Learning to Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy

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In his 2003 National Book Award?winning memoir Waiting for Snow in Havana, Carlos Eire narrated his coming of age in Cuba just before and during the Castro revolution. That book literally ends in midair as eleven-year-old Carlos and his older brother leave Havana on an airplane?along with thousands of other children?to begin their new life in Miami in 1962. It would be years before he would see his mother again. He would never again see his beloved father.

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Learning to Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy

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In his 2003 National Book Award–winning memoir Waiting for Snow in Havana, Carlos Eire narrated his coming of age in Cuba just before and during the Castro revolution. That book literally ends in midair as eleven-year-old Carlos and his older brother leave Havana on an airplane—along with thousands of other children—to begin their new life in Miami in 1962. It would be years before he would see his mother again. He would never again see his beloved father.

Learning to Die in Miami opens as the plane lands and Carlos faces, with trepidation and excitement, his new life. He quickly realizes that in order for his new American self to emerge, his Cuban self must “die.” And so, with great enterprise and purpose, he begins his journey.

We follow Carlos as he adjusts to life in his new home. Faced with learning English, attending American schools, and an uncertain future, young Carlos confronts the age-old immigrant’s plight: being surrounded by American bounty, but not able to partake right away. The abundance America has to offer excites him and, regardless of how grim his living situation becomes, he eagerly forges ahead with his own personal assimilation program, shedding the vestiges of his old life almost immediately, even changing his name to Charles. Cuba becomes a remote and vague idea in the back of his mind, something he used to know well, but now it “had ceased to be part of the world.”

But as Carlos comes to grips with his strange surroundings, he must also struggle with everyday issues of growing up. His constant movement between foster homes and the eventual realization that his parents are far away in Cuba bring on an acute awareness that his life has irrevocably changed. Flashing back and forth between past and future, we watch as Carlos balances the divide between his past and present homes and finds his way in this strange new world, one that seems to hold the exhilarating promise of infinite possibilities and one that he will eventually claim as his own.

An exorcism and an ode, Learning to Die in Miami is a celebration of renewal—of those times when we’re certain we have died and then are somehow, miraculously, reborn.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

When we last saw Carlos Eire, the author of the National Book Award-winning Waiting for Snow in Havana was in the air, on his way from Castro's Cuba to life as a child refugee orphan in Florida. Now, six years later, he tells us what happened after that plane landed in 1962. Learning to Die in Miami takes us inside an adolescent's mind as he cobbles together his new identity as an American. Bereft of their parents (he will never again see his father), Carlos and his older brother move from foster home to foster home, living much of the time in a reality that their new "parents" can not even begin to understand. Like its predecessor, this memoir possesses a striking originality; like its author, it in a sense created itself.

Ligaya Mishan
In Learning to Die in Miami, [Eire] once more channels the voice of his younger self—chatty, cocky, hyperbolic, ardent—without imposing an adult's guile or sentimentality…Eire is a tremendously likable narrator, honest about the limitations of memory, always wearing his heart on his sleeve…those who remember the exuberant kid from Waiting for Snow in Havana—launching a lizard into outer space on the back of a firecracker, chasing after beautiful blue clouds of DDT—will be moved by the man he becomes.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
A stranger in a strange land, Eire (Waiting for Snow in Havana), one of 14,000 children airlifted out of Cuba in Operation Peter Pan in 1962, describes the classic American immigrant experience in Miami, Fla., with a mix of insightful observation, humor, and heartfelt emotion. With his older brother, Tony, the 11-year-old boy compares the Yankee environment, which he describes as "so advanced and so wealthy," to the oppressive "Castrolandia and its fascination with Soviet backwardness." Despite the absence of his biological parents and enduring uncaring foster homes, Eire conquers the English language, survives crass holiday consumerism, and excels at academia and the American dream. Easily one of the more impressive memoirs on the thorny issue of immigration, this book provides a winning formula for immigrants "finding themselves at the bottom of the heap and knowing that they will climb their way back to the top, no matter what." (Nov.)
From the Publisher
"Eire...describes the classic American immigrant experience...with a mix of insightful observation, humor, and heartfelt emotion." —-Publishers Weekly Starred Review
Library Journal
Eire (T. Lawrason Riggs Professor of History & Religious Studies, Yale) takes readers on his personal journey, beginning in 1962 when he and his brother arrived in Florida as part of Operation Peter Pan—an evacuation of 14,000 Cuban children whose parents arranged for their relocation to the United States, away from Castro. Eire's prose engages us throughout as we learn of the challenges he faced as he assimilated to his new world. He often carries us back to Cuba, where his parents remained. He longed for his family traditions, even as the United States became his "real world"—a world lit up with color. The reader becomes a part of Eire's assimilation journey, which although at times provides humor, was more often simply difficult. Eire interlaces Spanish appropriately, thus illustrating how he still thinks in one language but speaks another. VERDICT Eire shows how strong and deep are the personal impacts of emigration, yet he met his challenges head-on and succeeded. Readers of memoir and immigrant stories will appreciate Eire's journey and celebrate his accomplishments.—Susan Montgomery, Rollins Coll. Lib., Winter Park, FL
Kirkus Reviews

In a follow-up to his 2003 National Book Award–winningWaiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, Eire (History and Religious Studies/Yale Univ.) describes his early years of exile in the United States.

In 1962, at age 11, the author and his older brother, Tony, were among 14,000 children airlifted from Castro's Cuba to Florida. This vivid, affecting memoir of survival and coming of age traces Eire's experiences living in several places through 1965, when his mother finally came to the United States. In this period of "death and rebirth," the author tried to blot out memories of a repressive Castrolandia and thrilled to a Miami where everything was "so new, so free of ghosts, so wide open." While his brother was sent elsewhere, Eire was taken in by a kind Jewish family, learned English and Yiddish, and began calling himself Charles, hoping to fit in, even as he desperately missed his parents. His father remained and later died in Cuba. Within the year, the brothers were reunited in yet another Miami home, this one ruled by strict foster parents and overrun by mice and roaches. While Cuban exiles trained for war in nearby fields in the wake of the Bay of Pigs, Carlos felt "wholly and truly American," engaging in food fights and Halloween pranks. He also discovered a portal to a much larger world on the shelves of a local public library. Finally, in 1963, he and Tony happily joined the family of an uncle and aunt in the Midwest. There his experience of a "presence" on Holy Thursday helped him better understand the lessons of Thomas a Kempis's manual of devotion,The Imitation of Christ—a parting gift from his parents—and set him on a course to become a teacher and historian of religion.

An engrossing Cuban-American story that will leave readers wanting more.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781439181911
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 6/7/2011
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 247,694
  • Product dimensions: 8.22 (w) x 5.62 (h) x 0.84 (d)

Meet the Author

Carlos Eire

Born in Havana in 1950, Carlos Eire left his homeland in 1962, one of fourteen thousand unaccompanied children airlifted out of Cuba by Operation Pedro Pan. He is now the T. Lawrason Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University.

Winner of the prestigious Audie Award for his recording of Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic by Gordon S. Wood, veteran actor Robert Fass is a four-time Audie Award nominee with over sixty audiobooks to his credit. He has also earned multiple AudioFile Earphones Awards, including for his narration of Francisco Goldman's novel Say Her Name.


Carlos Eire was born in Havana, Cuba, on 23 November 1950. At the age of eleven he fled to the United States without his parents, as one of 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children airlifted by Operation Peter Pan. Before joining the Yale faculty in 1996, he taught at St. John's University in Minnesota and the University of Virginia, and spent two years at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

His memoir of the Cuban Revolution, Waiting for Snow in Havana (Free Press, 2003), which won the National Book Award in nonfiction for 2003, has been translated into many languages, but is banned in Cuba. A second memoir, Learning to Die in Miami, was published in November 2010. It focuses on the early years of his exile in the United States.

Good To Know

In our exclusive interview with Eire, he shared some fascinating facts, anecdotes, and observations with us:

"Although Spanish is my native language, I think in English. Consequently, it is difficult for me to write well in Spanish. I tried translating my own book and gave up after one chapter, for the results looked like something a fifth-grader would have written. And that is just about right, since it was at the age of 11 that my education switched from Spanish to English. I am currently looking for a Spanish-language publisher who will buy the book and pay for a translator. Ironically, it has already been translated into Dutch and German, and a Finnish translation is in the works, but there is no Spanish translation anywhere on the horizon. This means that my own mother can't read my book. Though she has lived in the United States since 1965, she never learned English and has never been able to read anything I have written."

"I am constantly being asked: ‘Have you ever been back to Cuba?' or, ‘Would you like to go back?' My reply is: I will not go back while Castro is in power and human rights are routinely trampled. No way. When things change, as they will, I suppose I might go back. But the world that exists in my memory is so vivid only because I have given up on the idea of ever reclaiming it, physically. Unlike most people I know, I can't revisit my childhood haunts, so that world survives in my mind and in my soul, intact. I know that if I were to go back the squalor and the crushing oppression of present-day Havana, it would have a devastating effect on me. I got a good sense of that by trying to watch the film Buena Vista Social Club. I couldn't watch more than 15 minutes because the physical destruction of Havana -- and of my own people, and my past -- is so evident in that film. I started weeping so uncontrollably that I had to return the film to the video store, unwatched. As far as I am concerned, Fidel's Cuba might as well be the lowest circle of hell. I don't want to go to either place."

"I am also constantly told that Waiting for Snow in Havana reads more like a novel than a memoir. There is a good reason for this. I wrote the book as a novel and marketed it as a novel. I didn't really want to tell my story and expose details of my life to the whole world. My intention was to tell a story about a boy who grew up during the Cuban Revolution, and to expose through small details the horrors of what many people in the world still consider some benevolent humanitarian experiment. Soon after I began writing, however, I discovered that what had actually happened in my childhood was far more interesting than anything I could invent, so I simply kept writing straight from my memory, changing everyone's names.

"But after the publisher had purchased my manuscript and I revealed that 98 percent of what was in it was history rather than fiction, it became clear to all involved that it had to be published as a memoir. Since one of my reasons for writing a ‘novel' rather than a memoir was that I thought a novel would sell more copies and expose the real Cuba to a wider reading public, I agreed to publishing it as a memoir after it was pointed out to me that nonfiction sells better than fiction, and that my story would have a much greater impact if it were presented as a factual account. The funniest thing that has happened since publication is that many reviewers have praised the book's ‘magic realism' or even praised my imagination in coming up with such outlandish things as my father, the judge, who believes he is the reincarnation of King Louis XVI of France. I am still laughing and will always laugh at this. What a sweet irony: I expose the facts, and many believe them to be fiction, or even worse, ‘magic realism.' One reviewer actually accused me of making false claims and exaggerating. Another thing that makes me laugh is when people compliment me on the title. The fact is that the original title was Kiss the Lizard, Jesus. I still prefer that title and can never think of the book as Waiting for Snow in Havana. My editor found Kiss the Lizard repulsive, however, and asked me to change it. So I came up with a list of 150 alternative titles, and out of all of those Waiting for Snow jumped to first place. In my household, we still call the book The Lizard."

"I don't have time for hobbies -- other than writing books without footnotes -- but I do like to work with my hands. I love gardening and carpentry. I recently built a shed in the back yard, and am as proud of that as any book I have written, even though someone else did all the thinking for me and came up with the plans and measurements. Having failed trigonometry in high school, putting up a well-proportioned structure with straight angles on level ground was no small feat."

"We have four cats. Three are males: Sparky, a brown tabby; Wolfie, a gray Maine coon; and Ralph, an orange tabby. The fourth is a calico female: Oblyna. We keep them indoors all the time because we have a lot of coyotes, foxes, and skunks around our house. Sparky is our escape artist, but we have always been able to retrieve him from the woods. Once, however, our female, Oblyna, disappeared for two weeks. She had slipped out unnoticed. When she returned one Mother's Day morning, she had a huge gash along her back. Apparently, she had a run-in with the wildlife or a neighbor's dog. After being stitched up, she recovered nicely and has never gone out again."

"Speaking of predators and food chains: I am a vegetarian and therefore a huge pain in the neck to my wife and my kids and for anyone who invites me to dinner. I can't bring myself to eat anything that was once a living being. This might be due to the fact that a chimpanzee bit me when I was a child, showing me what it feels like to be eaten. I do eat eggs and milk products, but that is as far as I will go along with the exploitation of the animal proletariat. Since I often travel to Europe for my work, I have a hard time eating over there, especially in Spain, where vegetarianism tends to be considered a disease or a bizarre deviant behavior, akin to self-mutilation."

"And speaking of deviant behavior, here are six of my favorite ways to unwind: shoveling snow, raking leaves, mowing the lawn, splitting wood, digging large holes, and hauling heavy stones from one place to another. I also find any task that involves sledgehammers, axes, picks, and chainsaws very, very relaxing. This is what a revolution can do to your personality."

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    1. Hometown:
      Guilford, Connecticut
    1. Date of Birth:
      November 23, 1950
    2. Place of Birth:
      Havana, Cuba
    1. Education:
      B.A., Loyola University, 1973; M.A., Yale University, 1974; M. Phil., Yale University, 1976; Ph.D., Yale, 1979

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 16 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 16 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 19, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    You can't get much better than this!!! A MUST on everyone's Holiday Book List!

    I didn't want to like this book, I fought it feircely, but succumbed to the beautiful, emotional and almost poetic writing of a master writer at his craft! I dare anyone to start reading it ...just one page or even one paragraph and put it down! You won't be able to do it! I guarantee it you won't!

    We hear so much talk of immigrant's these days, mainly in derogatory terms. Well here is ONE book that will make you applaud the immigrant that is Carlos Eire!

    This is Carlos's second book without footnotes. His first one being his award winning book by the title of WAITING FOR SNOW IN HAVANA written in 2003. You see, Dr. Carlos Eire is a professor of History at Yale University. His other books are more academic in nature and wonderful in their own way, but nothing like these two works of art, which I recommend to you now. I won't tell you anymore... Discover it for yourself...then tell me how you laughed, cried , and got angry all in the span of a few pages. Express your delight and wonder at the magic of his written word for that is what it is -pure magic! And finally, get to know intimately the story of one of the 14,000+ exiled
    children of Cuban parents who preferred to send their offspring to a new country than have them parented and brainwashed by a depraved and sick dictator who still until today continues to hold captive generations of Cubans who have not been able to cast off the stranglehold he has on them and their island home.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 25, 2013

    Another masterpiece

    Excellent book!

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    Posted January 1, 2013


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  • Posted November 25, 2012

    I Also Recommend:

    Learning to Die in Miami is a memoir of Carlo Eire's rebirth in

    Learning to Die in Miami is a memoir of Carlo Eire's rebirth in a new world without the guidance of those he trusts the most, his parents. He was one of tens of thousands of children exiled in America from Cuba, sent like doves into the air as a symbol of freedom from dictatorship and slavery. I'd read Waiting for Snow in Havana and loved it. Carlos had such a magical way of seeing the revolution. Miami is a different book but I think more enlightening. It's a book about a child who somehow never learned how to give up. Even when Fidel slams the door and turns the lock on freedom for all the parents separated from their children, Carlos finds hope and refuge where he can. It is a beautifully written book of courageous innocence.

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  • Posted March 25, 2011

    Highly Recommended

    This is a sequel to the first volume of the author's memoir of his childhood, Waiting for Snow in Havana. While not quite as absorbing as the earlier book, due to its picture of a society literally gone with the wind of revolution, it is just as well written. This is a fresh and fascinating take on the American immigrant experience.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 9, 2011

    Excellent nostalgic book

    Now, read "Unpardonable Crimes:The Legacy of Fidel Castro"

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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