One Boy's Struggle Under Castro
By Eduardo F. Calcines
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2009 Eduardo F. Calcines
All rights reserved.
Coming to Glorytown
God made everything and everyone. He even made Fidel Castro. That's what my abuelos, or grandparents, Ana and Julian Espinosa, always taught me. That meant the Revolution was God's doing, too. At the very least, He allowed it to happen.
When I was a boy, that made no sense to me. I wanted to know if we were being punished or tested. Nobody could tell me for sure. Abuela Ana wasn't complaining — she never complained about anything. She merely observed that God didn't miss a beat. We Cubans might have felt that He had abandoned us, but that wasn't true.
It was the rest of the world that had forgotten about the people of Cuba.
That's what Abuela Ana said. And she should know, because even before Castro came to power when he overthrew the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, life had been hard for my family.
* * *
Maybe Cuba's problems — and ours — started with sugarcane. Sugar is the lifeblood of Cuba, and the central province of Las Villas, where my people came from, is the heart of sugarcane country.
But farming sugarcane is brutally hard work. Both of my grandfathers had begun toiling under the Caribbean sun before they hit puberty: hacking at the tough canes with machetes, slapping insects, watching out for snakes, and hoping their exhausted neighbor's aim didn't go awry. In the old days, this was slave work. Each of my grandfathers dreamed of leaving as soon as he could, in search of a better life. Only my maternal grandfather, Abuelo Julian, managed to do that when he put down his machete and left the cane fields in the farming town of Rodas in Las Villas in 1918.
My other abuelo, Alfonso Calcines, was a sharecropper in the town of Cumanayagua. He and my abuela Petra had seventeen children, twelve of whom survived childhood. My father, Rafael, whom everyone called Felo, was their youngest son. They rented a small house on land owned by a wealthy Spaniard. In return for their labor, they were allowed to keep part of the sugar crop. This provided them with their basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter — but nothing else.
When my father was eight, one of his brothers was killed in a shooting accident, and my grandfather died suddenly of "grief "— probably either a heart attack or an aneurysm. He left his family nothing but the clothes on his back and a few pieces of furniture. The wealthy Spaniard had no use for the rest of the family, so he told them to get off his land and make sure they didn't take anything that didn't belong to them. Even the machete was his.
Abuela Petra had a brother in the city of Cienfuegos. He offered to take in the family until they could get back on their feet. So one day Abuela Petra and her remaining children — in addition to the one who was shot, four others had died of childhood maladies — walked thirty miles along the dusty roads of rural Cuba until they arrived at their new home.
Cienfuegos was called Cacicazgo de Jagua in the eighteenth century, when it was founded, then Fernandina de Jagua in the nineteenth century, and finally, Cienfuegos, after a Spanish capitán general. But its nickname has always been La Perla del Sur, the Pearl of the South. The buildings are well-constructed and elegant. Cienfuegos boasts the most geometrically perfect street plan in Cuba, perhaps in all of the Caribbean. It's said that one can shoot an arrow through the heart of town without ever striking a building. Before Castro came to power, the port bustled with ships sailing under every kind of flag. A majestic Spanish fort, El Castillo de Jagua, still dominates the turquoise waters of the bay.
Some members of both the Calcines and Espinosa tribes eventually ended up in the barrio, or neighborhood, of Glorytown. My parents met when my mother was fourteen, my father twenty-one. One of my mother's sisters, Violeta, was my father's neighbor. It was during one of my mother's frequent visits to see her sister that my father noticed her and began to think about settling down.
Felo had already been laboring for years on the docks, where he and his brothers had earned reputations as tireless workers. Decent-paying jobs for uneducated, untrained men were scarce, and they got used to defending their positions with the only means of arbitration they had — their fists. But if another laborer collapsed under the brutal sun, as was common, one of the Calcines brothers would be there to carry the fallen man's load as well as his own. This way, although dockhands were paid by the load, the fallen man would receive his full pay at the end of the day.
My mother, Conchita, was flattered by Felo's attention. For three years, they invented reasons to bump into each other accidentally-on-purpose on the sidewalk outside Violeta's home. It was improper for them to talk privately before being formally introduced, and that couldn't happen until Conchita was a little older. But the sidewalk was public territory, and their families could keep an eye on them, so the normal restrictions governing courtship were relaxed. In 1953, they were married on June 19 — the same day my abuelos Ana and Julian Espinosa had gotten married in 1911.
My mother had been a sickly child, and when she became pregnant with me, Abuela Ana was worried. But she needn't have been. My mother was tough, as the youngest of eleven must be, and Abuela herself would be there to handle whatever came up.
Childbirth was one of Abuela's numerous specialties. She'd assisted at the births of all her twenty-nine grandchildren so far. But number thirty, she would say later, was the most difficult, because I wanted nothing to do with this world. I simply refused to leave the womb. As a precaution, Conchita had gone to a birthing clinic, along with Abuela Ana and Papa, but somehow no one noticed until it was nearly too late that the clinic had no forceps. My father ran out and borrowed a pair, and it turned out to be too small. But it had to do.
The doctor dug deep, searching for my head, and in the process he nearly tore apart my left eye. Eventually, after a long struggle, I was born on October 4, 1955.
Abuela Ana and Abuelo Julian had just bought a house at 6110 San Carlos Street — the first they ever owned. My parents lived in a room that Abuelo had added on to the back in anticipation of my birth. It had a bed, a cabinet, a small bathroom, and a window that looked out on the backyard.
The yard was small, maybe twenty by thirty-five feet, but it was filled with mature tropical fruit trees: coconut, avocado, lemon, grapefruit, orange, and the applelike nispero, or loquat. Their thick branches and broad leaves formed a canopy that cast a cool shade over the entire yard. This made it the perfect place to raise a few chickens, as well as their rooster, Pichilingo, who would become my best friend. In later years, I would spend hours sitting on the tile roof, learning how to communicate with tropical songbirds in their own language and envying them their ability to fly away.
The injury to my eye was painful. I had surgery at the age of one, and again at two. These operations were ultimately successful, but I had a lot of sleepless nights, according to Mama. She often said that her only company in those wee hours was Pichilingo, who scratched and crowed anxiously as I cried out my agony to the night sky.
I was a lucky kid, in the best way a kid can be lucky: I was loved. It was really as if I had four doting parents — my own, and Abuela Ana and Abuelo Julian. Of course, Abuela Petra loved me, too, but since she lived far away in another barrio, I saw her only occasionally and then she died in 1962, when I was six. It was Ana and Julian who looked after me constantly while Papa worked and Mama was busy doing chores around the house. I even took my first steps clutching my grandparents' fingers. They eventually had more than one hundred grandchildren and great-grandchildren, but I was always the closest.
Abuela Ana was only four feet tall, but she was energetic and powerful, and when she wanted to, she could make herself appear to double in height. She was afraid of nothing and no one.
People in my family loved to tell the story of Abuela and the Mysterious Fingers. One night, when Abuelo was away, Abuela heard a noise coming from the doors to her house, as if they were being pushed or scratched on. At first she thought it was a mouse. But the noise was more sinister than that. Sensing danger, Abuela went for her machete, which in Cuba is a common household implement. Abuela used hers for cutting the heads off chickens, so she kept it nice and sharp.
As she approached the doors, she noticed a hand reaching in from underneath, trying to loosen the lock on the floor. She swung the blade and hit the concrete floor near the intruder's hand, meanwhile screaming at the top of her lungs, "I recognize your fingers, mister, and I know who you are! The next time you try to unlock my doors, I won't miss!"
Abuela had no idea whose fingers they were. But the man disappeared faster than a snake slides through the grass, for he had just tasted the wrath of Ana Espinosa, and he was not about to stick around for a second helping. By the next day, the story had spread around the whole barrio. It was a testament to Abuela Ana's character that she didn't actually cut the man's fingers off.
"Maybe he had children to feed," Abuela said, retelling this story to me and my little hermana, or sister, Esther, years later. "Maybe he felt such shame at being poor that he had no choice but to steal. Why should he lose his fingers over that? Look at us now. We've lost everything, and it's not even our fault. We're probably in the same state as that poor man was then. How glad I am that I showed him mercy and let him keep his fingers! Otherwise, who knows how much worse God would be punishing me now?"
Mama and Papa soon moved out of the back room and rented a house across the street, but Ana and Julian's backyard remained my favorite place. I was their niño, their boy, and I could do whatever I wanted — within reason. If I did something wrong at home, all I had to do was run across the street. Mama would chase me right up to the front porch of Abuela Ana's house. She would yell, throw things, and threaten to tell Papa, but that was as far as she could go. Abuela would hear the commotion and race out front, her kitchen apron slung over her shoulder. She would grab me and press my head into her large, soft chest.
"Now, Conchita," she would say, "go take care of your home, and let me take care of your hijo, your son. Poor thing, look how scared he is!"
"Spoiled, that's what he is," Mama would say. "And it's your fault, Mama! You let him get away with murder, because you're his grandmother!"
"Oh, go on. It's a grandmother's job to spoil her grandkids," Abuela would reply, still pressing my face into her bosom.
Abuela had nursed eleven children. I thought she probably had the largest breasts in the world. They reached all the way to her waist, which was just the right height for suffocating a small child like me. Sometimes I didn't know which was worse: Mama's wrath or Abuela's embrace. To avoid them both, I learned at an early age to climb the avocado tree in Abuela and Abuelo's backyard and get onto their roof. That became my means of escaping all the dangers of the world.
Every May, our family eagerly awaited Abuelo Julian's return from his three- or four-month sojourn at the sugar mill, where he supervised the cane harvest and enjoyed the grand title of First Sugar Master. He had come a long way from his days as a simple field hand in Rodas. My heart would pound in anticipation of the festivities that always came with this blessed event. My wealthy and generous tío, or uncle, William would buy a pig that weighed three or four times as much as I did. The men would cut its throat, gut it, and shave the long, bristly hairs from its skin with their razor-sharp machetes. Then they would dig a deep pit, build a massive fire, and lower the pig on a tray close to the coals. Several hours later, it would be roasted to perfection, and we would all stuff ourselves. As often as not, such a feast would turn into an impromptu block party, with all the neighbors showing up bearing special dishes and bottles of rum. Then the celebration would go on all night.
I looked forward to Abuelo Julian's return more than anyone, because when he was home, we were inseparable. From the time I was old enough to cross the street on my own, I sat patiently in the backyard every morning with Pichilingo, waiting for Abuela Ana to get up and open the back doors. She would give me a kiss and toss some breadcrumbs on the ground for the chickens. Then she'd usher me in and hand me a cup of coffee to take to Abuelo in bed. He'd sit up, ignoring Abuela's jibes about how long it took him to wake up these days, and drink it down in one gulp. Next he'd shave, put on some delicious-smelling aftershave, and comb his hair with scented water.
I watched all this in fascination. One of the first lessons I learned in life was that even a man of modest means should take pride in his appearance — not out of arrogance, but to show the rest of the world that he respects himself, and therefore is worthy of respect.
Once Abuelo Julian was up, the day was ours. My favorite thing to do with him was to play catch as we listened to baseball games from Havana on the radio.
"Niño, you're going to be a star someday!" he said. "But not if you throw like that! Come on, throw hard!"
"Julian," Abuela said from the back of the house, "aren't you a little too old to be playing ball? All we need is for you to break your glasses — or your leg!"
Abuelo smiled and whispered, "Throw it as hard as you can. Don't worry about Abuela. She worries too much, anyway."
Then, in a louder voice, he said, "Yes, my love. I know. But don't you worry. I'm not as old as you think!"
One morning in January 1959, I woke up and noticed immediately, in my childlike way, that something was wrong. I crawled out of bed and found Mama and Papa listening to the radio. They were so rapt that they ignored me. If I'd peed on the floor, they wouldn't have noticed. A Voice on the radio droned on and on. Mama even forgot to give me breakfast. This was not right. I was used to being the center of attention at all times, and I wasn't going to give up my place without a fight.
Yet it didn't seem to matter what I did. My parents and abuelos were so distracted by the Voice that even my tantrums didn't work.
In the next weeks, I noticed soldiers on every corner. This, I thought, was a great thing. I was fascinated by the way the sun gleamed on the soldiers' olive helmets and sleek, black weapons. I loved to watch the military jeeps careen around town, filled with self-important officers in their black-visored caps.
Loudspeakers went up on light poles all over town and began to broadcast the Voice. There were loudspeakers on cars, too, also playing recorded speeches by the Voice, over and over, each one vying to be the loudest. They were out of sync with one another, so that the air became a crazy tapestry of the same Voice at different intervals, volumes, and pitches. Who was this Voice? I had no idea, but I figured he was someone important. I was only three years old and so much of the world was a mystery to me — it was just one more thing to be puzzled over.
One day, Abuela Ana and I were walking to the store to get some milk when I heard a tremendous roar. We found a spot on the sidewalk among a rapidly growing crowd. The roar grew closer. At the last moment, I lost my nerve and dived behind Abuela's skirt. Peeking out, I beheld an amazing sight: hundreds and hundreds of people, marching, chanting, and singing. The pounding of their feet resounded in my chest. They yelled, Viva Fidel! and Viva la Revolución! Long live Fidel! Long live the Revolution! I still had no idea what a revolution was. So far, it was all army men and marches, and both of those things were fine with me. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Leaving Glorytown by Eduardo F. Calcines. Copyright © 2009 Eduardo F. Calcines. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.