My mom just got back from Miami, and brought with her a trove of old family photos and documents.
Nobody talked about Cuba when I was growing up, and those that left weren’t allowed to take so much as a photograph with them. My grandfather had nothing more than a briefcase with him when he saw Havana for what he thought was the last time. For the longest time I thought I was Puerto Rican because we spoke Spanish, my grandparents lived there, and we would spend our summers in San Juan when I was a kid.
They still don’t really talk about Cuba, so I’m fascinated by everything Cuban. My childhood had no context, in a way, and it’s only as an adult that I’m finding some.
So today is sort of magic. My mom and I sitting on the floor in the upstairs hall during a thunderstorm, looking at photographs of people I’ve never met. Some of them still living in Cuba. Photographs of people I know and love when they were so young and sad from being uprooted. My uncle looked haunted. My grandparents so tired.
Telegrams from my grandpa to my grandma in a tone of romantic longing (if you’d known my hard drinking, gambling, naked lady art collecting grandpa it would have startled the shit out of you just like it did me), sent while he was in Havana waiting for his exit papers and she was in Mexico, waiting for both her visa and for my uncle to finish high school.
And maybe my favorite thing of all, this photo.
My great great grandparents in the center. Double G Grandma was almost 100 years old when this was taken. They’re surrounded by their daughters on their farm. The woman on the right top row was my great grandmother. They were farmers. All of them. The widowed daughters come home to roost and take care of their parents, who never stopped working the land no matter how old they got. It was my grandmother who (in a very calculated move) married money and bought property for her whole family in the city so they wouldn’t have to work so hard in their old age. That was my bio-grandpa, who died when my mother was 13. The romantic telegram sender was the man I always knew as my grandpa, my grandmother’s second husband. Who also had money, though he, like every other Cuban, lost everything when he left. No wonder my grandmother had such a fairly smooth time adjusting to being poor.
It’s weird that my family started out as part of the rural population the revolution was supposed to raise up, turned well to do middle class that the revolution was intended to take down. I wonder what that felt like to her. I can’t ask her, because her Alzheimer’s is advanced to the point she doesn’t talk anymore. I probably wouldn’t anyway. I hate to poke people’s scars, and it’s evident my family has them, since this is the first time I’ve ever heard some of these stories.
People always ask me what influences my work, and I tell them I had a Mexican mythological upbringing. Which I never questioned at all. It’s neat to know now why a Cuban girl identifies so much with Mexican folk culture. Mexico sheltered my family at critical points in their journey. I had never realized how much time they actually spent there. I think they very nearly stayed in Mexico City, but it wasn’t island enough for them. No wonder Puerto Rico became home. It was the nearest thing to Cuba they could find. I might have grown up Mexican if not for an unstoppable love for a certain way of making black beans and a longing for good rum.
Funny how life works out.