I really believe that word is one of the least-used words in my vocabulary, maybe in the entire language of people like myself – Cuban-born people that is.
To me, that says that we shall never meet again, so go with God then, if not myself.
“Vaya con Diós.”
That is so “Hollywood does Mexico.”
I can say with authority that Vaya con Diós has never been the choice farewell exclamation of anyone east of the Texas-Louisiana State line, especially of anyone from the Caribbean.
I was driving to a Cuban restaurant in Plantation to meet a total stranger as I worked these thoughts out, eager to get my laptop out. I wanted to write about an idiosyncrasy I noticed among the members of my family. It must be a quirk peculiar to mi gente – my people…we don’t like to say good-bye.
That’s when it started to rain.
I hate noon rain showers in the summer.
Mind you, I love a good soaking rain with lots of distant thunder to go along with it; the kind of rain that cools the day off and leaves that funny smell behind, kind of like what electricity would smell like, if it had a smell. The kind of rain that washes away the unrelenting sun, and in whose aftermath, the earth seems to wake up, slowly, and reluctantly from a mid-afternoon slumber.
But not this rain, this was the kind of short shower that lasts long enough to soak you in the few seconds it takes to run through a parking lot, and leaves behind steam you can see rising from the hot asphalt as you drive down the street.
Normally, I would have pulled in anywhere in the parking lot, and sat there with the engine on and the A/C running, maybe a little Big Head Todd and the Monsters in the CD player. But I had agreed to this lunch thing with a stranger, and it would be very rude to just not show up, so I parked as close to the walkway on the strip mall as I could, and made a dash for cover.
I walked into the familiar lobby at Padrino’s Restaurant almost an hour early for the appointment, and gave my name to the hostess; as usual, the place was bustling with activity. Padrino’s is one of the new wave of Cuban restaurant springing up all over South Florida; warm and welcoming, it caters to a mixed clientele by serving up a healthy portion of home disguised as good comfort food. A far throw from the old days of crowded eateries and waitresses that looked like your grandmother and treated you like an unruly grandchild.
I remember going to those places when I first arrived in the US – little store front restaurants where more often than not, the menu consisted of maybe three or four entrees, which varied each day according to the cook’s mood and the available ingredients. You’d come in and, with a little luck, find an open table; the grandmother waitress would stand next to you and announce the menu.
“Today we have ropa vieja, boliche, pechuga de pollo a la parilla y bistec empanizado.”
Spanish-speakers at the table would spend the next fifteen minutes carefully describing each item for the occasional adventurous mono-linguist in the group. The befuddled native would invariably settle for a Cuban sandwich and a Coke. I never could get one to try an Ironbeer, or the boliche for that matter.
Then the next wave of restaurants came: Lila’s Steak house, where the palomilla steak, cooked to perfection, was buried under a huge mound of shoestring French fries. Rancho Luna with their out-of-this-world Cuban-style fried rice. Morro Castle and late-night fritas. The Latin-American Cafeteria with the long counter and the unbelievable sandwiches. And finally Versailles, with mirrored walls and beautiful women, dark-eyed, tanned, sultry beauties with long, black hair, drinking café con leche after dark. In a few of these places, after a long search by the waiter, the hostess and the manager/owner, English language menus could be provided for the more frequent mono-linguistic diners. These places all had one thing in common: they served food to comfort the exile soul. Padrino’s is the best example of how my people look ahead, but keep our traditions alive to help us navigate through life.
I heard my name called and snapped out of my daydream. I waved at the hostess (a dark-eyed, tanned, sultry beauty with long, black hair) and followed her to my table where I promptly ordered an iced tea (my Ironbeer days are long gone now), opened my laptop and began to type.
I was deep into my rambling dissertation on the lack of usage of the word “adiós” by Cubans when I noticed the figure approach my table. I suffered a short panic attack, realizing that I had put my lunch meeting out of my mind, and that the stranger had arrived.
There are people who, no matter how long you know them, you’re never at ease around, and there are those who one is immediately at home with. Meeting the latter reminds you of re-uniting with an old and trusted friend that you’ve lost contact with, or maybe a close relative – a cousin who shared your childhood – then moved away.
That’s what I felt within minutes of shaking El Yuca’s hand. Maybe I better explain the name before I continue.
His nickname is a left over from his days hosting a radio show on a local FM station, El Yuca being the character who provided political and societal commentary from the perspective of an American of Cuban descent. Why does that sound familiar?
I “met” him through e-mail. He responded to one of my articles, eventually telling me that he wanted to meet me and discuss some story ideas for the Banana Republican. Never one to turn down lunch at a Cuban restaurant, I picked the meeting place and time. Even though I had not actively sought new ideas for my stories, I was open to listen to them. I thought that by picking the meeting place I had some control over the situation. After all, I really didn’t know anything about this person, outside of what he himself had told me. He could be a stalker, a deranged fan straight out of a Stephen King novell.
We talked about our lives and what it meant to be a child of exile, to have a future but no past. I talked about my desire to be a bridge spanning the generations, connecting the ones who remember to the ones who never knew Cuba, but would be the left to carry the memories into the future.
El Yuca got excited and his head was shaking “yes” rapidly.
“We have to remember, we have to make sure that our stories never die,” he said to me. “The old ones are almost gone, an entire generation dead, their stories buried with them. We have to tell their stories for them, their struggles, and their heartbreak before they are lost forever.”
El Yuca may be right. No, he IS right, my bridge needs to be built one brick at a time, which are the stories and memories of mi gente, the funny and bittersweet memories of my people’s joy and sorrow. With the hope that someday, that bridge will in even the smallest fashion help two people become one people again.
I decided right there that I would begin by telling El Yuca’s story. His anecdotes made me laugh, and his memories of Miami in the early days of the Cuban diaspora were better than mine. El Yuca promised to send me his story soon and write about the things he remembered.
The waiter was busy taking away the remains of Padrino’s excellent lunch from our table and we ordered the obligatory cup of Cuban coffee. We drank the bitter brew, bitter in spite of the sweet crystals from the sugar cane, a constant reminder of the bitterness of losing one’s home and one’s past, and we drink it often.
The rain had let up outside and the steam was rising from the asphalt. The clouds had moved on and the unrelenting sun beat down on the metal on my car’s roof. I knew that the A/C in my car would take forever to cool the interior, and by that time, I would be at my next stop, it was the never-ending routine, the car cooled off just in time to park it in the sun again.
I turned and shook El Yuca’s hand, and reminded him to send me his story while exchanging cellular numbers and farewells.
In the heat of the car, while actively fighting the overwhelming urge to pull off the road and take a nap, I went back to my obsession with the word adiós, and was struck by the fact that El Yuca and I had maintained the tradition, neither one used it. Further proof that my suspicion is correct.
In the car, Big Head Todd wanted to be my “Broken Hearted Savior”, but Todd couldn’t save me this day, so I took his CD out, replacing it with the perfect music for the occasion. Willy Chirino promised that nuestro dia ya viene llegando, our day would soon arrive. I whispered “Viva Cuba Libre” and joined the after lunch traffic jam on the hot and steamy highway.
Without saying goodbye
I received El Yuca’s e-mail a few days ago and a smile danced across my face. I had been looking forward to this communiqué all week long; now I could get the article started. I had a few funny anecdotes of my own to share. I left the e-mail unopened, wanting to enjoy it at my own leisure at home where I could laugh at my new friend’s wit at will.
I decided that perhaps the real problem with Cubans and adiós was that we weren’t ready for the finality the word conveys, that perhaps as a people, we are a little too casual for such a formal sentiment. I had also come to realize that there really wasn’t much to write about concerning the word, and moved on to other ideas for my column.
It was hours later, with the family in bed and the house quiet, that I sat down to my “treat” for the day. It was many hours later that I fell asleep; the memory of the letter haunting me, it haunts me still.
I became a member of the fabled Miami Mafia upon the second of my arrival in Miami at the tender age of twelve. I came as one of the thousands of children escaping communist Cuba, sent by their desperate parents, knowing that they may never see their children again, an option preferred over having their kids grow up as the property of the State, indoctrinated in the ways of hate . . . Castro’s way.
In my case, not unique by any means, I was running the risk of ending up in Castro’s jails for the mere fact that I disagreed with the regime, and my father knew that my outspoken behavior would place me at high risk sooner than later. My father’s friends urged him to get me out of the Island; jail was not the worst-case scenario for those who wouldn’t toe Fidel’s line.
Through the Protestant version of the “Pedro Pan” program, where fourteen thousand children migrated to the US without their parents; I left my hometown in the middle of the night, hidden by my parents under a blanket on the floor of a school bus.
In Havana, we visited the Dutch Consulate daily for several days, waiting for a “contact” that would provide me with an exit visa; the visa finally arrived and, eventually, so did my departure date.
My parents came to see me off at Havana International Airport, from where I and many other kids were leaving the Island that day, not knowing whether they would ever see me again, and watching helplessly as we endured the final cruelties bestowed upon us by the regime.
The children were taken from their parents and held in what was called “La Pescera”, the fishbowl, a holding room with thick glass walls where the children stayed for hours before their departure, this was done to increase the pain of separation, and to frighten the littlest ones.
At one point I, along with a few others, got called into a small interrogation room, where I was stripped of my clothing and asked questions like “why are you leaving and betraying the revolution?” I was also told that if I left, my parents would go to jail, but I was well prepared for their tactics.
The State security forces examined all my belongings, reading some letters from my girlfriend (my most prized possession) making obscene comments about her as they read. Eventually, I was told to get dressed and go back to the glass-enclosed waiting room. On the way out, I saw a “miliciano”, wearing his green fatigues, rip a little girl’s doll apart with his knife, accusing her of trying to transport jewels inside, contraband. There was nothing there, leaving behind him a little girl, crying and scared, alone, confused, wanting to be held by her Mommy or her Daddy.
I walked to her and told her that the dolls in Miami were much prettier, and that I would buy her one when we got there, this brought the butt of a rifle down on my shoulder. I somehow didn’t feel the pain, just rage, anger, frustration, and an immense hatred for the filthy regime and its minions.
My last image of Cuba, was that of my mother, behind the thick, glass wall, holding a tear-filled handkerchief, my father standing behind her, stoic and full of courage, both watching their only son being forced into exile at the age of twelve.
Finally, we departed in silence and in fear, the KLM flight making a slow turn north, to the Florida Straits. Fifteen minutes into the flight, the pilot came over the loud speakers, and in almost perfect Spanish said: “You are now over International waters, you are in free territory.”
What happened next is almost impossible to describe. I saw old men crying, women praying, kids cried while adults hugged them and told them that everything was OK now.
I stared out the window and smiled, for I knew that the United States of America would never allow the system that I had left behind to exist barely ninety miles from their shores, and that it would certainly be just a matter of months before Castro would fall, and we would all be back in Cuba.”
That date was August 6, 1961.
I wait still.
P.S. Cuba sera libre!
I read the letter over and over, some instinct telling me that I was missing something, there was something in that e-mail I wasn’t seeing. It bothered me to the point of sleeplessness.
Then it came to me and I rushed to my laptop to read El Yuca’s letter one more time, and there it was. Or rather, there it wasn’t – El Yuca never said the word, he left without saying goodbye.
We refuse to say goodbye, El Yuca and I, and so many like us.
We refuse to say goodbye, because we know that one day, we will walk on a free Cuba again, even if only as children of children of children of exiles. We will one day be there again, lift our heads to the sky, and shout at the heavens, to the spirits of those that are gone…fathers and mothers and grandparents, and siblings:
“Rest easy, rest now, it’s over…………”
Luis Gonzalez ©2001