'Finding Mañana' Details Cuban 'Exodus'
Mirta Ojito was 16 when she arrived in the U.S. as part of an influx of Cuban refugees in 1980, an exodus known as the Mariel boatlift. She revisits her experience and the factors behind the boatlift in a new book, Finding Mañana: A Memoir of a Cuban Exodus.
Ojito, a writer for the New York Times, contributed to a series for that paper that won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. She joins Scott Simon to discuss her memoir.
Read an Excerpt of Finding Mañana by Mirta Ojito
ONE: Worms Like Us
WHAT IS IT? I yelled, reluctantly dragging myself up the steps that led to our apartment. What do you want? I demanded as I yanked the door open. I had been playing at my best friend’s house across the street when my mother’s voice, calling from our balcony, had shot through the windows, forcing me to abandon our game and race home.
My little sister looked at me expectantly but didn’t say a word. A feeling of dread overcame me, and I began to search my mother’s face for clues.
Years of studying her face had made me an expert at deciphering her moods. With a quick glance at her mouth or her brow, I could tell what kind of day awaited us. A frown by itself was a sign of boredom or tiredness; a frown accompanied by squinting eyes spelled anger and warned of consequences for misbehaving. An unlined brow, and sometimes even sparkling eyes, meant a respite from her relentless pessimism or her sadness. On the days of the sparkling eyes, I could expect any surprise from my mother: a dead mouse floating in a pail of water, a warm rice pudding, a new blouse stitched together from the remnants she had saved from her work as a seamstress, or the promise that, come 7:00 P.M., I would be allowed to watch my favorite television show at a neighbor’s house.
Today was different, though. Today, she seemed happy. Her round face, framed by shiny black hair, was open and warm, soft and glowing with the luminosity of an antique white satin wedding gown. Her slightly slanted dark brown eyes sparkled. She didn’t even seem to have registered my alarmed tone. Oh, no! I thought, we got our exit papers. And my heart sank, because in the summer of 1974, when I was ten, nothing would have lifted my parents’ heart—and broken mine—more than receiving authorization to emigrate to the United States.
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know that my family’s most cherished aspiration was to someday, somehow leave Cuba, as most of the people we knew had already done. My earliest memories are not of making friends but of losing them to the United States. All my parents’ friends and many of our relatives had left by the time I was six. We would take a walk in the neighborhood, and suddenly my mother would notice the telltale official yellow piece of paper sealing shut someone’s main door, and just like that she would know she’d lost another friend—and, by extension, so had I. Marcelo and Mery and their two girls, the family downstairs, left first. Mery used to cut my mother’s hair; Marcelo, my father’s. Then it was Gladys and Ñico from around the corner. Gladys was my mother’s second cousin; her oldest daughter was my friend and classmate. Later it was Alicia and Miguel’s turn. They lived just a block away and were my parents’ best friends. Their sprawling, book-filled house was a magnet of interesting, fun people who on many evenings had made my mother laugh and my father forget his life for a while.
Eventually my parents, my sister, and I would sit to plan our weekend and realize that we had no one to visit anymore. My mother started listening to radio soap operas to fill the silence of her days. My father preferred to stay home, spending an entire Sunday afternoon shining our shoes. I began to befriend the elderly people in the neighborhood, the ones I thought were too old ever to leave. I spent hours at the dark Colonial-style home of five sisters, old maids, who were fond of saying they wanted to be buried in Cuba. I figured that unless they got sick and suddenly died, their burial plans granted a certain longevity to our relationship.
After a while wanting to leave became a way of life. It meant that my father scanned the paper for news of conflicts with other countries, calculating which enemy nation would be most likely to welcome fleeing Cuban refugees. My sister and I rarely got to wear our nicest outfits, because my mother saved them, pressed and covered in plastic, so we could look elegant upon landing in Madrid, which was the plan for a while, or New York, which was always the dream. As we got older, she stopped doing that and instead saved the thickest fabrics she could find, calculating that any place north of Havana was bound to be frigid. Both my parents avoided any kind of political affiliation because, as they would explain to different recruiters who came to our home to encourage them to join in the spirit of the revolution, why get involved? We are waiting for our exit papers, you see, they’d say. And the men and women who dutifully tried to make communists out of my parents would open their eyes wide and exclaim, Ooh! surprised at their honesty and somewhat envious of a family with an actual plan.
But as I stood in front of my mother that day, silently praying that the urgency in her voice was not linked to our emigration plans, I detected only joy, no nervous edge to her gestures. It wasn’t the papers, then, I realized. That’s when I saw my father’s back. He was kneeling on the floor, his large brown hands toying with what looked like a black box. I leaned forward, but all I could see at first was the top of his head, covered by curly black hair, which he carefully combed back every morning with brilliantine. Then his long nose, which cleaved his narrow face in half like the arm of a sundial and hung in a perfect right angle over his thin mustache. I stood on my toes and finally saw what he was hiding from me: a television!
Oh, my God! I yelped and jumped on my father’s wide back, hugging him tightly from behind.
I had wanted a television set for so long that I’d begun to think I was never going to have one. All my friends had one, old black-and-white relics from the time American products could be purchased in Cuba. And here was ours. Finally. Black-and-white as well, but shiny and new, with an incomprehensible Russian word on the top right side.
I jumped up and down. My sister joined me. My mother, too. My father explained that for two hundred pesos, or about one and a half times his monthly salary, he had bought a coupon from a friend stating that he had donated an old American TV to the government. Armed with the fake coupon, my father spent another seven hundred pesos, a fortune for us, to buy the Russian box; without the coupon he couldn’t have done it. It was all sort of illegal, but my father was confident he wouldn’t get caught, he said, sounding more hopeful than certain, more embarrassed by the deal than triumphal. Still, with the help of my mother, he had accomplished a major feat. For years my mother had tucked away every peso she earned at the sewing machine so that our family could afford small luxuries such as fried chicken every Sunday for lunch, occasional dinners out, and now, finally, a television.
I was reminded daily of the life my parents used to have before the revolution, of the life they claimed I should have had. My parents often talked of bathing with fragrant soaps, of using shampoos that actually cleaned long hair like mine, of American-made appliances that lasted for years, and of a sticky magical concoction, called Vicks VapoRub, that cured all coughs and unclogged stuffy noses. The cobalt blue glass bottle of one, the last one my parents bought before American products disappeared from pharmacies, still sat in the middle of our medicine cabinet. All the possibilities of capitalism, of life in pre-Castro Cuba, were encapsulated for me in that squat little container of a salve so old that it had lost its scent.
Life in the late 1950s had been joyous, my parents told me. On weekends they rode around the city on clean, practically empty buses, just to kill time. In the evenings, television shows were entertaining, not educational like the ones I was forced to watch because nothing else was on. Their favorite shows gave prizes away. Imagine that! my father used to tell me. You would climb up a waxed pole, and if you made it to the top, you’d win a mattress or a couch. If you found a plastic rooster in the laundry soap, you could win a house. A whole house! Imagine that! But I couldn’t imagine, and so my father took me to the one house in the neighborhood that still bore the sign of the soap, Jabón Candado.
When I walked about my neighborhood, I used to go out of my way to find that house, to marvel at its construction, to scrutinize all the details of its ornate façade—crevices and niches and Doric columns, a relic of times past. A disabled girl in a wheelchair lived in that house, and every day her parents placed her on the front porch to let her catch the afternoon breeze. She sat there alone in her pink, ruffled dress and watched me while I looked at her house. Her mother would come out sometimes and, assuming I was curious about the girl, invite me in. She’d ask me, Do you want to be her friend? But I didn’t. I wanted only to live in her house or, at the very least, to visit it. I yearned to touch the symbol of Jabón Candado, an open lock attached to the façade to remind people that someone in that house once had the good fortune of finding a plastic rooster nestled inside a bar of soap.
IN MY WORLD there was no such thing as good luck. My family lived in a one-bedroom apartment for which my parents paid twenty-five pesos a month, or a little less than 20 percent of my father’s salary. Because the government had confiscated all private property, we never knew who the original owner of the apartment had been. As far as we knew, it was ours. No one could kick us out, as my teachers often told me capitalists used to do to the poor who couldn’t pay the rent. But we also had no chance to win a house or even a bigger apartment by testing our luck. In my world people earned the right to have things through hard work and the right political attitude, not because they were lucky.
The people I knew earned coupons to buy plastic blenders or Russian-made washing machines by working long hours in their jobs six days a week and then volunteering to work on Sunday for the good of the country. They cut sugarcane in fields far from their homes, helped build homes for those who didn’t have any, or labored overtime in factories to meet production quotas and maybe even earn thr right to buy a refrigerator. My father worked hard, harder than many others, I knew. And yet until the day my father brought that black Russian box home, I had never switched on a television set.
Go ahead, turn it on, my father said, as if reading my mind. Gently.
A simple switch of a button to the right, and a light appeared on the center of the screen, where it flickered for a while, and then, as if by magic, the screen opened.
There was nothing on; programming didn’t start until later in the day. The family sat on the couch smiling, watching vertical stripes on top of a large horizontal stripe until we got bored. At 5:45 P.M. an old Argentine film came on, and we all watched attentively, eating bread with oil and salt, our favorite snack.
An hour later, just as the movie was nearing its end, the power went out. A nightly blackout, a few hours without electricity, was a common occurrence in Cuba, and especially in my neighborhood, Santos Suárez. There were no diplomats where we lived, no foreign students, no Eastern European comrades—the only outsiders who visited Cuba then—so my neighborhood was a convenient one to keep in the dark. No one complained. To whom? For what? Most people did what we did that night: went out to their terraces or balconies, sat in their rocking chairs, and rocked the boredom and frustration away.
I was so grateful for that precious black box that when the lights went off, I ran to my parents’ bedroom, threw myself on the pink bedspread, facedown, eyes squeezed shut, and promised myself that once I started sixth grade in September, I would watch TV only after I had completed my homework and memorized my lessons of the day.
When I told my mother later about my promise, she shook her head silently. If she thought I was exaggerating, she didn’t say. She knew that the previous school year had been a torment for both of us. I needed to prove, if only to myself, that—at least academically—I was beyond reproach.
I HAD HAD TWO teachers in fifth grade, one for science and math, the other for literature and history. The arrangement was a novelty, because up to then I’d had only one teacher for each grade and revered all of them. So it was perhaps out of habit and goodwill that I felt an instant connection to my two new teachers the moment they walked into class the first day. They were young and pretty. Tania had long black hair, down to her waist, and she always wore very short dresses. Eradia was thin and dark, with the delicate features of a bird. She had short, curly black hair and a wide smile that revealed shiny white teeth.
Sometime during the first week of classes, Tania posed a question I had never been asked before.
Who here believes in God? she asked, looking over the entire class.
Without thinking I raised my hand. So did Ivón, the chubby girl who sat next to me and was in my Saturday catechism class. We were the only ones with our hands up. Ivón blushed deeply. Under the weight of so many eyes looking in our direction, she slowly lowered her hand, letting it rest delicately on top of her desk.
And who goes to church? Tania pressed on.
I left my arm up, mainly because I knew that my teacher already knew. The fact that I went to church, I was sure, was in my student record, the one kept by school officials for each child from kindergarten on. Also, because denying God was not allowed in my family. There were categories of lies at home. We were never to flaunt the fact that we had relatives in the United States, but we were not to deny them either. We didn’t have to announce to the world that we believed in God, but, if asked directly, we would affirm it. And to anyone who asked we would always say that we were waiting for our exit papers to leave the country because we wanted to join my father’s siblings abroad, which was only half the truth. We weren’t to reveal that my father had issues with a revolution that he felt robbed people of their souls.
The lies were necessary because any perceived ideological flaw could potentially mark a family as counterrevolutionary, an enemy of the revolution. Having a relative in jail for opposing the revolution; communicating with relatives in a Western country, especially the United States; having had a great deal of money or influence under the previous regime; believing in God and openly going to church; and wanting to leave the country could earn one the label of counterrevolutionary. Once so branded, life in Cuba became even more difficult. A mistake that would cause anyone else to receive a reprimand could land a counterrevolutionary in jail.
Three years earlier, when Uncle Oswaldo had sent us a package from Madrid, my mother had instructed me to lie about it. It’s a family issue, she’d said. I understood her comment as permission to lie. A package wasn’t worth the aggravation of being honest. If anyone asked where I got the canary yellow dress I wore on special occasions, I was to say that my neighbor, who often traveled to the Soviet Union, had brought it back for me. Admitting to having received a package from el exterior—the official shorthand used to describe anything not produced, sold, or controlled by the revolution—offered the government ammunition to cast aside a family as counterrevolutionary.
And so my parents went about their lives carefully, trudging on the ever-narrowing space where their personal convictions didn’t interfere too much with their obligations as conscientious parents who had to teach their children to obey rules they abhorred. With tact and good nature, they managed to remain undetected, or ignored, by those who thought apathy was almost as subversive as an attack against the revolution.
They never went to La Plaza de la Revolución, the square where Castro delivered his endless speeches, but they were helpful to neighbors and often worked without pay on Sundays, pouring cement to repair cracked sidewalks or planting trees in community gardens. Despite their obvious political shortcomings, they were respected and even admired by some of the most militant members of the neighborhood. Our downstairs neighbor, a woman who moved in after Marcelo and Mery left for the United States, had fought in the mountains with Castro, and her husband periodically received military training in the Soviet Union, yet she talked to my mother every day as the two washed clothes on their patios, their voices muffled by the floor that separated them and the sound of the water splashing in the sink.
Perhaps I should have lied then when asked about faith, but thus far my teachers had been kind to me, and in their kindness I had found a refuge from the dichotomy of my life. I could believe in God and Fidel. I could read Karl Marx and Mark Twain. I could play Angela Davis, the 1960s black radical, in a school play and sing in the church choir Saturday afternoons. Every day I tested my balance on an ideological tightrope, torn between school, where I was constantly told that the revolution had been built so that children like me could have a better future, and home, where the very mention of the word “revolution” caused my parents, particularly my father, to grimace. I had no reason to believe that my fifth-grade teachers would upset that balance.
To them, though, I was damaged goods, a smart kid who would never amount to anything because the counterrevolutionary attitude of my parents held me back. Teachers, especially ambitious young ones who aspired to join the Communist Party, aimed to shape the “New Man” that Che Guevara had dreamed about out of the pliable clay of a child’s character. But I, the daughter of professed gusanos—“worms,” the term applied to those who had not integrated into the revolutionary process and wanted to leave the country—was not moldable material.
My teachers knew that my father had been opposed to my becoming a Pioneer when I was five, the age at which Cuban children swear before the flag, in an elaborate ceremony, to grow up to be like Che Guevara: “Pioneros por el comunismo. Seremos como el Che”—Pioneers for Communism. We will be like Che. It had taken my mother two years to convince my father to let me wear the then white-and-blue Pioneer neckerchief to school; she sensed I wasn’t going to thrive in school unless I became a Pioneer. When I finally did, at the beginning of third grade, my mother attended the ceremony; my father did not. I bet my teachers noted that, too.
How can such an intelligent girl believe in God? Tania asked me in a mocking tone. Does God put food on your table? Noooo, Fidel does. Does God give you your books and pencils so you can come to school? Nooooo, the revolution does.
I lowered my head in silence. I had been marked.
In the Cuba of the 1970s, even children knew that no loyalty was more important than that owed to Fidel Castro and the revolution. Before I learned my multiplication tables, I had memorized Che’s final letter to Castro, the one in which he tells him he has to leave Cuba because he was made for the struggle, not for the spoils of victory. I was told that Nixon was an evil man before I learned who Hitler had been or what he had done. I could recite Castro’s speech at his 1953 trial for leading an attack against a Batista military barracks before I ever laid my eyes on a poem by Lord Byron or Pablo Neruda. In school we were often reminded of how many children went to bed hungry or died of treatable diseases in places like Nicaragua, Ethiopia, and even Alabama, and we were made to memorize slogans such as “Fidel es mi papá y Cuba es mi mamá.” I mouthed the words but never uttered them aloud.
FROM THE DAY TANIA discovered I went to church, she began to make fun of my mother.
She waltzes in and she says, Miss, how is my daughter doing? How are her grades? Is she behaving in class? My teacher would say this, walking from the center of the room to the door, holding her hand in midair, the way my mother did, straining in vain, with her short, thick neck, to look like my mother. My mother was so tall and elegant that this woman couldn’t possibly ever look like her.
So there I sat, first to the teacher’s right, surrounded by my giggling classmates, not knowing if I should laugh at her for looking so ridiculous or cry at the caricature of my mother she had created.
Why doesn’t she ask about all the kids in the class? Tania asked, emphasizing the word “all,” stretching the vowel to make it match the sweeping arch of her arms over the entire class of thirty. Why is she so individualistic, so bourgeois? And why does she insist in calling me señorita?
To be polite was to be bourgeois, a sin in Castro’s Cuba. My teacher wanted to be called compañera. She wanted my mother to become a “combatant mother,” a much-politicized version of the hard-driving PTA mother. I had begged my mother to join the mothers’ group and to start using the words that the government had popularized. But she eschewed any kind of organized effort, and her thin lips seemed to be built for softer words, like “Miss” and “please” and “kindly.” “Comrade” was harsh. “Combatant” was a military word.
Oxen have partners, my mother used to tell me. We are people. I don’t have a compañera, and I don’t wage war.
The weeks of school went by. My mother never knew that la señorita Tania—so young and innocent-looking—was mocking her in front of the class. I dared not tell her, for I feared her reaction. If she talked to the teacher, I was certain, the mockery would never end.
ONE SATURDAY, as my parents were dressing for their weekly outing to the movies, my mother asked me why I hadn’t yet selected my clothes for church. Every Saturday my parents walked my sister and me to our weekly catechism class, and then they would quickly leave for the movies. By the time the movie ended, my sister and I were taking communion. My parents waited for us in the back pews, hoping no one noticed they had missed mass. Neither one of them had been brought up in a particularly religious home. Yet they insisted that my sister and I go to church because, they said, nothing bad could ever happen to us there.
But I wasn’t so sure anymore that church was good for me, and I told my mother just that as she was slipping on her black high-heeled sandals. She got up from the bed, looked me in the eye, and asked why.
I just don’t like it, I said. It’s boring, and I have to confess, and I don’t have any sins, so I make them up, and I’m tired of that. My eyes welled with tears.
My parents were stunned at my words.
And I think my sister shouldn’t go either, I went on through sobs. It’s not good for her.
My sister Mabel, four years younger than I was, would do as I said, I was sure of that. From the time she was born, my mother had made me feel that I was as responsible for her safety and well-being as my parents were. In return I had her loyalty. Mine was the hand she held on to as we crossed the street during family outings, and mine was the shoulder she sought when she was sad or conflicted. I wanted to spare her the humiliation and pain my admitted faith was putting me through. My parents looked at each other but didn’t say anything. My father finished combing his hair and, finally, spoke.
Okay, then, he said. Get dressed anyway. You are going to the movies with us.
We went to see Los Incapturables, a Russian film with Spanish subtitles about a band of four youths who roam Russia in search of adventure. We laughed until we cried. And we never again talked about God, the church, or religion in our home.
In class I began to sit in the back and rarely raised my hand anymore. My grades started to slip, not dramatically, but enough for my mother to notice, which made her visit the classroom even more and question the teacher in greater detail, which made Tania intensify her mocking. Eventually I feigned headaches to avoid going to school. Soon enough the headaches became real.
For every day that I missed school, Tania had a special punishment for me. I was to complete, at lunchtime, five hundred lines of whatever humiliating sentence she could come up with: I will not talk in class. I will not miss class. I will not be late. My mother learned to imitate my handwriting so she could help me finish the assignments on time. I began to skip lunch to complete my lines, or if I did manage to eat, I would throw up on the way back to school for the afternoon session.
One day the teacher asked me to stay after class and accompany her to the principal’s office. I wondered what I had done this time to deserve such humiliation. The principal, a stocky and stern woman named Iraida, was waiting behind her desk when we arrived. In front of her, she had a file with my name on it. She said something about being concerned for my future, worried that my behavior would derail my plans, thinking that my family was jeopardizing my opportunities for advancement. My future, she told me, was in peril.
But I tell you what, she said. There just may be something we can do about it. Compañera Tania here has something for you.
Tania handed me a yellow envelope and asked me to take it home and make sure that my parents answered each and all questions in the pages it contained and to return it to her the next morning. I thanked her and the principal, because I felt that I had been given the responsibility to save my future. It was, quite literally, in my hands.
I went home thinking I would lock myself in the bathroom to read the papers before handing them to my mother. But the moment my mother saw my face, she asked me what had happened. I took the envelope from my book bag and handed it to her, not telling her what the principal had said about my uncertain future. She glanced at the papers before laying them on the dining table; for once her face betrayed nothing. Accustomed to leaving important decisions to my father, she said he would take a look at them when he came home from work, which he usually did after eight, exhausted from driving a delivery truck.
When he arrived that night, he, too, ignored the papers at first. I was aching to read them but didn’t dare to touch them. I reminded my father to answer all the questions, just as the teacher had instructed. We’ll see, he said.
I went to bed but didn’t sleep. Because my sister and I shared the couch in the living room, I could see my father hunched over the papers by the light on the dining table. He stayed up half the night, sometimes reading, sometimes thinking, holding his brow with the first three fingers of his left hand, as was his custom when events overwhelmed him. I peered at him from under the sheets, pretending to sleep. Sometime before dawn he pushed the papers away and went to bed.
In the morning he simply told me he couldn’t answer the questions, and he showed me why. The questionnaire asked every detail of our lives. Did we have relatives in the United States? What were their names and addresses? Did we communicate with them? How often? Did we go to church? Every week? Every day? Did we know any counterrevolutionaries? Did we go to La Plaza to hear Fidel speak? Did we volunteer when the revolution needed us? One hundred and fifty-four questions that were impossible to answer but perhaps dangerous to ignore. To discard the questions could send the signal that I was desperately trying to avoid: that as the daughter of avowed gusanos, I was beyond redemption. There was nothing I could do for the revolution, and therefore there was nothing the revolution could do for me.
No one has the right to invade our privacy like this, my father said. I knew not to go further.
He rolled up the papers and put them inside one of the glasses from an orange-and-green set my mother kept in the cupboard. I skipped school that day, complaining of stomach pains. The next day my teachers asked me if we had filled out the questionnaire. I said my father was working on it. They asked again the next day, and the next. Until one day they stopped asking. The papers remained inside the cupboard for as long as we lived in Cuba.
THE SCHOOL YEAR ENDED, as did all my years in grade school, with a student show. Teachers would pick their favorite students and coach them to display their talents on graduation day, when awards were issued along with the diplomas. I’d had such a chaotic year that I knew I wouldn’t receive any special awards or be picked to perform in any of the shows. My class had organized a fashion show representing the countries of the world. There were girls dressed in flowing white Panamanian dresses, elaborate Spanish dancers’ costumes, and even Japanese kimonos. Others wore short, skin-colored smocks and feathers in their hair; they were American Indians. A black girl wrapped her lithe body with a colorful curtain from her living room to represent Africa. Another wore baggy pants and a veil around her face; she was the Cuban version of an Arabic country.
I stood on the sidelines pretending to enjoy the preparations for the show as much as if I were participating in it. But I couldn’t, because for the first time I had not been chosen. I was no longer good enough to play a Vietnamese farmer, harvesting rice with a stick while pretending to dodge American bombs, or even Angela Davis, a role I had played before, clad in a black plastic miniskirt, my hands bound by paper chains while the people of the world swirled around me and clamored for my freedom. I had danced and sung and recited revolutionary poems from the time I could read. I had played the role of Cuba, the motherland, wrapped in a flag, my head topped by a tiny red hat.
And yet there I stood that day in July 1974, watching my classmates giggle as they put on their costumes and the girls brushed each other’s hair while the boys fiddled with the sound system. The salty taste of my tears surprised me, and I ran to the bathroom to hide. On my way back to the show, I ran into Eradia, the teacher who had stood by while Tania made my life miserable that year. She grabbed me by the waist and said, There you are!
Here I am, I replied, bracing for the worst.
I’ve been looking for you, she said. I have no one to play the role of Cuba, and you are perfect for it.
But I don’t have a costume, I said, my mind racing, my heart beating fast. Could I run home and fashion a dress with my mother’s magical sewing machine before the show started in ten minutes? Probably not.
You don’t need one. You’ll play revolutionary Cuba, she said, gesturing toward my outfit.
I was wearing black cotton pants and a long red polyester blouse with ruffles in the front. Red and black were the colors of the 26 of July Movement, the group that Castro had led in his quest for power.
Yes, I said, yes! And I ran to the stage, jumping on instead of climbing the stairs. I took my place in line just as the music began. When Eradia read my name and said, And now, compañeros and compañeras, here’s the Cuba of today, the Cuba of all of us, revolutionary Cuba! I took a gracious bow and looked over to my mother, who suppressed her surprise and politely smiled back from the audience.
My graduation gift from my teachers was a large book titled Moncada, the name of the military barracks that a group of young men, led by Castro, had attacked in their first attempt to overthrow the government of Batista in July 1953, twenty-one years before I graduated from fifth grade. The shiny cover had what I thought were splashes of black and white paint until a boy pointed out that the black was really blood, the blood of the martyrs who had died so that I could enjoy the freedoms I was told I had. Inside the book were pictures of the dead revolutionaries who had accompanied Castro in that failed mission. Some had been tortured beyond recognition, eyes gouged out, fingernails pulled off, faces smashed by fierce blows. I closed the book quickly but thanked my teachers anyway. When I got home, I hid the book on the tallest shelf I could find, so that I would never again have to see what happens to revolutionary young men and women with convictions.
THE VERY FIRST DAY of sixth grade, I met Marta, a short, toothy girl with bright eyes and freckles, who quickly became my friend. Like me, she took school seriously and always carried a book with her. Marta lived with her grandmother, Carmelina, a kind old woman who taught piano and French to a select group of children. To study with Marta’s grandmother was a privilege, a sign that you were ambitious and smart enough to garner the attention of the most educated woman in the neighborhood. Before the revolution she had gone to school abroad, in France and the United States, where she had majored in philosophy. She knew history and geography and geometry as intimately as she knew the contours of her house.
I already knew of Carmelina’s reputation, and I liked Marta a great deal, so I immediately told her that I wanted to do my homework with her. Kathy, who was my oldest friend, also came along. A partnership was forged. Every day after school, we would go home and shower quickly and then rush to Marta’s dining room, where, at the head of a long wooden table with thick, carved legs, her grandmother awaited. First we would do our homework with her guidance, then review the day’s lessons. She would push us to think critically, to go beyond the chapter at hand. We would stay at that table until Carmelina was certain that, for that day at least, we understood the world as she saw it. She would often finish the evening by playing the piano as we sat on the posh but faded couches of her living room and looked at the paintings of English hunting parties on the walls.
My grades improved so dramatically that I could entertain thoughts of going to the country’s top university preparatory school, the Vocational School Vladimir Ilich Lenin. There were three girls who had a good chance that year. I was one of them; the other two were Kathy, whose sister already attended the school, and Marta, whose parents everyone said were members of the militia, the group of men and women who wore the olive green fatigues favored by Fidel and who performed important but drudging work for the country. I had the best grade-point average in sixth grade but no brilliant older sister or family connections, as my mother would often remind me. In the days leading up to the announcement, the three of us were nervous but tried not to show it. We knew that only one of us would be chosen, and yet we continued to study together. Now that we were certain to graduate with top honors, Carmelina had relaxed her rules and allowed us to play on her vast terrace, from which we could see the rooftops of the entire neighborhood. She even made us cookies and allowed us to bang on the old piano ourselves.
But my mother remained wary. They’ll never pick you. Remember that, she would say, and then add for good measure, If you expect the worst, you won’t be disappointed when it comes. You’ll be prepared. And if it doesn’t, you’ll be thrilled.
At the end of the school year, when the principal called out the name of the sixth-grader selected to go to the Lenin school, I was prepared for the worst, as my mother had taught me, but also hoping for the best. It was not to be. Marta’s name was called. Everybody rushed to congratulate her, including me.
WHEN THE TIME CAME to register for middle school, my student record had been sent to the wrong school. I had to retrieve it personally and carry it to the school I had been assigned. I was told not to open the package or dare peek at the pages of my record.
The first thing I did when I got home, of course, was to figure out a way to read my records. It was easier than I’d thought. The white notebook with my name printed in bold black letters was inside a plastic envelope sealed only with a simple staple. I carefully removed the staple by separating the two legs with a kitchen knife and pulled the notebook out, trying not to smudge the immaculate covers with my fingers.
I had been told many times by my teachers that from kindergarten on, a detailed year-by-year record was kept of our grades, our strengths and weaknesses, our disposition. What I had never been told was that my record as a student would also include a fair amount of information about my family. Page by page, in handwriting that I recognized as that of my grammar-school teachers, my record revealed every detail of my life.
Father won’t let her become a Pioneer, my first-grade teacher had written.
Mother takes an extreme interest in the child, even sitting in class to learn modern mathematical concepts. She has a sixth-grade education from the years before the revolution, the teacher went on.
Child likes to read, wrote my second-grade teacher, a man who used to give me books about the Vietnam War as rewards for my good grades.
She is precocious. She shows potential but won’t participate much in political activities, wrote my third-grade teacher. She has relatives in the United States, and the family regularly communicates with them.
This student still goes to church, wrote Tania.
Excellent grades but needs to become more involved in revolutionary activities, wrote my sixth-grade teacher.
By the end of the report, I was holding the notebook away from my face so my tears wouldn’t stain the pages. Now I knew why I had not been picked for the school of my choice. I’d never really had a chance. Mercifully, I was alone in the house. I didn’t want my parents to conclude that their ideology was hindering my education. I slipped the notebook back into the plastic envelope, slowly pushed the staple through the holes, and, with the back of the knife, pressed it closed.
SOMETIME LATER THAT YEAR, the president of the block committee approached my father one day at dusk, just as he was coming home with a bagful of potatoes he had purchased from a farmer, a forbidden transaction then. When are you going to join us? she asked him, eyeing the illegal potatoes. My father froze in place. He knew that she could call the police right there, but he hoped she wouldn’t. After all, he had been buying food on the black market for years, and so far no one had said anything. This time was different, though. He could sense it. The president of the block committee was upset because ours was the only one in the neighborhood that did not have 100 percent participation. And all because of the Ojito family, she said. My family’s reluctance to join was upsetting her record. If she wasn’t able to make revolutionaries out of all her neighbors, she would be perceived as a weak, untrustworthy leader.
How much longer do you think I can protect you? she said.
My father understood the implicit threat. Soon after, my parents became members of the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, and I became a junior member of sorts, volunteering to distribute vaccines for children, helping to weed community gardens, and knocking on doors reminding people to attend the next block meeting.
On October 6, 1976, after years of relative peace between Cuba and the United States, terrorists planted a bomb in a Cubana de Aviación plane on its way from Venezuela to Cuba. The plane blew up in midair, killing all seventy-three people on board—including most of the members of Cuba’s youth fencing team. The pilot of the plane was the father of one of my eighth-grade classmates. Our school, and the nation, was in mourning; it was Fidel’s finest hour. This was exactly the kind of disaster he needed to stoke the flames of nationalistic ardor. We had gotten too lax, he told us. Too sure of our revolution, our accomplishments, our resolve. But we must never forget that our enemies lay in wait.
The country was thrown into a revolutionary frenzy from which it was impossible to escape. Though I had never felt especially drawn to Fidel and had managed to avoid listening to most of his speeches, I felt a duty to go with the rest of my classmates to La Plaza de la Revolución to hear him give a eulogy for the victims. When the buses came to school to pick us up, instead of hiding in a closet or a bathroom as I used to do, I boarded, sat by a window, and sang my heart out, defying the enemies of the revolution to try our might.
I didn’t get to see Fidel. Hundreds of thousands of people thronged the square and the streets of the neighborhood that surrounded it. As I made my way through the crowds trying not to lose sight of my friends, I could hear snatches of Fidel’s speech, booming overhead. Blood. Principles. Death. Yankees. Once again he was blaming the United States.
Fidel’s fury frightened me. My chest tightened, and I began to feel an urge to get away. I forged ahead but couldn’t move. Too many people. I couldn’t even think of going back. A mob was pressing at my back. Making a sudden turn to the right, I became separated from my friends and ended up seeking shelter in a funeral home. There a family was in mourning for a young man who had killed himself with his father’s gun. From the foyer of the funeral home, I could see his swollen head protruding over one end of the casket. It was the first dead body I had ever seen, and I felt a surge of bile rising up my throat.
I ran away and didn’t stop running until somehow I boarded a city bus that was practically empty because everyone or nearly everyone was at La Plaza, from which I’d just escaped. I rode the bus until it reached its final destination. I was so confused I had no idea where I was. When the speech ended and the buses resumed their normal routes, I found one that eventually took me home.
BEFORE THE YEAR was over, the newspapers began writing a great deal about the man who had won the race to the White House, Jimmy Carter. Cuban newspapers always paid exaggerated attention to the comings and goings of the americanos, but this Jimmy Carter was getting more attention than most. He was a man, it seemed, with whom Fidel could communicate. He would control the crazy Miami Cubans or the CIA assassins or whoever it was that had murdered the fencing team, the government assured us.
Despite the news that held the nation transfixed, our lives went on as usual, preoccupied by the lack of food and other inexplicable consequences of defying the United States. We lived in a country of mysteries, of mirrors, of magicians. Large quantities of eggs could appear in the market one morning, as if all the hens of Cuba had gone into a production overdrive, and then suddenly eggs would disappear for weeks. The Americans must have poisoned the chickens, people would say. A store in Old Havana would receive a large shipment of hand soap, and lines that snaked around the shaded porticoes of the city would form for days; then there would be no soap for months. A crucial ingredient for soap must have been held up by the embargo, we would hear. Butter would come and go. Vanilla ice cream was plentiful, but strawberry was rare; the tropics were not kind to berry plants, we were told. There always seemed to be plain yogurt in the stores, but not enough milk. We had bread, but, though the ocean surrounded us, never fish.
Cuba’s leading cookbook author taught us to make meatballs without meat. She suggested using gofio, a sort of parched cornmeal. We had the best health care of the Americas, we were repeatedly told, but for a while cavities went unfilled because amalgam was nowhere to be found; dentists were using it as plaster to even the cracking walls of their homes as there was no plaster—or cement or tiles or paint—in the stores. Fidel would talk for hours about how the farmers were meeting production quotas despite the americanos, but the next day no one could find plantains anywhere in Havana.
We lived in fear of the enemy. We lived defying the enemy. The enemy was always the United States. My father would caution me that though the American government might have made mistakes, the people were good. They were people who, like us, worked hard and went to school and obeyed the rules but who, unlike us, were rewarded for their efforts. Over there, my father would say, always pointing with his index finger to an imaginary land just north of our terrace, it is possible to buy a ham-and-cheese sandwich every day on a man’s salary and possible, too, to treat yourself to something lacy and ruffled, like the dresses I favored, without having to sacrifice a month’s meat ration to acquire it.
And you know what’s even more important? he’d ask, then answer the question before I could reply. What’s more important is that no one will ask you what you bought and why. No one will care what you do or what you think.
In the sixties and seventies, the Cuban government called this implicit promise of a better life under capitalism diversionismo ideológico, an ideological betrayal punishable by expulsion from schools and jobs as well as, in some instances, detention and even imprisonment. Out of respect and curiosity, I let my father explain his theories about the United States without interruption. But at the time I was still enthralled by the possibilities of socialism, and I knew, as much as a fourteen-year-old can profess to know, that revolutionaries like me should not allow the trappings of capitalism to cloud their judgment.
Then, in May 1977, an extraordinary event took place in Cuba. A U.S. journalist, a woman named Barbara Walters—a name I could hardly pronounce—had come to Cuba to get to know us, we were told, and to interview our leader. Back then, ordinary Cubans like us had not been in contact with Americans for almost two decades. Once again I was grateful that we had a television set. The sight of that woman hurling questions in English at Fidel for almost five hours, questions that no one had asked him before, left me speechless. What about political prisoners? she wanted to know.
When I was little, I had heard a story about a young man in the neighborhood who was sent to jail and later executed by a firing squad for conspiring against the revolution. His bride had gone crazy, the story went; she spent her days in a catatonic state, looking out the window of her imposing but crumbling house across from our apartment. I thought of my mother’s cousin, whom I remembered vaguely. He had been in prison on an island south of Havana, and my father had flown in a small plane to see him several times. The man fled Cuba in a boat as soon as he was released. The son of my father’s closest friend at work had also been in prison, sentenced to thirty years for trying to leave the country illegally in a boat. I had always thought that those were isolated incidents, aberrations of a regime that felt threatened by its enemies to the north. Yet here was Fidel on television admitting that he held maybe two or three thousand political prisoners in Cuba’s jails. Not only that, he said that, at one point, more than fifteen thousand Cubans had been jailed for political reasons. Finally Ms. Walters asked Fidel to say a few words in English for the American people. His words were instantly translated to Spanish. He said that the americanos were hardworking people, honest people, even idealistic. Fidel added that he hoped the people of Cuba and the people of the United States could be friends. That, he said, was his sincere hope.
When we turned off the television, my father remained pensive in the darkened living room. The message was clear, he said. Changes were coming. If Fidel were willing to talk to his enemies, who knew? Maybe we could dare to dream again. Not about the kind of radical changes that would make us want to stay in Cuba, my father said, but dream about obtaining the one thing he wanted more than anything else in life: a visa to the United States. All he needed now—all Fidel was after, really—was a little push, a hint from Washington or from Miami that the Americans were willing to listen. But who, my father wondered, citing an old proverb, who would be the one to place the bell around the cat’s neck?
Excerpted with permission from Finding Mañanaby Mirta Ojito, copyright Penguin Press.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.