Fidel Castro’s death is complicated for me, a first generation Cuban-American. I know what Fidel wanted for Cuba and what he actually accomplished. The strands of his legacy are a braid of totalitarianism and Utopian socialism.
Fidel is the fiery figure of my childhood. He is a memory shaped through the insistence of repetition. He is the man whom my mother swore again and again she sat next to once on a bench at the University of Havana. He invited her to join him for coffee, but she declined the offer when she saw a handgun peeking out from under his jacket.
That was 1956. Before that Havana had been a sexy, rum-soaked playground for the mafia and spies alike until Castro came down from the Sierra Maestra Mountains and triumphantly marched into the capital on New Year’s Day 1959.
Four years ago I walked the streets of Havana for the first time until I came to la Calle Mercéd 20 in Old Havana, my mother’s former house and the storied address of my childhood. For me, all things Cuban began and ended there. It was the place where my mother was forever young. It was the place where my grandparents shut the door on 50 years of life in Cuba and walked away forever.
When I knocked on No. 20’s entrance, a pregnant young woman answered the same heavy door my grandfather stumbled through after a night of drinking away his paycheck. It was the same door my mother gently tapped on in code to let her mother know she had safely arrived home. A young woman now lived there with her husband and extended family. (Housing is tight in Havana and extended families live together to save on rent.) The apartment was booming with the noise of too much stuff in a small place. The small living room of my mother’s former home was crowded with maroon brocade furniture and a big screen television that ran without the sound.
The tenants’ relatives in America had transfused the living room with American materialism. They must have taken one of the daily charters to Cuba that left from a corner of Miami’s International Airport. Check-in there was a veritable marketplace of Cuban expats toting Costco and Target and Best Buy purchases. Carts almost toppled over with boxes of microwaves and televisions. The expats were also determined to get even larger items like bicycles, scooters, and air conditioners to their trapped relatives. There was so much concentrated determination in that terminal.
I looked beyond the woman and saw the open-air courtyard between the dining room and rundown kitchen. It was the very place where the shochet, or kosher butcher, had slaughtered the chickens my Jewish grandmother bought from the market place. He cut the chickens’ throats and drained the blood out of the animals. As I walked the length of the courtyard, I saw laundry hanging from a balcony like team pennants or flags of surrender.
I thanked my hostess profusely and tried to offer her money for the impromptu visit. As soon as I held out the cash I felt like a fat cat gringa buying memories that weren’t quite mine. I sat on the stoop of la Calle Mercéd 20 trying to catch my breath after I had broken down in front of the woman. It was the kind of crying that darkens the mind like the night sky. I squeezed my eyes shut and saw a galaxy of stars. When I opened them I was still in Cuba, at my mother’s house, crying for her unfulfilled dreams of a Cuba libre—a free Cuba.
* * *
Cuba is an aging queen whose beauty is still evident despite decades of neglect and poverty. The place is translucent with pastel colors. Even the façade of la Calle Mercéd is painted in a light green. There is also the hunger of the people for all things that I, as an American visitor, might be able to offer them. The requests were humble. Kids came up to me and asked me for caramelitos and plumas—candies and pens. I gave them a couple of pens from a frilly Boston nail salon that wrote in purple ink. The women in a state-run pharmacy flagged me down on the street and asked if I had any medicine in my purse.
The cab driver who drove me back to my hotel asked me if I had any antacids or aspirin I could spare. He had perennial heartburn. His wife had migrañas and he was desperate to help her.
“There is nothing here,” he said. “Look at this old Lada that I drive.” Each morning he prayed that the thirty year-old car would start and that he’d catch enough fares to put food on the table.
“Estoy aburrido de esta vida.”
He was more than fed up with life in Cuba. His was a lassitude mixed with the same Cuban melancholia my mother had. I told him my mother missed the Cuba she remembered.
“What is there to miss here anymore?” he asked me. “Tell your mother not to come back.”
As I was getting ready to pay the fare, he said he had a mother-in-law in Jersey City who sent his family money whenever she could. It helped more than I could imagine, he said. I tipped him generously and gave him the half empty bottle of Advil I had left.
“Gracias mi hija,” he said. In Cuba I was everyone’s daughter.
This essay originally appeared in TABLET Magazine http://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/219002/memories-of-cuba-past