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I’m finished! It seems incredible that after spending two years putting my life on paper, I am finally sitting here writing the introduction to my autobiography. Even though the introduction is the first thing you read when you open a book, it’s the last thing to be written.
Nothing I’ve ever done in my life has been normal, so there’ no reason this book should be. During the past two years, I dectated it to three people, who then transcribed dozens of cassettes containing fragments of my life recorded in all the unbelivevable places my constant travels took me to. These same people dived headfirst into an enormous pool of paper gathered from all the interviews I had conducted during my journalistic career, as well as the interviews I had given. They read, scrutinized, and questioned, and gradually—the way you solve a puzzle— we organized the forty-nine years of my life into the pages of this book.
Maybe if I had waited until I was seventy to write my memoirs, it would have been a different book. I believe I chose the ideal, the culminating moment in my life, the months before my fiftieth birthday.
When we women are young, we think we are invincible, that we can chew up the world and swallow it whole. But hormones turn into potholes on the highway of feminism and it becomes twice as complicated for us to become successful as it does for a man.
This book was a hormonal project. As I became involved in it, I was entering menopause, and hot flashes, dizziness, anxiety, and bad humor became practically a family affair. The curious thing is that Diana Montané, a veteran journalist, like myself, who took most of my dictation on this book and helped put it together, decided to accompany me in my menopausal journey, and as we worked, we were constantly comparing symptoms.
At the same time, Luz María Doria, the editor in chief of my magazine, a women who belongs to the new generation of women journalists and whom I call my adopted daughter, became pregnant with Dominique, her first child. In the last months of her pregnancy, and deep into the gestation of this book (which she helped research and organize), my Luzma developed an allergy that forced her to take oatmeal baths before she was able to work.
So, amid itches and menopause, by telephone, fax, and mail from distant hotel rooms, we three professional women gave life to this baby, my life on paper.
When we were nearly finished with the autobiography, by coincidence (the language, I am convinced, that angels use to communicate with us), my ex-boss Frank Calderón appeared on the scene. One night, as we were having dinner at our house, he asked if he could read the book, and that was how Frank cam to play a role in the project as editor. Frank lives in Vermont, and diskettes flew via Federal Express to the icy North, carrying a touch of Miami heat with them. Strangely enough, right in the middle of the editing, Frank had to undergo open-heart surgery.
To these three—Diana, Luzma, and Frank—I want to give my thanks, in these opening pages, for the pages that follow. To Frank as well, my thanks for teaching me to be a journalist when I was young and, now that we are not so younge, for giving this new stage in my career a boost.
I also want to thank Diane Stockwell, a delightful young woman who is my editor at Warner Books, for her patience and her nerves of steel and for waiting two years for what I should have delivered in one. Thanks, Diane, for controlling your hormones and for never once losing your temper, even though you sat waiting a year and a half before a single page arrived!
A huge thanks to Isabel Allende for her support, for their invaluable advice, and for recommending Margaret Sayers Peden, her translator, for this project. (And thanks to Petch for fitting me in.)
Before I end, I also want to give very special thanks to four people who have been my principal inspiration to keep fighting in the face of winds and high seas: Helen Gurley Brown, Gloria and Emilio Estefan, and Celia Cruz.
It goes without saying that I could not write my last paragraph without thanking my audience for all the support and affection they have given El Show de Cristina. I love them very much and offer them my life in these pages.
P.S. One last recommendation. If you have read this far and are standing before the shelves in a bookstore leafing through this book, please go straight to the cash register … and buy it!
When I was a young girl, I never watched television. It didn’t interest me in the least. I think I was the only one among all my girlfriends who didn’t have a television set in her room. I did read a lot, and I wrote all the time, but I was never attracted to the TV.I never dreamed that fate would carve me out a niche in that magic box!
I always kept with me a small notebook that I used as my diary, in which I carried on long, long conversations with myself. I suppose that was the equivalent of being slightly crazy, but crazy for literature and poetry. The truth is that ever since then I have felt the overwhelming need to write down everything that has happened to me and everything I need to give some thought to, because until I have seen something in writing and have read it again and again, I can’t really analyze it. I still have many of those notebooks from my childhood—with everything they say and left unsaid—because basically I consider myself a writer. Today, as I plan Cristina, my television program, I write down the subjects that occur to me, note my thoughs, sketch my ideas, and even prepare lists of all the things I must accomplish to carry out my plans.
Ironically, one of the highest prices I have had to pay for my place in this box of surprises we call television has been having to surrender completely the time and space needed to write. But even with that, I must confess that I feel a constant physical, spiritual, and emotional need to put my thoughts on paper. I have incorporated into my life the process of compartmentalizing everything I learn along the way because I know that I will end my life writing again, just as I began it. And I believe that at every moment I am accumulating adventures and experiences to tell later.
This is the first time since beginning Cristina that I have devoted myself to organizing on paper all my thoughts about everything that has happened in my life up to the present time. It has been a process of reflection and self-analysis but also one of orientation. What I want to communicate to you—especially those of you who are young—is the formidable power of the will and the longtime repercussions of the decisions and actions we take in our lives.
We are always told that wishing will make it so, but no one tells us how, or in what form, it is possible to wish until it is so. No one tells us how she became rich, what made her famous, or how she achieved a state of relative happiness in life. I want to tell you how I did it. If someone wans to follow the path I have taken, here it is!
That path is filled with glory and fame, with wealth and beautiful experiences.
It is also filled with potholes, thorns, and, all too often, mud.
It is filled with fear.
It is filled with … everything.
But that’s how life is.
Prepare yourself to learn and also to change. Prepare yourself well because it isn’t easy to reach the goals we set in life. Not for anyone!
I can guarantee you that it is worth the effort, especially when you think of the alternatives. I say that because I have had to learn and change. And today I want to tell you my experiences with all the understanding and love in the world.
It isn’t easy to be rich. Everyone wants the people who make it to have started at the bottom. I didn’t start at the bottom, I must admit. My grandfather was a millionaire. In Cuba he was called the Paper Czar because he was coowner of Bohemia, Carteles, and Vanidades, the pioneer, as well as the most important, magazines on the island, and also held the monopoly for selling paper to most publications on the island.
I was born in Miramar, a drowsy, idyllic, and very wealthy suburb of Havana, where everyone’s main worry was to make sure that during hurricane season his yacht was secured at the club we all belonged to. I lived in Miramar until we had to emigrate to Miami in 1960, shortly after Fidel Castro’s revolution had overthrown the dictator Fulgencio Batista. Ever since, Miami has been a little Cuba and the heart of Cuban exile. I am an exiled Cuban, a member of that minority within a minority, 6 percent of the Hispanics living in the United States, a well-defined, nationalistic, idiosyncratic, and—as anyone who knows us can say—extremely verbal group.
But if we Cubans are supernationalistic even though we have been a nation only since the beginning of the twentieth century, the Basques have had that characteristic for a thousand years. I am not a direct product of the tropics or of the island paradise of palm trees, tobacco, and rum. My family is only second-generation Cuban. In fact, we are Basques on all four sides, and although I am proud of my Cuban heritage, there is no doubt that I inherited the nature of my bloodlines.
To be Basque is to be inherently argumentative, complex, unique. And I am referring not only to the present day—the period of the ETA (the Basque pro-liberty movement), the extremist group that assassinated the Spanish prime minister in 1973—but to long before that. The Basques are a race apart, one whose origins are still unknown and that survived dozens of invasions until they settled into the Pyrenees, the towering, imposing mountain range that separates Spain from France. Theirs is a reverse society in which the men also cook, the women are stubborn and hard as stone, and everyone survives through obstinacy and pure tenacity. In that society, three fundamental types exist sui generis: the priest, the village practical nurse (male), and the teacher. These are the three roles that dictate the norms of the community.
I was born in the Caribbean of Basque blood and came to take root in Florida. But long before that happened, my grandfather had prepared the ground.
My grandfather Francisco Saralegui y Arrizubieta was born on a Basque caserío in a village called Lizarza, nestled into the slopes of the Pyrenees. It is one of those rustic villages lost in time, where people venerate the spirits of nature (just as the Druids did), where witchcraft and superstition blend with Catholicism, and where outsiders are called wolves. The Basques are a hardworking people, so much so that in Spain a saying goes: “The North works while the South is dancing”—meaning that people in the South somehow make fun of people in the North, a situation very like the fable of the grasshopper and the ant.
The pressure of work, and the harshness of the land itself, made the Basques strong, sturdy, and unyielding to time or climate. Even cows and sheep have to stand nearly erect to eat, because the villages and caseríos practically hang from the mountainsides.
In Basque country, a caserío is an enclave composed of a large building that serves as living space and storehouse over a basement where the farm animals are kept. This multistoried stone building is suffounded by several parcels of land—woodland, wheat fields, and garden—that are like small farms adjoining the central building. The caserío where my grandfather was born still exists in the highest part of the Pyrenees, on a mountain peak in the village of Lizarza whose primitiveness can be seen as picturesque, or unchanging, or as eternal as the very mountain from which it is suspended.
In the idiosyncrasy of the Basques there is an invisible, but welldefined, dividing line between men’s and women’s tasks. The women prepare the daily food, the men work in the fields, but the women also help in agricultural duties, in the same way that men have a role in the kitchen. Cooking is a fundamental activity for the Basques. The typical Basque diet is mainline cholesterol: eels and sardines, all cooked in oil, and a variety of sausages. I was raised on this food: that is why I need all the help I can get from man or God to detour from the cholesterol highway I started traveling as a girl.
Among Basques of my grandfather’s day, the men were the sole and exclusive planners and members of the gastronomic societies. No women allowed. The priest of the town (who also acted as the mayor) took charge of organizing those feasts for men only that were held in a place that consisted basically of a kitchen and sink, with two or three male servants to attend them. On the occasion of such feasts, everyone arrived early in the morning; they immediately began drinking the wine and cognac the priest himself had chosen for the participants, then worked their way through a number of different dishes, a variety of wines, and an assortment of desserts, keeping at it until night fell—and probably most of the men with it.
In both my grandfather’s and my father’s time, the main sport of those gentlemen—as well as that of the sainted priest—was catching larks as those luckless little birds began their winter migration. The custom has not been lost; still today they trap the birds in large nets and take them to farms where the larks are overfed until gluttony makes them too fat to fly. Poor roly-poly little birds!
The town of Cognac lies in a Basque province of France, and it is from there the priest obtains the potent liquor of the same name that he feeds the caged birds. It is in that virgin, as yet undistilled cognac the larks finally are drowned. Then they are plucked and in a sauce of cognac and wine in an enormous cauldron are simmered over a slow fire. When they are served, the epicure places an entire cooked bird in his mouth, spitting out nothing but the bones. Once the huge tray of larks smothered in alcohol has been devoured, a mass is offered to give thanks to God for the delicious meal. A kind of holy savagery! But that’s how we Basques are, half savage, half saint—truly wondrous people.
Among the Basques in my grandfather’s time, tradition dictated that the eldest son inherit the family name and fortune. The second son—no matter whether born or adopted—was destined for the priesthood. And the third had to emigrate to the Americas and send money back to the family. At the age of seven, my grandfather emigrated to America. Until that moment, he had been an acolyte to a priest and living in a caserío in the countryside with a Basque family that had adopted him when his father was widowed.
Following long-established tradition, my grandfather—who did not speak Spanish or read or write it—was sent on a ship to Argentina with Basque family friends who had a grocery store in Buenos Aires. He went with nothing more than a bundle containing a few clothes. And from the moment he stepped onto American soil, he had to work like a dog, from sunup to sundown.
Meanwhile, his father had settled in Cuba and by dint of hard work had become a very powerful and wealthy man, the owner of two sugar mills in the province of Oriente, on the east side of the island. When he learned that his son was in Argentina, he sent for him, to rescue him from the poverty he was trapped in. Five years had passed, and Grandfather was twelve when his father taught him to read and write. But instead of sending him to school, he put him to work in the mills. Before long, tired of his father’s abuse, Abuelo rebelled and left the sugar mill for Havana, where he found work at the port. There he met a Basque friend, Jesús Azqueta, and together they became stevedores carrying sacks of sugar that weighed over three hundred pounds. From that early training, Grandfather was always strong as a mule, and that is how I remember him, a kind of Santa Claus figure: short, with a beautiful and contagious smile, and round as my father, although hard as rock. Over the years, Jesús Azqueta turned out to be one of the most powerful men in Cuba’s sugar industry. The heavy work load did not, however, keep them from studying at night in educational centers run by various Spanish regional associations (such as the Centro Gallego), and through a correspondence course, Grandfather even earned a degree in business from Boston University.
In a secondary job, my grandfather also worked as an elevator operator, where he came to know several important people among the men he took up and down in the elevator every day. One day one of those businessmen urgently needed money, and Grandfather, using savings he had managed to accumulate, bought a share in a business representing foreign companies dealing primarily in paper, insurance, and hardware. The Basques are very frugal people, and Grandfather saved a large part of the money he earned; with that money he methodically bought stock. It was during that period that he met my grandmother.
My grandmother too was Spanish; she came from a family from Gijón, in Asturias, that had emigrated to Cuba when she was only three. My great-grandfather, her father, established himself in the province of Camagüey, near Oriente, and was always comfortable financially. Grandmother’s name was Amalia Alvarez, but she was called Amalita. I myself called her Grandmother Moñoña, a kind of baby talk name from the nursery, and we called our grandfather, who was called Don Pancho by everyone else, Grandfather Aitá, which in English might come out as Grandpapa, because in Basque aitá means “papa.”
At the proper time, my grandmother’s family sent her to the Mariana Lola Alvarez Academy in Havana, an exclusive boarding school for young ladies. It was during a field trip that Amalita, the little rich girl, took up with the country bumpkin Francisco Saralegui. My grandfather wanted to marry her immediately, but my grandmother’s family was not in favor of the marriage. Stubborn as always, he nevertheless persisted until he got his way. He won over my grandmother’s father, who in the end admired him for being such a hard worker, and as soon as Amalita completed her studies, they were married in a beautiful ceremony. Shortly after, my aunt Panchita was born; she later died of typhus.
Grandmother Amalita became pregnant every two years; she nursed all her children, and after each was weaned, she was again fertile. So every two years a Saralegui was born. After Panchita came Marta, Bebo (my father), and Uncle Jorge. My grandparents, now with a sizable family, worked like slaves, and by the time my father was born, they already owned their own house. I remember Grandmother Amalita as the most frugal woman in the universe, able to make an omelette using only one egg … and it was delicious! In the meantime, everyone knew that “the Basque always has cash saved up,” and Grandfather continued to buy stock in the business until by 1929 he had become the principal shareholder.
When the Miramar neighborhood of Havana was opened for development, Grandfather Aitá built his first mansion. Even so, in the summer of 1930 the entire family took a ship to Spain because Grandfather wanted his children to learn to speak Basque. The trip took thirty-one days, and when they finally reached the little town of Lizarza, the first thing Grandfather did was take his wife and their children to his caserío, so everyone could meet them.
Grandfather decided that his wife and children would stay in Spain, while he would spend six months in Cuba and six in the Basque country. This meant they would be separated six months a year, but both Grandfather and Grandmother were very selfsacrificing, and both agreed on the principle of maintaining Basque roots. The family moved to San Sebastián on the Bay of Biscay (where the king and queen of Spain kept a summer house and which today is the crown jewel of the Basque coast), occupying an apartment at 14 Calle Miraconcha. My father went to the exclusive Los Marianistas School, located beside the king’s summer palace and near the Playa de la Concha. Once school was out, his grandmother picked him up and took him to the caserío, where he spent the whole summer. The Saralegui family lived in San Sebastián from 1930 to 1936.
During one of the visits Grandfather made to San Sebastián from Cuba, he took with him an Afro-Cuban, a professional trainer who had worked with the famous boxer Kid Chocolate, and when he turned up at the caserío with that black man—both of them resplendent in my grandfather’s convertible—my great-grandmother thought she was seeing some kind of other-world spirit since she had never before seen a person of color. During those summers, Grandfather took his children to tour Europe because he believed that reading and studying weren’t enough, that you had to “touch and taste” what you had studied during the year. My father and aunt and uncle did not miss a museum, or leave a restaurant untested or a meal untasted, in any of the major capitals of Europe.
In the meantime, my grandfather’s business interests in Cuba were constantly expanding until he was the foremost entrepreneur in his line of business in all Cuba. Paper for printing presses was imported from Canada, and he supplied all the nation’s newspapers and presses. That was how he came to hold the monopoly on paper in Cuba and to earn the nickname the Paper Czar.
In 1936, civil war broke out in Spain, and the conflict caught my grandmother and her children in Spain. Grandfather Aitá was in Cuba. My adoptive great-grandmother could do little for the family, except faithfully take them food from the caserío to help offset the shortages that existed throughout Spain. Grandfather had no choice but to return to the Spanish border to help rescue his family since he could not enter the country due to his political affiliations. There is no doubt tha it was a difficult time for everyone.
Once in power, proposing to crush the heritage and evident hegemony of he Basques, Generalissimo Francisco Franco forbade the use of the Basque language, shut down schools and newspapers, and arrested hundreds of intellectuals. As a last measure against the Basques, Franco called on Adolph Hitler’s Luftwaffe, Germany’s air force, to wipe out the Basque people, committing the atrocity that Picasso immortalized in his famous painting Guernica. In 1939, Nazi bombers leveled the historic village of Guernica, a bastion of Basque supremacy, and hundreds of terrified women and children fled as German planes machine-gunned the civilian population.
Grandfather could not enter Spain because he was a Basque nationalist and opposed to Franco. Had he been surprised in his own country, there is no doubt that he would at least have been imprisoned. But his wife and three children were in San Sebastián, and it was urgent that he get them out of the country and take them back to Cuba. At that time, a son of the owner of the Partagás tobacco company in Cuba, an acquaintance of my great-grandfather’s was studying medicine at the Sorbonne in Paris. Grandfather arranged for this man to travel to the border, slip into Spain, and rescue his family. The operation was a total success. And in an amazing twist of fate, this same man set up a practice in Cuba and was my mother’s obstetrician when I was born.
When they returned to Cuba, Grandfather gave some thought to the fact that his children were growing up and needed to play sports, so he decided to build a new residence, the one I remember, with two swimming pools and a tennis court. He also got it into his head tha his three children should learn English. My father, who at the time was twelve, mischievous, and rebellious, did not like English. But because it was my grandfather’s conviction that “anyone who did not know several languages was a jackass,” he enrolled Father in the Ruston Academy, an American school in Havana. Ruston expelled him for being incorrigible, and from there he passed throught a series of schools. Grandfather informed his son that he was going to “incarcerate” him in a miliatary academy in the United States. And that is how Bebo Salalegui arrived in 1938 at the Battleground Academy in Thennessee, where he not only learned to speak English, as Grandfather wished, but was later graduated second in his class.
In the meantime, Grandfather’s career as a businessman continued to prosper, not only in the world of paper and ink but in anything related to the realm of publishing. At the same time, he became involved in his first political activism, which had to do with the Basque colony in Cuba. During that period, he was named president of the Centro de Dependientes (Merchants’ Center) (one of three great Spanish institutions, the others being the Galician Center and the Asturian Center), an association with ninety thousand members. In these institutions, members paid modest monthly fees, and among the many benefits they received in return were the education of their children and medical services for the entire family, even including burial. The health centers were excellent, and hundreds of prominent physicians practiced their profession in them.
Grandfather devoted himself to improving all the services the association offered, and from his own pocket built the Escuela Saralegui, which came to enjoy great prestige as an educational center. The association, in gratitude, erected a bronze bust of him, but it no longer exists. With a perverse irony that is classic in the Castro regime in Cuba, a young man named Ordóñez—my grandfather’s protégé from the time he graduated from medical school, through his appointment as a physician in the association, up to the time he became doctor for the entire Saralegui family—destroyed it with a sledgehammer as an act of repudiation when the Castro government confiscated all the Spanish regional centers.
My mother’s family was never as well-to-do as my father’s. When my mother and father fell in love, practically the same thing happened that had happened when my grandmother fell in love with my grandfather. Little doubt that history repeats itself in my family!
One of my father’s classmates at the University of Havana was a young man named Julio Paniagua, the sweetheart of a girl named Terina Santamarina. While Julio was the classic nice young man, incapable of being unfaithful to his sweetheart, my father was a handsome young man-about-town, a hell-raiser when it came to girls, so it is not surprising that my grandmother enlisted all her friends to ensure that her golden Bebo escorted their daughters to Havana’s social events. My father, for his part, would rather raise hell with his friends on Varadero (the legendary beach in Matanzas Province), and Julio, whose family was less affluent, always went with him. Terina always tried to dissuade Julio from going with my father because she considered him a bad influence.
Terina had an older sister named Cristy. And my father today remembers that Julio often said, “Hey, chico, I want you to meet my sweetheart’s sister someday. She’s a very intelligent, well-brought-up girl.” My father always told him that he had more women than he could handle and that he didn’t need to meet another one. Until the day when they went to the Vedado Tenis, an exclusive club where my mother played on the softball team. The girls had a game that day, and suddenly my father focused on a girl running the bases.
“Who’s that girl with the glorious ass?” he asked Julio, with marked interest. Clearly, since he was Cuban to the nth degree, that was the part of the feminine anatomy that grabbed his attention.
“That’s Terina’s sister,” Julio replied with a certain pride of his own.
The much-sought-after bachelor was immediately fascinated with Terina’s sister’s “attribute” and on the spot insisted on being introduced to the girl playing third base who had such a gorgeous derriere. When they were introduced, the sister, who was not easily impressed, looked him up and down and said, “So you’re the famous Bebo Saralegui? Holy shit!”
That was my parents’ first meeting.
But Father was already hooked, and he floundered painfully after his rejection by the girl from the “Cuban” family. He looked up a book of letters Napoleon had written to his beloved Josephine, and every day he copied a different poem and sent it to my mother with an orchid, never mentioning, of course, the plagiarism he was committing. For a girl in Vedado to receive an orchid a day from a boy who lived in Miramar must have been enormously flattering. Even so, she did not at first pay any attention to him, to the point of actually asking him not to bother her anymore. But finally she fell into Bebo Saralegui’s net.
Their meetings were not as easy as they would be today because at that time they had the problem of chaperons. Even when I still lived in Cuba, girls could not go out alone with suitors. They had to be accompanied by someone older—maybe an aunt, sometimes a brother—to protect them from any eventuality. My mother’s chaperone was her aunt Tita, who—as I recount later—was also the chaperone they clamped on me forever and ever, amen.
At last my mother’s family allowed my father to call on her officially as a suitor and at night. I should mention that my maternal grandmother loved animals and always gave them the run of the house. She had, for example, a plump, rosy, playful little pig and a very vulgar parrot named Chachita, who took a ferocious dislike to my father and tried to nip him every time it could. One day when my father was dining at his new sweetheart’s home, he sat down with all the family to a spaghetti dinner. Suddenly, Chachita landed on the table and began to pull all the spaghetti from the platter. The family continued to eat, not paying the slightest attention to the antics of the parrot or to the fact that the pig was calmly strolling about the feet of the diners as if it were a lapdog.
When Father returned home and told what had happened, Grandmother Amalita, with that formality characteristic of the Spanish, told him, “That family is not our sort. All Cubans are like that. They all have animals wandering around their houses.”
When Chachita finally died, the family accused my father of having poisoned her with parsley.
For her part, my mother too was unusual for her time because when she was young—during the Second World War—Cuban women did not work or drive automobiles. She, however, had a little Fiat Topolino, which looked like an egg and which she drove from the time she was sixteen. As soon as she graduated, she took a job with Pan American as a hostess greeting the VIPs who traveled to Cuba on that airline. Once after she had become my father’s girlfriend, rebelling against the conventions that ruled Cuban girls’ lives, she even decided to go to Miami with him and a group of friends. And without a chaperone!
Because of all these factors, my father’s family did not want to lay eyes on the girl in whose house dinner was accompanied by a parrot and a pig. They insisted on marrying Bebo Saralegui to a young debutante or the daughter of one of Grandfather’s business partners. But their golden Bebito was twenty and knew what he wanted from life. He therefore informed his family that he was going to marry the pinareña, a name he gave my mother because she had been born in the province of Pinar del Río, on the eastern side of the island, where the world’s best cigars are made.
My grandparents roundly opposed the marriage, but Father argued that as soon as he was twenty-one and came of age, he would marry her anyway. In fact, as soon as he turned twenty-one, he mailed his parents an invitation to his wedding. It is no exaggeration to say that he gave Grandfather Aitá and Grandmother Amalita the shock of their lives. But once they got over their surprise, they had no choice but to bend to my father’s will and gave the pair a grand wedding in the Church of Santa Rita, in Miramar.
My grandfather on my mother’s side, José Santamarina, was called Pepe, but we always affectionately called him Grandfather Pelusa, which means “fuzzy,” precisely because he was bald. And to us his wife, Agueda Díaz, was Mamamía. Grandfather Pelusa was the creator of huge advertising campaigns for countless products consumed in Cuba. Among the most memorable was the campaign for the famous Cristal beer—based on “the Cristal wiggle,” in which the beer bottle imitated the swaying of a woman’s hips—that rocked Cuba from one end of the island to the other. A large number of the advertising slogans that became part of Cuban culture originated in the imagination of my grandfather, who slept, as I do now, with a notebook on his night table so he could jot down thoughts before they escaped him. Grandfather was a real pioneer in Cuban television, along with Gaspar Pumarejo, the visionary producer who brought television to the island and created numerous programs that were far ahead of their time.
Mamamía was a housewife whose rather unusual hobbies were playing poker and dominoes … and yelling at my grandfather. There was little doubt that the one who ruled in Mamamí’s household was Mamamía.
Immediately after their wedding, my parents went to Argentina and Brazil on their honeymoon. I was conceived in Buenos Aires. Years later, when attending the launch of Cosmopolitan magazine in Argentina, I took a picture of the hotel where I was “fashioned,” and that photograph is still on my parents’ wall.
It seems strange to me now, as I tell this story, that television in Cuba and I grew up together, and although when I was a little older I turned my back on it because there were other things I preferred to do, I remember sitting as a tiny child in front of it and watching with curiosity. I also recall my mother’s telling me, “Don’t look at that thing too close; it will give you cancer of the eyes, or brain cancer, because it’s too new to know what effect it will have on human beings.“ Well, my mother has always been a little odd that way because when the microwave first came on the market, I insisted on buying her one to make her life easier, but she didn’t let one in her house until just two years ago. She was sure that anything prepared in a microwave would cause cancer.
Although my grandfather was already the Paper Czar—the nickname he had been given partly in jest and partly because of the control he held over the industry—he had the strong conviction that a man like himself did not need to associate with the journalists responsible for the editorial aspect of his enterprise. He simply wanted to be the businessman who supplied the paper and oversee that part of the business.
I had been born by this time. On one of the occasions when my grandfather spent his six months in Spain with my grandmother, he left his two sons, Bebo and Jorge, in charge in Cuba. During that period, Miguel Angel Quevedo, a young journalist, the only son of a family of journalists, had approached my grandfather to ask for not only his moral support but also his financial backing in establishing the editorial empire he wanted to create. His dream was to join forces with my grandfather and have him manage the administrative side of producing Bohemia, the magazine Quevedo directed, which came to be the most important public news and human interest publication in Cuba, known and respected throughout the world.
One fine day, during one of Grandfather’s stays in Spain, Miguel Angel Quevedo called my father and my uncle Jorge to tell them that he had just been offered the opportunity to buy Artes Gráficas, the firm that produced the artwork for Carteles and Vanidades—the former a general newsmagazine, the latter of interest specifically to women. The sale included Bohemia, along with the physical plant for printing the magazines, the machinery, even a building that covered an entire block. My father and my uncle realized that this was a good business deal, signed the necessary contracts, raised the money, and closed the deal. My grandfather learned about the purchase only when he returned from Spain. “You’ll be sorry someday,” he told his sons. “It’s one thing to sell paper to journalists, but you don’t know them the way I do.”
Obviously, my grandfather did not want any part of the editorial responsibilities of the business. But since his sons had already made the deal, he had to go alon with it. That was how in 1954 my grandfather as co-owner found himself involved in the editorial side of Publicaciones Unidas, S.A. (PUSA). However, my father remembers that Grandfather, as stubborn as ever, told him and Uncle Jorge, “You two got me into this fix, now you’ll have to get me out of it,” and forthwith sent them to work in the editorial offices. That was how my father came to be associated with Vanidades and Carteles, in reorganizing the printing operations of those magazines, and how my uncle Jorge learned about editing and printing.
My father, a mechanical engineer by trade, suddenly undertook a new career. He had to make himself an expert in rotary printing presses and color separations, and the family built an imposing building for Bohemia in the Plaza de la República in Havana. My father traveled to Germany and bought the best and most modern photogravure plant that existed at that time, the best in all the Caribbean, and immersed himself in the publishing world. It is important to note that when my family bought Vanidades, the magazine had a circulation of 17,000. When we left Cuba in July 1960, circulation had risen to over 170,000 copies per edition.
Vanidades emigrated from Cuba with my family, not as a material possession, since Castro did not allow us to take anything from our country, but merely as a piece of paper registering the name and ownership of the magazine. But there was also the spirit and vision of my father and uncle, who were immediately ready to start over.
My paternal grandparents had a Mediterranean-style mansion facing the sea in Cuba. When their neighbors built their first swimming pools, they were actually hollows carved into the reef allowing seawater to flow in. My grandfather—a man with revolutionary ideas that foreshadowned future developments—built two pools with more modern systems: one an Olympic-size pool with a diving board; the second exclusively for children.
Fidel Castro later turned that formidable hous in Miramar into a hotel for tourists. The Castroites joined the first floor to the adjoining house (which belonged to a senator of the republic, José Suárez Rivas) and opened for business—not to the Cuban publlic but to foregin visitors... and for dollars. In December 1995 my cousin Alvaro Saralegui, the general manager of Sports Illustraed, returned to Cuba for the first tme since he had left as a four-year-old. In the archives of Bohemia in Havana, he found a photograph of my grandfather when he was twenty-eight, and the thing that fascinated him most was that Grandfather had hair. He remembers him at fifty, bald as a cue ball.
Alvaro and a colleague on the magazine, Scott Price, also visited our grandfather’s house, that hotel for tourists. “It’s a disaser,” my cousin wrote in an article about his trip that was published in Sports Illustrated. “The tennis courts are nothing but rubble.” The two swimming pools (now empty) and the view of the sea, however, refreshed his memory, and he recalled how when he was three, he caught a small octopus that started squirting ink on my grandfather’s white tiles as my grandmother screamed, “Don’t you dare, child!” That stained tile is still in the patio.
His friend Price, trying to ease a dramatic situation, told my cousin Alvaro, “Let me buy you a beer in your own house.”
Alvaro laughed and accepted the invitation, thinking how ironic it was to be sold a beer in the patio of his own grandfather’s house. That patio had been the center of all the family gatherings. My grandparents entertained every Sunday in the place they simply called the pool, an area that included a bar where my grandfather served beverages to all his guests: film artists and producers, famous writers, any celebrity who came to Cuba. Everyone swam in my grandfather’s pool, which was also recreation center for him, his children, and his grandchildren.
Besides being a famous host, my grandfather was a very religious man. Every Sunday he climbed into his black Cadillac with the fins, which we called the ducktail model, driven by his blachauffeur, who was always impeccable in a stiffly starched uniform. I remember him very well; his name was Prudencio. Then Grandfather went from house to house, picking up grandchildren to take them to mass at the Church of Santa Rita, where my parents had been maried. Grandfather seated us all with him and gave us each a peseta (twenty Cuban centavos), or an American quarter, to put into the collection box. After mass he took us to a famous toy store in the business district of La Copa. There he allowed each of us to choose the toy we wanted most; we were very spoiled!
After that ritual, we had lunch at his house, each child with his or her nurse, dressed in starched white uniforms. The dining room was very Spanish in style, with a large table and leather chairs that held three grandchildren at a time, allowing up to eighteen to be seated. Grandfather sat at the head of the table, and Grandmother at the other end. I remember that she insisted that we wear bibs she had made for us that said, “Eat and keep silent,” because she didn’t want us to talk during the meal; she said that it was “God’s meal.” Every grandchild also had a different color plastic plate divided into compartments, with a circle in the middle that invariably held a fried egg.
I was the oldest grandchild, and my grandfather called me Tetina, a diminutive for Cristina. He spontaneously lavished affection on me. He was a very elegant man, always dressed in his white linen suit and Panama hat. He smoked Cuban eigars, and once when I was only one, he moistened the tip of the eigar he was smoking in cognac and put it in my mouth. My mother had a fit! He also used to dip his spoon into the soup tureen and feed me from it. That was how he was with all his grandchildren.
I remember that Grandfather Aitá had a jasmine bush at his house and every morning he carefully cut a flower to wear in the lapel of his linen jacket. He always smelled of jasmine, and his favorite cologne was Guerlain Imperial, the one that came in a faceted lead crystal bottle. My dad used the same cologne, and as I grew up, I developed a real aversion to it. I suffered from migraine headaches, and Daddy insisted that they not give me so much as an aspirin because, he said, “children can’t have headaches.” Instead of aspirin I was given a handkerchief soaked in that cologne, and to this day, Guerlain Imperial smells like a migraine to me.
I was my parents’ first child, the first grandchild on both sides, and the princess of the family. When my brother and sister and my cousins came along, because they were younger and couldn’t say my full name, María Cristina, they first called me Matitina, and later that was shortened to Mati. Everyone around me, friends, even people who work for me and have known me for a long time call me Mati. When I became “Cristina, the one on television,” a swarm of supposed friends and relatives I had never heard of suddenly came out of the woodwork, constantly calling my office and trying to talk to me in person. But they all ask for Cristina, a clue to my secretary that they don’t really know me. I imagine that after they read this book, they will change tactics and use the name Mati.
Life in the pre-Castro Cuba I knew as a child was idyllic. Little Cuban girls were dressed in clothes from a shop called La Cigueña de Paris (the Parisian Stork), which specialized in imported Spanish, French, and Italian dresses trimmed with lace and piqué. All our mothers had seamstresses, who subscribed to Vogue and the latest French fashion magazines. Society ladies chose their favorite styles from these publications, gave their calling cards to the seamstresses, and the seamstresses would buy the cloth, cut it, sew the dresses, fit them, and finish them. Strangely enough, most of these women had the same seamstress, named Olga, and often they came late to parties because they had been either having fittings with Olga or waiting for Olga to finish their dresses. Olga was indispensable, and Olga had all the best magazines.
My mother’s dream was to dress all the girls in our family the same. My sister Vicky and I were the victims of this foible, so much so that everyone thought we were twins because we were the same height and both of us were blond. My first cousin Maritere, who was a brunette, was dressed like us, except that if Vicky and I were wearing pink, she wore the same dress, but in yellow. Vicky has always been smarter and quicker than I am, and one day when we were a little older, she asked me, “What dress are you going to wear?” so she could wear a different one and we wouldn’t look like two idiots dressed like twins when we weren’t. Thanks to Vicky, Maritere also escaped from that tyranny. The whims of Cuban society ladies in regard to their children know no limits!
On the small island of Cuba, everything was cyclical and seasonal—to avoid boredom. During carnival time, the private clubs held parties and costume balls. On one occasion, my mother took a notion to dress me as a little Dutch girl, and took me to Olga, the famous modiste, for my dress. She got so carried away that she bought me some authentic wooden shoes. To top everything off, she had to have special braids made from several shades of blond hair to match the color of my dark blond bangs. Cuban society mothers also insisted on enrolling their daughters in ballet and piano and Spanish dance classes. I took ballet and Spanish folk dancing, and I learned to click the castanets with some skill. At the end of the school year there were parties where we danced the jota, a dance from Aragón, merrily clacking our castanets. I’ve always believed that everything you learn in life has some future application, but I’m still waiting to see what I can do with castanets.
When I was born, I was cared for by a nurse who had looked after my mother and Grandfather Pelusa. She was an African woman named Goya, whose father had been a slave in my mother’s family. By then Goya was nearly a hundred years old, but the family still accuses me of having been the cause of her death because back in 1948, in the days before air conditioning, when the windows of the house were open day and night, Goya would sit beside my cradle waving a palm leaf fan to stir the night air and keep the mosquitoes from biting me.
Goya was part of our family. My father tells me that when he fell in love with my mother, Goya clung to him like a limpet every time he spoke a word to my mother—and would actually whack him if he touched her. Goya died of old age, of course, and then I had a younger Jamaican nurse named Lili. Lili used to straighten her hair with a metal comb she heated over an alcohol burner. I practically lived in Lili’s room, and when she pulled that hot comb through her hair, I would stand before her with my long, straight hair and beg her, “Lili, my turn!” She indulged me by running the comb through my hair … cold.
In mostly Catholic pre-Castro Cuba there was always freedom of religion. There was, for example, the Yoruba religion, a syncretism practiced by the Nigerian slaves the Spaniards brought to the island. The ñáñigos were a sect with supposed supernatural powers who practiced abakuá, a derivative religion whose rites were secret. According to legend, a talking abakuá drum said that the secret of the religion resided in a fish, but when a woman repeated what the drum told, all women were forbidden to participate.
According to popular belief, the ñáñigos imposed bloody punishments and mutilated any person who violated the secrets of their rites. Legend has it that during a certain time of the year they would steal a blond white child and offer him or her in sacrifice to their African gods. My mother had not heard these rumors, but my nurse Lili, fearful that we would be stolen by a ñáñigo, was always in a panic whenever she had to take my sister and me out during that time of year. I never learned whether the belief was folklore or real, but my nurse was convinced that we were in danger of being stolen and went through every kind of hell trying to protect her blond little girls.
My sister Vicky and I went to a convent school in Miramar called Slaves of the Sacred Heart, but the nuns weren’t the slaves! The true slaves were we students, because the nuns maintained such severe discipline. I remember that the supervisor of our group was a nun named Juana María, whom we jokingly called Guanajería, the joke being a play on the word guanajo, which means “turkey.” And she really was one! We took communion every day, and if we didn’t, the nuns insisted on knowing why and what sin we had committed. Every day began with communion and breakfast; breakfast consisted of a soup plate filled with crackers and guava marmalade. What a sugar rush to begin the day!
My highest ambition at that moment was to grow up and be one of the “older girls.” The “older girls” were the ones who instead of white anklets got to wear knee-high flesh-colored stockings. We all wore brown uniforms: skirts with wide pleats and white blouses with brown neckties. When my family left Cuba, I was on the basketball team of my school. My English teacher was Mrs. Rogers, whom I called Mom. She really loved me! And since I loved cowboy films—Hopalong Cassidy was my favorite—and was so greatly influenced by Mrs. Rogers, I spoke English pretty well.
My brother had a mulatto nurse named Martina, skinny as a fishing pole, madly in love, and crazy about dancing. The Beny Moré show, starring the legendary singer, came on every day at noon, and Martina would gather all us children, line us up in front of the TV set, and teach us to dance the cha-cha-cha, which was all the rage. I believe I could never have learned to dance as an adult because the truth is I’ not very gifted in that department. My thanks to Martina!
In the summertime, every Cuban family that could afford to spent a three-month vacation at the beach. Our family took us to Varadero, my father’s favorite from the time he was a boy and undoubtedly the most famous, and best, beach in Cuba. The water at Varadero was so transparent it looked like glass; we could see the starfish on the sandy bottom and catch them with our hands. Flying fish leaped all around us, and tiny sardines nibbled our toes. Those were idyllic summers we spent at Varadero. I learned to water-ski there when I was six, on one ski.
We stayed several months at a beautiful spot called the Residencial Caguama, on a part of the beach where giant sea turtles came out of the water at night to deposit their eggs, digging into the sand with their flippers. From those eggs came some sixty tiny caguamitas trying to make their way back to the ocean, although children carried some back to the house in buckets of salt water, to keep as pets. Not far away were mangrove thickets, where my father took all us children to teach us how to gather oysters with a knife. Once home, we would pry the shells open, put the oysters in small goblets, sprinkle Tabasco sauce, lemon, and ketchup over them, and eat them like a seafood cocktail.
When I was ten, I had my first boyfriend, Kiki, an “older man” of twelve. He came with his family to a different beach about an hour from Varadero, but since we had a boat, I made the man who drove it tow me on my skis to their beach, just to wave at the group my boyfriend was always with. From an early age, I showed that kind of precociousness in everything. By the time I was one, I was already talking. Once one of my mother’s friends—her name was Estercita—came to my grandfather’s house, and I asked, “Mamita, what is this lady’s name?” Estercita, alarmed, screamed, “Cristy, is that a child or a dwarf?”
As I got older, I must admit that I was turning into a tomboy. I liked to dress up, from head to foot, like a character on North American television, Zorro: black shirt, black cowboy pants, black boots, and a cowboy hat, also black. My mother had three other children then, and at the time I thought I was an American cowboy, my sister María Eugenia had just been born. I remember that she wore little sleeveless cotton piqué undershirts with tiny buttons down the back, which I used to steal and wear as masks. All in black, with my whip and my mask., I was Zorro.
With the passing years, my dream changed to owning a motorcycle. I suspect that my interest was due to the fact that when he was young, my father had had a Harley-Davidson, and when my sister Vicky and I were not much more than babies, he would roar off with two little girls on his motorcycle, while my mother suffered an anxiety attack, worrying about our safety. My parents also used the motorcycle to try to get me to stop sucking the thumb of my right hand, which I had done since I was born. They promised that as soon as I stopped, they would buy me a motorbike. I never got it, but at night I dreamed that, dressed like Zorro, I was riding my own motorcycle.
Of course, I kept sucking my thumb, so much that it grew longer than the thumb on my left hand. My mother, to get me to stop, tried everything short of medieval torture. One day she decided to smear my thumb with a very bitter ointment and then slip a small glove over it. Even so, in the middle of the night I would be so desperate that I would take off the glove and suck my thumb until all the ointment was gone and then keep sucking at my pleasure. This habit continued until I was ten and had a boyfriend. Then my mother came up to me one day and said in a threatening tone, “You know what I’m going to do if you don’t stop sucking your thumb? I’m going to tell your sweetheart.” I wal so embarrassed that I stopped overnight.
Because of that habit, though, my teeth protruded, and I had to wear braces to correct them. Just as we were about to leave Cuba, I begged my mother to have the dentist take off the braces, but she refused, because everyone who left Cuba did so secretly, without saying a word to anyone, and she didn’t want to attract attention. The political situation in those days was very difficult; there were frequent shootings, and even though our life was easy and privileged, we too were in constant danger. My obsession about the braces, however, was undiminished. And since the orthodontist always warned children who wore braces not to eat candy, I specifically ate some caramels called pirulí (they were cone-shaped and unbelievably chewy) to try to pull them off. I bit into one as hard as I could, and when I was able to open my mouth, one side of the braces came off with the candy. I repeated the maneuver on the other side and rid myself of that brace as well. So I left Cuba with braceless teeth.
While the decade of the fifties was going by peacefully enough for some in Cuba, little by little the changing political climate was preparing the way for Fidel Castro to come to power. Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar, an army sergeant responsible for two coups d’état during the terms of two different presidents (the first in 1933, to oust the dictator Gerardo Machado, the second in 1952 to overthrow Carlos Prío Socarrás, the constitutional president of the republic), had created a police state filled with injustice and fear. It was so bad that in 1958 the president of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, refused to sell Batista any more tanks to use against his own people.
Fidel Castro Ruz was educated in Jesuit schools, then studied at the University of Havana, earned a law degree, and joined the growing opposition Partido Ortodoxo (Orthodox Party), which was under the leadership of the charismatic Eduardo R. Chibás. On July 26, 1953, Castro led an attack on the Cuartel Moncada—the main army barracks in Santiago de Cuba (the capital of Oriente Province)—but was defeated by Batista’s soldiers. He was sentenced to fifteen years in prison and while in prison wrote his famous and fateful chronicle La Historia Me Absolverá (History Will Absolve Me). Two years later, Batista granted Castro amnesty under the condition that he leave the country. Castro went to live in Mexico, where he founded his July 26 Movement, currently a day of mourning for all exiled Cubans and a date celebrated in Cuba with fireworks and Roman candles, like the Fourth of July in the United States.
On December 31, 1958, Batista, who had lost his U.S. support and could see the writing on the wall, fled to the Dominican Republic (where he was welcomed by the dictator Trujillo), then later to the Portuguese island of Madeira (where, surrounded by his family and his millions, he died sometime later). Fidel Castro and his triumphant army of bearded soldiers came down out of the mountains of the Sierra Maestra, the stronghold of the rebels in Oriente Province, and moved across the island toward Havana, where they arrived a few days later in jeeps and trucks that paraded through the streets like festival floats, giving people hope that this carnival would lead to a true democracy.
The troops of that liberating army were called milicianos (militiamen), and during those first months of 1959, these supposed messiahs wore crosses and rosaries around their necks. There was no hint of the Marxism-Leninism that later became the seal of the revolution. More than that, Fidel Castro himself publicly denied any affiliation with international communism, swearing that the revolution was “not red, but olive green” and as “Cuban as the palm trees.” During one of his first speeches in Havana, a white dove flew down and perched on Castro’s shoulder. The crowd gasped, attributing a supernatural symbolism to that unexpected incident. But then, when those same Cubans, with that special quality that allows them to see humor in the most serious event, saw white droppings on Castro’s olive green jacket, they laughed at the bird’s “gift.” There’s a metaphor for you!
During the first year of the revolution, impromptu trials were held to judge dozens of people who in one way or another had been involved with the Batista regime; others were tried just because they opposed Castro and his revolution, from which the “olive green” was beginning to fade. Some of these trials took place in stadiums before live television cameras, and hundreds of Cubans were executed without recourse to a legal defense or laws protecting their rights—just like the Christians thrown to the lions in Roman arenas. There is no doubt that chaos ruled in Cuba. And during that state of total anarchy, of interference and confiscation of goods, the Soviets were sharpening their claws to sink them into my country.
Private enterprise was one of Fidel Castro’s first targets. The major companies of the country were confiscated and nationalized through simple decrees published in the Gaceta Oficial, the official government record. By 1961, the presence of the Soviets was already obvious. Castro then proclaimed himself a Marxist-Leninist, confessing that he had always been of that stripe, and allied Cuba with the Soviet bloc, abolishing freedom of press, speech, and religion. Anyone who was not with the revolution, who did not back Fidel Castro, was labeled a counterrevolutionary, and the consequences could be very serious.
I can remember Batista’s flight on December 31, 1958. The next day, tanks of the militia began to roll through all the streets of Havana, like an olive green carnival. Everything stopped until the arrival several days later of Fidel Castro, who had toured the island in a triumphal caravan. That December 31, my parents were celebrating New Year’s with friends in my grandfather’s home. They heard shots, but everyone thought it was fireworks. Later we found out that the private police Senator Suárez Rivas, our closest neighbor, employed to guard his house had had some kind of run-in with the militia. And that is my picture of Fidel Castro entering Miramar and my life. Because although this was a moment in history that turned into a disaster for my country, at that moment it dazzled the children. All the bearded rebels wore sleeve bands bearing the black and red stripes of the revolution and the words 26 July, which they handed out to the children. They also gave us presents of live rifle and pistol ammunition. Sometimes a child fell, or a bullet was dropped, and since it was live, it went off. Some of the dead or wounded children might have been the first innocent victims of the Castro revolution.
Nevertheless, to the children, Fidel and his followers were like the Three Villalobos, the heroes of a very popular radio program broadcast throughout Cuba, although there were four in this case: Fidel, the lead; his brother Raúl, the ugly one; Ernesto (Ché) Guevara, a charismatic and idealistic Argentine; and the handsome Camilo Cienfuegos, who died shortly afterward under very peculiar circumstances, probably assassinated for having questioned orders and stealing the stage from Castro. But at first there was little doubt that the four men caught the fancy of children. There was even a collection of trading cards of all these “heroes” of the revolution, and many of us children collected them in albums, as we had with movie stars and baseball players.
My family lived through the first year of the revolution. Little by little we realized that even the most ordinary things in our daily lives were changing. First there was no butter; then came a day when there was no more guava jelly. We were convinced that the next shortage would be in sugar and coffee, even though these were basic Cuban products. We felt the pressures of fear, distrust, envy, and the malcontents’ desire for revenge.
Excerpted from Cristina! by Saralegui, Cristina Copyright © 1998 by Saralegui, Cristina. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted July 31, 2011
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