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Bittersweet memories of Cuba

POSTED: August 23, 2007 5:03 a.m.
There is a story about a bar owner in Miami who some years ago decided to attract Cuban customers, so he put out a sign announcing drink specials for a holiday he had heard about, July 26.
He must have thought it was some sort of Cuban Cinco de Mayo.
What he got was angry exiles demanding the guy explain why he wanted to celebrate the anniversary of the start of Fidel Castro's revolution. The “26 de Julio” is to Cuban Miami like fingernails on a blackboard, a date that will live in infamy.
The story might be apocryphal. Nobody I ever heard tell it, always with a chuckle, can actually name the joint.
But like all good fiction, it contains in its heart a hard truth.
My parents’ generation lives with a pain few outsiders understand. They had left Cuba behind because they found it impossible to live without basic liberties. But they loved their birthplace deeply.
I was 9 when I left, too young to feel the pain like my parents. But two childhood memories give me a hint of the bitter and the sweet that is part of the everyday lives of my parents’ generation, elderly Cubans who are now Cuban-American and resigned to not ever seeing their old country free.
The bitter memory is of Cuban soldiers armed with submachine guns, going through each room in our home noting every item. We had recently applied for permission to leave the country, and one of the steps we had to endure was a government inventory of everything we owned.
These inventories were to be followed by a second inventory the day of departure — during which everything needed to be accounted for. It was Castro’s way of making sure his political opposition left all their possessions behind.
Then there is my sweet memory, literally.
Across from that house ransacked by soldiers was a park, and on the far side of the street an orthopedics clinic. I was 7 or 8 years old and scared of the patients, their arm or leg in a cast. I stayed away.
But on a dare from my friend Euclides one Havana afternoon, I walked up to the clinic by myself. The place looked closed — there was nobody around. With Euclides egging me on across the street, I walked behind the whitewashed building into a backyard with a mango tree. I grabbed a mango and sat down to eat.
I remember the fresh, ripe flavor bursting in my mouth. I have never, since then, tasted a more perfect piece of fruit.
The soldier and the mango are individual moments in my life — fraught with symbolism, sure, but just things that a little kid went through. To my parents’ generation, however, those two moments sum up a lifetime as adults, fully aware of the beauty and the suffering that Cuba brought them.
I barely understand that pain, so it is no wonder most Americans cannot feel it either. And it is no wonder, either, that the pain intensifies when it’s chic to wear a Che T-shirt, or when a Michael Moore holds up the Castro regime as an example of anything.

Hernandez is a syndicated columnist and writer-in-residence at New Jersey Institute of Technology. His latest book is “Cubans in America” (Kensington). Send email to rogereh@optonline.net
 

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