When I heard that Leslie Starobin, a Boston-based artist, was looking for first generation Jewish immigrants from Latin America for her series of montages called “The Last Address,” I got in touch with her. She was thrilled to hear from a Cuban-American Jew — a so-called Juban — and felt it was fortuitous that I was virtually right in her backyard.
I didn’t have much to offer Leslie in the way of the physical objects, such as the clothing, visas and report cards that are often central to her work. “Castro took everything” was the refrain of my childhood. What I do have is a picture of my mother at 19 in which her lips are dark and her eyebrows are arched like a movie star’s.
Compiling a family’s oral history is integral to Leslie’s artistic process. To that end, Leslie extensively interviewed my mother, who remembered that she sat for the picture at a photographer’s studio in downtown Havana after a long day of classes at the university.
My mother also told Leslie her signature story. “I still see Manzanito after he was gunned down. We called him Manzanito because his cheeks were red and full — like little apples — manzanitos.” Manzanito was Jose Antonio Echeverria, the president of the University Students Federation, who had led an attempt to overthrow Fulgencio Batista by storming the presidential palace. On March 13, 1957, Echeverria was slain by Batista’s henchmen — only steps away from the famous staircase leading into the University of Havana. My mother has recounted taking a quiz in a nearby classroom when she heard the gunshots.
“Your mother told you that she went to the University of Havana?” asked Olivia Kantor, who knew my mother in Cuba, and was friendly with her after they both immigrated to Brooklyn.
She was surprised — more surprised than when I called her out of the blue and introduced myself as Harold and Matilde Bolton’s oldest child.
After Olivia exposed my mother’s half-century-old lie, I told her that Mom had subsequently earned a master’s degree in Spanish literature. It was the late ’60s and my mother talked her way into the program — secure in the fact that a university transcript was impossible to retrieve from Cuba.
I’m not surprised that my mother, a life-long fantasist, concocted this ruse. At this point, I think she actually believes that she went to the University of Havana. Since my mother’s interview with Leslie this past summer, I’ve tried to talk to her about her undergraduate status. I pointed out that the University of Havana had closed in November of 1956 and didn’t reopen until 1959, when she was already in the United States. There was no way she was in class in March of 1957. She screamed that maybe I was book smart, but I had no common sense.
Whatever book smarts I have, I owe them to my mother. I’d go wide-eyed each time she told me that Miguel de Unamuno lost his faith when he was just five years old. My bedtime stories revolved around Don Quixote’s adventures with the hapless Sancho Panza. Mom made her own stunning montage of narratives. And in the process she educated the both of us.