuban politics in particular aren't just things that are happening 3,000 miles away. They affect real people in my life. People I am related to, or that I've met, or who's writings I read almost daily. 

On Wednesday, President Obama made the declaration that now was the time for the U.S. to be "normalizing" relations with Cuba. I had been traveling all day. Just returned from a family trip to Northern California and had not heard the announcement. But my inbox was full of inquiries from the media. Would I be willing to give my reaction to the president's announcement?

I was conflicted for a moment. I know how these discussion inevitably go. There's the "it's about damn time" group. They are of the opinion that Cubans will be better off as soon as U.S.-Cuba relations begin to thaw. The argument goes something like this: There will be a new influx of American currency into the now 3rd world (or is it 4th world?) country which will save the day. 

Always missing in this argument is the fact that Cuba has been able to trade with every other nation. Today there are tourists spending their hard currency on the streets of Havana, not making a bit of difference to the lives of everyday Cubans. Those are the ones with names and faces and children and dreams. They are the ones most affected in this drama. And all that money is going straight into the coffers of the Castros, who just happen to be millionaires, by the way. 

Also, the U.S. already provides food and medicine and goods to Cuba. (You didn't know that, did you?) The only difference is that, up to now, Cuba has had to pay for those. With this new U.S.-Cuba BFF system, it's like we've issued Cuba an unsecured credit card. Our taxpayer dollars get to prop up the declining Cuban economy. And what do we get in return? Umm...we get to go to Cuba and spend more of our money to buy what? Cigars? Coffee? Seriously?

Let me say here that I'm glad American Alan Gross has been released from his 5 year Cuban prison ordeal. He was "swapped" for the remaining members of the Cuban 5 who were serving long prison sentences for espionage and murder. Yes, you read that right. An innocent man incarcerated in a Cuban jail for 5 years exchanged for convicted spies and enemies to our nation. Remind me, please, how this is in any way fair?

There are also rumors that 53 other prisoners will be released. But there are thousands. What about them? Will all the political prisoners be released? Why not? That means there really won't be any noticeable change. Next week, 53 more will take their place. That's how the communist apparatus keeps the population in line. 

I have so much I want to say. And I'm so conflicted.

In a perfect world, opening up relations between the U.S. and Cuba would make life easier for my family, the ones who are scraping by, making impossible ends meet every single day. Or would it? This particular world is far from perfect. And it's being run by a treacherous, murdering regime who care nothing for human rights or for the welfare of their people. That is the hard truth. 

The president wants to normalize relations with Cuba, but sadly, Cuba is not normal. 

I have thousands more words to write on this topic, but I'll just leave some links here and you can feel free to educate yourself. It's tough to be Cuban right now on either side of the Florida Straits. Because those of us who left early on in the revolution have tasted the bitterness of having all we loved ripped away and have also known the sweetness of growing up in freedom. Those still there in Cuba can't even remember what hope tastes like.

What do I wish the outcome of all this would be? A free Cuba. Sadly, I don't think that even came up in the talks between the Castros and the president.

And that's the saddest thing of all.


Here are some links. If you have any you'd like to add, please feel free to share in the comments of this post. 

My interview with KCET - In California, Announcement Seen From Varying Points of View.

My friend, Robert Molleda posted this very articulate essay on Facebook.

From Capitol Hill Cubans - Cuban Dissent Leaders React to Obama's Announcement.

From the PanAm Post - Only Cubans Can Save Cuba.

From HuffPo - In Cuba Policy Debates, Theories Don't Cut It.

From Cuban blogger, Yoani Sanchez - Goliath Opens His Wallet.

From my friend, Marc Masferrer over at Uncommon Sense - If U.S.-Cuba normalization doesn't free the Cuban people, it will fail.

From Gustavo Perez-Firmat - The Last Exiles.

From Gustavo Perez-Firmat's daughter, Miriam Perez - Why I Don't Want To Hear About Your Vacation To Cuba.

Follow updates from lots of sources over at Babalú Blog


'A Falling Star' - A Book Giveaway

My friend and Cuban American author, Chantel Acevedo is at it again.


She's just finished her latest novel, 'A Falling Star' and I know you will be anxious to read it. Here's the synopsis:

Daysy Maria del Pozo and Stella Maris Morales-Quinn both came to the United States as part of the 1980 Mariel Boatlift—Daysy settling in South Florida with her family and Stella starting a new life with her mother and step-father in Pittsburgh. Over time, they each find themselves haunted by their families’ complicated and painful Cuban pasts. As Stella deals with her mother’s suicide and it slowly dawns on Daysy that there are family secrets she must uncover, the reader hears the del Pozo family history, piece by piece, from Daysy’s mother. Soon it becomes clear that Daysy and Stella may share more than their Cuban-American heritage.

Chantel told me this is a very personal story for her and her family and, as she does with all her projects, she's poured her Cuban heart and soul into it. As is usually the case with all of our stories about leaving Cuba and making a life here in the U.S., it will strike a very personal chord with many of you. 

Right now, the book can be purchased as an "Advanced Copy" via the Carolina Wren Press website exclusively. Here's the link:

A Falling Star - Carolina Wren Press

Lucky for you, I have a couple of advanced copies to give away today (because I'm cool that way). Also, I just want to share the Cuban love and help support one of our own. 

The beautiful cover image was shot by another Cuban-American, Elaine Palladino, a very talented photographer in Miami.  (We are a supremely talented bunch, aren't we?)

Two winners will each receive an Autographed (!) Advanced Copy of A Falling Star by Chantel Acevedo. 


1) To enter this drawing for one autographed, advanced copy of A Falling Star, please leave a comment on this post and answer one or both of the following questions:

  • Where were you when the Mariel Boatlift happened?
  • Did it affect your family personally?

Please leave your comments on this post and I'll choose a winner on Monday, May 5th, 2014 at 5 pm PST.

2) For extra entries, please "share" this giveaway on your Facebook page and come back and leave me another comment telling me:  

  • "I shared!"

3) If you're on Twitter, please Tweet about this and include this hashtag: #AFallingStar. Come back and leave me a comment telling me:

  • "I tweeted!"

So that's not one, not two, but three entries. (Because I love you.)

I've saved the best part of this story for last: The Book Trailer for 'A Falling Star' was done by another Cubanita, whom you may recognize if you have spent any time here on my blog.


That's right. That's my girl, Lucy Darby, budding Graphic Designer and Book Trailer Creator. 

I hope that you are as blown away by the book trailer as I was. (I swear I'm not just saying that because Lucy designed it or because my friend, Chantel wrote the book. I just kind of burst into tears everytime I hear that song, but that's not important right now.)

When you stop crying, leave your comments and share everywhere (please!) and do all the entry stuff. I'm so excited and pleased that I get to share it here with all of you first. 

If you're in Charlotte, North Carolina, Chantel Acevedo will be doing a reading at Park Road Books on May 8th at 7pm. Here's the link:

Celebrating Kids and Books (Día Blog Hop) Featuring Margarita Engle

It is my great pleasure to announce that I'm participating in a fabulous celebration of children and books called Día Blog Hop, organized by Latinas for Latino Lit. The Blog Hop has been happening for the entire month of April and it features the very best of Latino children's book artists and authors. 

The Día Blog Hop will be culminating on April 30th in honor of Día de los Niños, Día de los Libros. 

L4LL-dia-blog-hop-2014 badge

The entire list of authors and illustrators and the blogs they are featured on can be found here:

I'm happy today to introduce you to Margarita Engle, who is, of course, Cuban-American. 

Margarita Engle is the Cuban-American author of The Surrender Tree, which received the first Newbery Honor ever awarded to a Latino.  Her young adult verse novels have also received two Pura Belpré Awards and three Honors, as well as three Américas Awards and the Jane Addams Peace Award, among others.  

Final cover Tiny Rabbit

Margarita’s next verse novel is Silver People, Voices From the Panama Canal (March, 2014, Harcourt).  Books for younger children include Mountain Dog, Summer Birds, When You Wander, and Tiny Rabbit’s Big Wish (March, 2014, Harcourt).

Final Silver People cover-1

Margarita lives in central California, where she enjoys hiding in the forest to help train her husband’s wilderness search and rescue dogs.

Learn more about Margarita at

Reflecting on Childhood by Margarita Engle

Looking back at the reading experiences of my childhood is like standing on the shore of a bioluminescent beach, gazing at radiant sea water.  In the Caribbean, glowing beaches are both common and miraculous.  When fingers and toes move through the luminous shallows, they take on the light from microscopic organisms.  We see the glow, but we can’t see its source.

It’s the same with books that children read for pleasure.  They learn, without realizing that they’re learning, because the experience is so magical.  When a child is caught up in the thrill of a story or the rhythm of a poem, something happens that can’t be explained, measured, or tested.  It’s the complex satisfaction of exploring.  A sense of wonder is the invisible source.

As a child, I loved history and folklore, but there were no children’s books about Cuba, and all the folktales were from continents, not islands.  That didn’t stop me from reading every fascinating book I could find, but as an adult, I want something more.  I want children of all backgrounds to have the chance to read stories rooted in a wide variety of cultures and viewpoints.  

Most of my verse novels are about Cuban historical themes, but my newest is set in Panama.  I wrote Silver People in honor of the Caribbean islanders who were hired by the U.S. as laborers to dig the vast canal. It was completed exactly one hundred years ago, and still serves as the shipping route for most of the manufactured-in-Asia products we use in daily life.  Silver People is also my personal love letter to the tropical rain forest, written not only in human voices, but in the cries of howler monkeys, and moans of threatened trees.  It’s the unusual sort of story that I would have been happy to read when I was a child.  In those days, the only tributes to the people and creatures of the tropics were travelogues written for tourism, or archaic fiction told from a colonial standpoint, with references to “savages” and “primitive” cultures.  I hope that my reflections on history will help young people of all backgrounds understand that being different does not mean being inferior.  

In addition to history, fiction, science, and poetry, I loved reading folklore when I was a child.  I still love folklore, but it’s not easy to publish, so I’m thrilled to have a new picture book inspired by a Cuban folktale.  Tiny Rabbit’s Big Wish is a poem about a little bunny who wants to grow.  I hope it will help very young children see that each of us has unique strengths.

With a wealth of multicultural books now available, I hope parents, teachers, and librarians will expose children to all sorts of books.  One of the most difficult to find is memoirs by Latinos.  While there have been quite a few published for adults in recent years, childhood memoirs are scarce.  Under the Royal Palms, by Alma Flor Ada, is one of my favorites, but my own childhood memoir---scheduled for publication by Harcourt in March, 201---is quite different from Ada’s, because I grew up in the U.S., with only a few precious summer visits to my extended family in Cuba.  

Writing is challenging.  Reflecting can be scary, but facing that challenge means that children who read a variety of books will feel inspired to perceive their own widely varied stories as valuable.

My Big, Fat, Cuban Family Cubiche Christmas Gift Guide

Christmas shopping.

I am so not the get-up-at-the-crack-of-dawn-to-snap-up-deals-on-Black-Friday type of person. I am much more the online-shopper-in-my-pjs type. (However, if you tell anyone about the PJ thing, I'll most certainly deny it, but that's not important right now.)

It's just a matter of covering more territory while sitting in the comfort of your PJs (or not...) and finding fabulously different gifts. Plus think of the savings on gas!

For example, I'm pretty sure Target doesn't carry a Tardis 4-port USB hub for my nerdy,  Dr.Who-loving son, Jonathan. But ThinkGeek does. (Don't worry. I've given nothing away. He doesn't read my blog unless I ask him to.)

Also, I may or may not have gotten one for myself. (Don't judge me.)

My mom, Luza, who is 98 now, says she loves the hustle and bustle of going shopping at Christmastime and that she loves fighting crowds and she loves carrying lots of bags and packages around. I remind her that she hasn't been Christmas shopping on her own since the 70's and that perhaps what she probably remembers is a scene from a Christmas movie and that maybe her memory is not what it used to be. (Note to self: Don't ever contradict an Old Cuban Woman on what she may or may not remember. That is all.)

So, back to online shopping.

I live in a wonderful all-American Peanut-Butter-and-Jelly neighborhood in Southern California. It's not just the place to be finding gifts with an especially Cuban sensibility. Sad, but true.

This is why God invented online shopping. To get the perfect gift for your Cuban Cubiches. (For my non-Cuban readers, a "cubiche" is loosely translated as "Cuban kin.")

Which is why I'm providing the... *drum roll, please*

My Big, Fat, Cuban Family Cubiche Christmas Gift Guide

Disclaimer: These are places that I myself have ordered from and who have delivered on quality and service. None of them are paying me for this free linky-love. (I wish! *sigh*)

1) From Cuban Food Market (if you're in Miami, the name of the store is Sentir Cubano on Calle 8):

Tacitas! Or Demitasse espresso coffee cup gift set. With a Cuban flag on them and they come in a "it's a Cuban Chrismas" straw gift bag. I think, yes! (Trust me, there is nothing like this in Mission Viejo.)

2) From the "Jewelers to the Cuban Communtiy," Santayana Jewelers:

Santayana charm bracelet

The Habana Bead Collection of Charms. They fit Pandora and Chamilia bracelets. And come in such genius designs as: A cafetera, Corazon de melon, Azucar, and Caja China. Go check them out. You must see to believe.

Santayana Jewelers is running a special promotion right now: $40 off on your purchase of $150 or more. Trust me, I have already taken advantage of this great deal (someone in my family is going to be deliriously happy on Christmas morning). The promotion expires January 6th, 2013 - El Dia de Los Reyes. Of course. That's sooo deliciously Cuban, isn't it?

VERY COOL PROMOTION ALERT! Just for MBFCF readers: If you suggest a design and they make it into a charm, they will send the winner that charm. Come on, people! I know you've got this. Leave suggestions in the comment section of this post.

3) And of course, my good friends at Habana Brand Clothing have got the most fabulous über-Cuban (<--is that a word?) designs on their high quality shirts.

I also want to take a moment to thank Habana Brand and all the MBFCF readers who suggested new designs for their shirts. They have assured me they are hard at work creating some of your concepts. Way to go, kids!

This one is hot off the press (thanks to YOU!) - Ladies V-neck Vintage Ride T. Click HERE to order and see the rest of their beautiful line. That's my Lucy being all cute in her Cubanity (<--is that a word?) and rocking the Habana Brand Vintage Ride tshirt.

_MG_0036 3

They're also having a Facebook promotion right now as the Cuban community finds them online and they are working their way to 1,000 "likes." Please go like Habana Brand Clothing on Facebook. And please share with your friends.

HBC promotion

Go! Shop! Be proud of your Cubanity! (<--That should totally be a word!)

Why the Right to Vote is A Very Big Deal to Me

I was born in Havana, Cuba. My family came to America in early the 60's to escape the communist takeover of our beloved island home.

We were called “refugees.” For our first five years in this country, we were Cuban Refugees. Sometimes we were called “Exiles.” There was never any shame attached to this. We would have stayed in Cuba if the Castros had not come to power. America opened its generous and hospitable arms to us. We were happy to be here and felt welcomed.

By the time I was 12 years old, we were able to apply to become “Permanent Residents.” In case you don't know how this process works, this is when we were issued “Green Cards.”

I carried my Green Card with me at all times as was required by law. It was quite a challenge for a tween and then teenager to be responsible enough to do this, but I was more afraid of The Wrath of Papi (who was a serious stickler for this sort of thing - duh!) than of breaking one of the laws of the land, but that's not important right now.

In 1971, 18 year olds were given the right to vote, and it was a big deal at the time, but I would not be turning 18 until 1973. Just after my 18th birthday, I began the application process to become a Naturalized American Citizen.

The process involved:

  • The Application
  • The Naturalization Test
  • Speaking and Writing English
  • The Test (American History and Government)
  • Learning the Rights and Responsibilities of American Citizenship

It took months (!) for the INS to acknowledge just the receipt of my application. (Things may be different now. This was back in the mid-70's.) I had to get myself down to the local police department and get fingerprinted. And wait. And go to the INS offices in Downtown LA to sign papers on multiple occasions which made me hate bureaucracies which made me a firm believer in small government. I finally got a date in early 1974 to take my Citizenship Test. And then I had to study. A lot.

It was an intense Civics course and I was serious about this. I remember reviewing some questions with my friends who had NO IDEA what the answers were to these questions. (If you're curious as to how you would do, try this test for yourself: Naturalization Test.

I was already in love with America, but it was at that time that it started to dawn on me what a truly exceptional country this is. My mom would take ESL* classes for over a year so she could pass her test. (*English as a Second Language.) My dad and I had many review conversations that involved the branches of government, the separation of powers, the wording of the Constitution, the genius that was this great experiment in freedom and democracy.

In my family, becoming an American Citizen was an important and serious business and we treated it as such.

I finally went to my Naturalization hearing on April 17, 1974, where I received a certificate that named me, Marta Maria Verdés, a Citizen of the United States of America. The Daughters of the American Revolution had a red, white and blue cake for us and gave us each an American flag. I remember feeling so proud and sighing a great, big, emotional sigh of relief. I vowed never to take my American citizenship lightly or for granted.

I voted in my first presidential election in 1976. (The Bicentennial!) and in every election since that time. I am a registered Republican and I am very conservative in my beliefs. (If you've been reading my blog for any length of time this shouldn't come as any big revelation.)

Voting is a sacred trust and it should be treated as such. I'm a super sappy American patriot. I love this country and the amazing system of government where the government derives its powers by the consent of the governed. I cry every time I hear the Star-Spangled Banner.

I choke up when I read this part of the Declaration of Independence: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed... *sniff, sniff*

Having come from a place where there was genuine government corruption and having watched as socialism went on to destroy my homeland and so many lives, as socialism has always historically done, I believe in the beauty of our system of democracy, even with all of its flawed human representatives.

Having said all that, Happy November 6th!

Also, God Bless America. And, go Dodgers!

I voted

Cuando Sali de Cuba (or not) - Christina's Story (MBFCF Giveaway #4)

Marta here: I first met Christina, author of The Red Umbrella, a couple of years ago at Cuba Nostalgia in Miami. My first impression of her was that she was "the real deal." She cares deeply about her subject matter because, in the case of The Red Umbrella, it is very close to her family's story. She has been gracious enough to share her inspiration for writing this beautiful novel.


by Christina Diaz Gonzalez

Technically, I can’t say or write about “Cuando Sali de Cuba” as I have never been to the island. However, since I was a little girl, I have been hearing stories of how my parents left Cuba through Operation Pedro Pan.

The heartbreak of saying goodbye at the airport’s pecera, the pain of leaving everything behind and the fear of an unknown future in a foreign country was repeated countless times.  Yet, the magnitude of this exodus of children was lost on me.  Growing up I would roll my eyes whenever the topic was brought up.  To me, it was old news.  In fact, we all have those family stories that we so often take for granted until those who tell the tales are no longer with us.  Thankfully, I had a wake-up call before it was too late.

I was an aspiring writer searching for inspiration to write my first novel. It wasn’t until I heard another author talking about her book (Erika’s Story written by Ruth Vander Zee) that I realized the powerful story that I had within my own family which was being lost to the sands of time. 

I saw that if my own kids didn’t grasp this important part of American history (over 14,000 Cuban children being sent to the U.S.,  by themselves, is a HUGE part of American history… not just Cuban-American history), how could I expect others, who didn’t have a family connection, to even know about Operation Pedro Pan?

That’s when I decided to write The Red Umbrella.  I guess this was, in a way, my “Cuando Sali de Cuba” moment because I gained a deeper understanding of what it was like for these children of Operation Pedro Pan to leave their home, their parents, their friends. I tried to imagine myself being placed into those circumstances and then I put my main character, Lucia, into similar situations. 

The red umbrella

It has been with great joy that I have received countless emails and comments from many Operation Pedro Pan kids saying that they are grateful that their story is finally being shared with a new generation. I am so very proud to have had a small part in sharing their “Cuando Sali de Cuba” story.


MBFCF Readers, please say hello to Christina Diaz Gonzalez. I was personally floored when I read her debut, The Red Umbrella. She so perfectly captured the conflicts and fears of what it must have been like for an unaccompanied minor to come to a new country and how they might react in that frightening and difficult situation. She is as talented as she is lovely.

Christina Diaz Gonzalez

Christina has recently completed her 2nd novel, A Thunderous Whisper, set in the sleepy Spanish town of Guernica during World War II.

A thunderous whisper

MBFCF Blogiversary Giveaway #4:  

The Red Umbrella and A Thunderous Whisper (both autographed by the author)

One person will win both books, autographed by Christina. Please leave a comment on this post for a chance to win the books. Answer one or both of the following questions:  

  • Do you know (or are you related to) any Pedro Pans?
  • Did you ever have your own "Cuando Sali de Cuba" moment? (The realization of what an enormous thing had happened to your family.)

I'll choose a winner at the end of MBFCF Blogiversary Giveaway Week on Monday, October 8th, 2012 at 11 am.

Cuando Sali de Cuba - Elena's Story

Marta here: Most Cubans are familiar with Santayana Jewelers. They are a mainstay of the Cuban exile community in Miami. I'm delighted that Elena Santayana has graciously agreed to share her family's stories. Her memories of growing up Santayana are both hilarious and poignant.

(Translations to her Cubanisms are marked with a red * and are at the bottom of the story.)

Gracias, Elena. You humble me.


I was born en la saguesera. That’s the southwest area of Miami, on June 8, 1978. I have three sisters, Marisa, Miriam and Patty and a twin brother, Rudy. We grew up in a split plan home in the beautiful Westchester area of Miami, Florida.

Totem pole pic
Totem pole pic

Santayana loved taking totem-pole pictures.

Both of my parents came to this country alone. My dad, known as Santayana, was Peter Pan (pronounced with rolling r’s). I thought that meant he wore green tights and fought pirates. Later, I learned it meant he came to this country without his parents and stayed at a home for boys until a cousin or uncle picked him and his brother up. But I never really “got it” until quite recently. When I was 17 years old and in high school, I never took a moment to imagine, “What if right now, I was sent away to live in another country, indefinitely, with little money and alone?”

Mom arrived in the United States on the Freedom Flights. In 1961, the day before Halloween, she was supposed to board a plane with her brother and sisters but there was a problem with her visa and she was made to stay an extra couple of days in Havana. She was 17 years old and didn’t speak much english. She lived in a house with 12 other people in the northwest area of Miami or, as she says, “la casa del nor’wes’ ”.

The original hipster
The original hipster

Elena's mama. The original hipster.

My father, Santayana, was a hard working man. Every morning he would dress in a fine suit and take his maleta* of jewelry to visit clients at their homes. Before he opened the jewelry stores, my dad was known for his maleta. I still hear stories of people who remember my dad showing up at their house, opening his maleta and revealing tray after tray of sparkling jewelry.

In the 80’s my dad had three really cool things in his possession. Number one, Santayana owned a beeper. Not the beeping kind we know now, the kind doctors still use. Dad’s beeper was like the speaker at KMart. Here’s how it worked:

  • Step 1: Call the beeper.
  • Step 2: Wait for the tone.
  • Step 3: Convey the message for all to hear over the speaker/beeper strapped to his belt. Twice.

The messages were to be coded at all times so that random strangers on the street wouldn’t suspect he was carrying a maleta of jewelry and give him the proverbial, “Palo por la cabeza.*” 

An example of an acceptable message would be: “Santayana, llama la tienda. Santayana, llama la tienda.*

However, if you said, “Santayana llama la joyeria.*” - that got you in big time trouble. Similarly, if you said, “Papi llama a mami,*  you would get banned from beeper detail. Singing Happy Birthday into the beeper was also not warmly received.

Second, Santayana had a car phone. His car phone was super cool, space-age stuff. Imagine a rotary phone bolted to the center consul of his wine colored Caprice Classic. The advanced car phone technology also required the Caprice to sport a subtle, 6 foot long antennae on its roof. Phone calls were ridiculously expensive but dad was a gadget man and had to have it. No one had a car phone.

Well, some people had carphones - drug dealers. In third grade some kid asked me, “Is your dad a drug dealer? Why does he have a car phone?”  We’re talking about Miami in the 80’s, this kid was not asking an illogical question. So I told him, “Noooo, my dad is not a drug dealer, he’s a jeweler.”

The third, neato thing Santayana had in the 80’s was a beautiful, brand-new, wine-colored Caprice Classic. On the rare occasion that Santayana took me and Rudy to school, he would pretend that his car was an airplane; he was the captain and we were his crew. I was the flight attendant offering peanuts and Rudy was the mechanic. There was always something wrong with the plane and we would have to rush, rush, rush to fix the problem. This game probably explains my fear of flying.

Although it had been over 20 years since our parents’ flight from Cuba, growing up in the 80’s, we were raised to believe that our residence in Miami was temporary. Every Christmas Eve someone proclaimed, “El año que viene en Cuba!*  Then everyone would toast and cheer and give each other big hugs.

Santayana fam 1980
Santayana fam 1980

The Santayana Family. Circa 1980.

My uncle Marcelo, who exiled to the Canary Islands after serving 9 years in a Cuban prison, had a really short index finger. His index finger was literally shorter than his pinky. Don’t imagine that his finger didn’t have a nail. It totally did. The whole thing was intact, it was just short. Like a baby finger. As a kid, that finger was the freakiest thing I had ever seen.

He waved that finger around like there was nothing wrong with it. I once asked him about it, he loudly proclaimed, “Porque este año, este año cae Fidel!* while slamming the tip of his freakishly short index finger on the table. I totally believed him. I mean, it made sense to me that slamming that finger down every day for the past 20 years would make it a whole phalanx shorter.

Every year was the year Fidel was going down. Every Christmas we were spending the next one in Camaguey. I worried about what I should pack in my luggage. Should I take a bathing suit, a sweater, boots? Should I start packing today? Was there going to be horseback riding? Whose house would we be staying at? How would Santa know where to leave the presents? It was all very confusing.

Mom (far left) with 8 of her 11 siblings
Mom (far left) with 8 of her 11 siblings

Elena's Mom (far left) with 8 of her 11 siblings. Tio Marcelo (not pictured) died this year, 2012, on her dad's birthday.

In 2007, my father was diagnosed with a horrible form of cancer. One night, as I was sitting with him at the hospital, it came over the TV that maybe Fidel Castro was dead. I wondered to myself, “Do I wish death on Castro now?” I wasn’t sure if I wanted Castro to be dead just then because my father was, at the time, on his own death bed. On this night, facing the uncertainty of my father’s life, I wasn’t sure I could wish death upon anyone. Not even on the person who had caused so much misery to thousands of people.

I also did not want my dad to live in a world where Castro was finally dead. The one reason he had not visited his childhood country after all these many years was the fact that Fidel Castro was alive, and finally, right when it was too late, the son-of-a-bitch up and dies? I didn’t know what to do. So I did the first thing that came to mind, I went to La Carreta.

I have celebrated many major life changing events at La Carreta. I sounded the horn of mom’s minivan from our house all the way to La Carreta both times the Florida Marlins won the World Series. I made sure to find parking far and early both times the Heat won the Playoffs because getting there late meant being stuck in traffic. Once, the day after Halloween, my friends and I dressed up in costumes and strutted our stuff carrying a boom box from the entrance, all the way to the back, then right out the front door. But this night, the night we thought Castro was dead was different. The energy in the air was celebratory, but nostalgic. It was both happy and sad. And I watched, completely covered in goosebumps, as a group of 20 or so teary individuals sang and danced in unison to Willy Chirino’s “Ya Viene Llegando” (video below) until the police came and broke up the entire party.

I don’t have to tell you, but I will anyway, Fidel Castro was not dead that night. Nor has he been dead any night since. My dad wasn’t happy I danced in the streets. He didn’t want me to go La Carreta to celebrate that man’s death. He didn’t want to be duped by the Castro regime. But I wanted to pass the joy in my heart to my dad. The joy I felt from being his daughter and the immense sense of pride I feel of being Cuban.

A few days or maybe weeks later my father passed away. He died in a world where Fidel Castro lived, his beloved Cuba, still existing under the foot of a tyrant. But, in the end, the only thing that ever truly mattered to him was his family. When my dad died I understood, for the first time ever, what Cuban nostalgia was really all about.

* Translation of terms used in Elena's story:

  • Maleta - suitcase.
  • Palo por la cabeza. - Blow to the head with a large blunt object.
  • Santayana, llama la tienda. - Santayana, call the store.
  • Santayana llama la joyeria. Santayana, call the jewelry store
  • Papi llama a mami. - Dad, call mom.
  • El año que viene en Cuba! - Next year in Cuba!
  • Porque este año, este año caie Fidel! - Because this year, Fidel will fall!