Approaching Freedom: An Exile's Quest for a New Self

Approaching Freedom: An Exile's Quest for a New Self

by Maria A. Nodarse


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A probing tale of an exile’s quest for a new self, Approaching Freedom follows Maria Nodarse’s journey from her arrival as a Cuban political refugee in 1960s America to her return to her native land in 1979.

Nodarse is fifteen when her family settles in a white middle-class New Jersey town. In Cuba she had attended the same private American school since kindergarten. At Ridgefield Park High School when she’s instructed to take part in the pledge of allegiance Nodarse cannot help but feel extremely alienated. When her classmates ask her, “Do you wear shoes in Cuba?” and she’s forbidden to speak her own language on the school grounds, she starts looking for somewhere to hide.

Alone in this new reality, with one brother studying medicine in Mexico and the other imprisoned after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Nodarse resents the role assigned to Cuban women.

After her father loses his job he announces “We’re all moving to Miami.” Nodarse is not so sure. She has other ideas about her life even though it might cause her parents to stop talking to her. She knows the decision she makes will set the stage for the rest of her life. What she doesn’t know is how a headstrong young Latina can find her way through the maze of feminist, social, and political revolutions of the 60’ and 70’s without losing herself or the small family she has left.

As an exile, she’s left everything behind —her identity, her language, her land, her culture, her people. In Miami her compatriots have found ways to mediate these losses; they have formed an ethnic enclave that provides the warmth and acceptance of home. Nodarse refuses this consolation and moves to Manhattan. After graduating from Columbia she returns to Cuba, seeking what she lost.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781732892903
Publisher: Maria A. Nodarse
Publication date: 11/17/2018
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 1,057,165
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.85(d)

About the Author

Maria Nodarse is the daughter of Cuban exiles who migrated to the United States in 1960, fleeing communism. After several years working as a bilingual secretary she obtained a scholarship to Columbia University's School of General Studies in 1968. She was then admitted to Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, earning a master's degree in 1974. Her student days at Columbia politicized her and she embraced such liberal causes as the anti-war movement and the feminist revolution. Her ideas and beliefs set her apart from mainstream Cuban exiles.
While living in Manhattan Nodarse worked as a freelance editor, translator, and commercial writer. In 1979 she made a three-week trip to Cuba with a group of young left-wing exiles, after which she wrote an extensive article about her experience, a story that was picked up by two major American newspapers. Upon her return from Cuba she worked for New York publishing houses and traveled extensively throughout Latin America. She resided briefly in London and Madrid before returning to New York.
Nodarse met her husband in Houston in 1988 and followed him to California. With an emergency teaching credential, she started working at a local elementary school teaching the children of immigrant farm workers. She went on to obtain a bilingual cross-cultural teaching credential from California Lutheran University. Nodarse is a 2001 University of Santa Barbara Fellow and Teacher-Consultant of the South Coast Writing Project. She retired in 2008 in order to devote all her time to writing. She and her husband live in Camarillo, CA, with their beloved KC Cavalier, Chloe.

Read an Excerpt


It wasn't a scorching afternoon, yet the tall scrawny teenager wearing a Western Union cap looked like he'd stepped out of a swimming pool. I was home for lunch. My mother and I were rocking and chatting on the front porch when we saw el muchacho open the small wrought-iron gate in front of our house. His long legs had him at the porch in no time. With his eyes fixed on my mother he said, "Señora, telegrama" and asked her to sign for it. Te-le-gra-ma. He could have punched me in the stomach. I'd seen enough World War II movies to know telegrams were bad news. Mami, briefly upset by the messenger's arrival, pushed herself up from her rocker, scribbled her signature on his pad, and said, "Espera." She didn't bother with her shoes before stepping inside the house. She always enjoyed the coolness of the tile floor. A moment later she was back handing the boy some coins. "Gracias," she said.

As the messenger closed the gate behind him, Mami slipped two fingers inside the unsealed envelope and pulled out a small yellowish sheet of paper with narrow white strips glued onto it. The typed English words were all caps. I watched her scan the words, but then I always watched her. She was a beautiful, svelte brunette with a round face like Myrna Loy's and deep-set almond-shaped hazel eyes, fluid as a river. I locked eyes with her trying to anticipate what she might ask me to do.

"Puchita, está en inglés," she said and although she could sometimes decipher English, she handed me the telegram. Her request made me feel grown up. I was doing a good job translating it until I got stuck on a word: "absconded." I'd never come across it before; no idea what it meant.

"Something about Loren leaving school. But let's wait for Papi," I said.

My father arrived shortly after the telegram. His white-linen guayabera clung to his skin revealing a few spare pounds around his waist. As he bent down to kiss her — he was six feet to her five two — Mami said, "We got a telegram from Loren's school but Puchita can't translate it."

"That's so unfair! I just didn't know that one word!" I said.

"Not now, Puchita," my mother snapped as she pushed the telegram into my father's hand. He read it out loud in thickly accented but impeccable English. I'd already read that my brother Loren had run away from the academy but Papi's baritone voice conveyed a level of gravity I hadn't grasped.

After Loren's troubles with several of Havana's private schools, my parents had shipped him off to Georgia Military Academy in the States a year earlier, in 1957. Now, as he was about to finally graduate, he had pulled this stunt. The telegram went something like this:




Our cook Belén watched this scene from the arched kitchen doorway, her massive black body blocking the door. She'd wanted to tell Papi lunch was ready. Having a sixth sense about things, she hadn't ventured outside her realm yet. There was no need; she could hear every word. I caught her eye, and her look acknowledged what I'd suspected: our ranks destined us to be mere spectators.

Papi read the message again, translating it into Spanish. He wanted to be sure Mami understood what it said. "Lorenzo, we must find Loren and stop him," my mother said, sounding like an army drill sergeant. "I'm not having my son killed at eighteen."

"Águeda," my father said, "I'm not sure we can even find him. What's wrong with that boy anyway? Another couple of weeks he'd have been home with a high school diploma."

"What do you mean? He has to be stopped."

"First, we have to find out where he is. I'll call some parents. Maybe one of the kids called home. Better still, I'll call Georgia."

"Remember our phone might be tapped," my mother said.

"What makes you think they didn't read the telegram?" Papi was right; our mail was regularly opened and re-sealed with tape.

I saw Belén motioning me to come into the kitchen. As Papi placed the long-distance call, Mami stood next to him hanging onto every word he said. I took Belén's advice and headed to the kitchen.

"You better stay here," Belén said.

"Why?" I asked, wanting to be where the action was.

"Porque el horno no está para galletitas," Belén said. Roughly translated, it means the oven was way too hot for cookies.

A few days later my father called collect from a payphone in Miami. I could tell he was with Loren. Good thing too — after the telegram's arrival you could've sliced the tension in our house with a knife.

"No, he shouldn't come back," I heard my mother say. "It's too dangerous." She paused and I could tell my father was explaining something. She listened attentively, frowning and biting her lip. "Let's do that," she said at last. "He's safer in Mexico with Fello."

Just last year we'd been a family of six; now there were three of us left at home, like the storied bears. My grandmother, abuela, who'd always lived with us and who I adored had recently died. Fello, my oldest brother, had left to attend medical school in Mexico after Fulgencio Batista, Cuba's present dictator, closed the University of Havana on November 30, 1956.

Batista's corrupt government, the brutality of his police, and the social and economic injustices thrust upon the Cuban working class had fueled years of persistent student demonstrations and riots. Thousands of people had been murdered or had disappeared at the hands of Batista's secret police under the guise of crushing communist sympathizers. As in the rest of Latin America, Cuban political unrest first brewed at the universities. The University of Havana had always been the birthplace of dissent. Numerous student revolutionary groups dedicated themselves to the struggle for liberty and justice for all the Cuban people. Disruptions through demonstrations or sabotage had become daily occurrences in the lives of Cubans throughout the island.

Years earlier, during Gerardo Machado's dictatorial regime, my own father was a Havana University law student. During el Machadato, as his regime was referred to in the streets, urban turmoil and terrorism abounded in Havana. The university was a hotbed of political opposition and agitation. The government closed it in an effort to stamp out persistent demonstrations and organized dissent, preventing my father from graduating when he was scheduled to.

Even at twelve I had a good idea of what was going on in Cuba. Exploding homemade bombs and Molotov cocktails were a frequent occurrence in Havana. Bombings were so common that when the nightly cannon was fired from La Cabaña, the old fortress in Habana Vieja, a tradition dating back to colonial times, people would ask, "Was that a bomb or el cañonazo?" Since las bombas were often hidden in public bathrooms, my mother wouldn't let me use the restrooms when we went to the movies or department stores. But the sabotage didn't keep people from going out. People seemed to be indifferent to the explosions. Once in a while I'd wonder how many bombs it would take to make people stay at home.

Batista's police regularly tortured or shot political opponents who organized demonstrations against his government, even some who didn't. It wasn't unusual to find graphic black-and-white photos of their victims filling the pages of Bohemia, Cuba's popular weekly magazine. It was as if all sides wanted everyone to know the cost of dissent and the price of freedom. There were places like El Laguito, a small lake in the outskirts of Havana, where bodies were dumped on a regular basis. In a way, one could say at least the families knew where to look when one of their own disappeared. Rafael Salas Cañizares, Chief of the National Police, got what he deserved when he was mortally wounded in a shootout with rebels on October 20, 1956. His death served to demonstrate that Batista's iron rule was susceptible to attack.

After revolutionary student groups stormed Batista's presidential palace on March 13, 1957, a brutal reprisal followed. I still remember the day of the attack because of the panic it caused among everyone I knew. My family sympathized with the students who charged into the presidential palace hoping to assassinate Batista. While the palace was under fire, student leader Jose Manuel Echevarria and several others commandeered an important radio station, shouting into the microphone of Radio Reloj that Batista was dead. Echevarria was shot and killed by police on his way back to the university. Forty students died during the palace attack. That day prominent people thought to favor the revolution were taken out of their houses and shot.

That was just what was happening in the city of Havana. In the provinces the fighting in the Sierra Maestra kept escalating, and spreading to other provinces, particularly Las Villas. Batista's press releases sugar-coated the fighting in the mountains, but few were fooled. Back then people liked to say, "Lo bueno que tiene esto, es lo malo que se está poniendo." What's good about what's going on is how bad it's getting.


We visited my brothers in Mexico City the following Christmas. Havana was on the brink of open warfare. My parents decided our going to Mexico was safer than trying to bring my brothers back home.

We had welcomed the New Year at a lovely residence in Coyoacán, near Mexico City, where relatives of Fello's girlfriend lived. It must have been around two in the morning when we returned to the furnished three-bedroom rental where we were all staying. I was in no hurry to go to bed; I was still dressed to the nines in a red taffeta dress, still wearing my first pair of heels. I remember my hair being up that night, I'd wanted it gathered in a French twist so I'd look older. It must have worked since I managed to score several dances with some handsome university students.

My mother was readying for bed, searching the cabinets for more blankets in an apartment that felt like an icebox, when she turned and asked, "Puchita, did you have fun?"

"What a question! Mami, it was my first New Year's Eve party! Of course I had fun."

We heard a knock on the door. "¿A esta hora, quién será?" Mami and I said almost in unison.

"Triunfó la Revolución," heralded the wiry young man at the door, one of the building's resident Cuban refugees. The revolution had triumphed. We'd heard celebrations throughout the building, but it was New Year's Eve, December 31, 1958.

"Why do you say that?" asked Papi.

"My uncle just called me from home — Batista's gone," he answered.

We'd left Havana knowing — and hoping — Batista might be toppled during our absence but we never thought he'd abandon the city without a huge fight. Our stay in Mexico would last a few days longer than planned. We were scheduled to leave the following Saturday, but the airlines were suddenly swamped with Cuban exiles trying to get home again. Papi, being something of a wheeler-dealer, had obtained our plane tickets by bartering advertising space in Campeón, the sports magazine he published, with Cubana de Aviación. Since we hadn't paid cash for the tickets, the airline kept pushing us to the back of the line. I loved being in Mexico so I was in no hurry to leave.

On the morning of January 9th we caught a flight home. The tension during the flight was palpable; I think everyone on board was Cuban. None of us knew what to expect when we reached Havana. Rancho Boyeros Airport, on the southern outskirts of the city, felt like a war zone. Barbudos, rifle-carrying bearded men wearing olive-green fatigues, milled about the terminal. Later everyone would recall the rosaries that hung from their necks. I couldn't peel my eyes away from the armed rebels. They reminded me of the war movies I'd grown up with. On the way home from the airport I spotted dozens of rebeldes patrolling the streets in Batista's tanks, trucks, and jeeps.

Billboards, walls, and store windows were already covered with revolutionary slogans: Patria o Muerte, Venceremos, Viva Fidel, Viva la Revolución, Cuba, Territorio Libre de América, Movimiento 26 de Julio.

We'd missed Fidel's triumphant entrance into Havana by one day, but it was broadcast repeatedly on television. Crowds had lined the streets for miles as Fidel and his guerrilleros marched victoriously into the city on January 8, 1959. Fidel had taken several days traveling the six-hundred mile stretch from Santiago de Cuba to the capital, knowing people's growing anticipation would be at a fever pitch. Not a single bullet was fired to oppose him. I gave it no thought at the time but later I decided Fidel's unchallenged victory march into the capital reflected the people's reaction against the cruelty of Batista, his corruption and greed, and, in a way, against the Americans who had owned Cuba for so long.

Cubans were tired of corrupt politics, of persistent denials of freedom of speech, of the failure of civil resistance, of general strikes. They were tired of the government's indifference to their need for education, medical care, housing, social and economic justice. I think el pueblo must have concluded that nothing short of a revolution could stop Batista, so why not throw their support to Castro?

Passing through our neighborhood I noticed a few houses looked vacant. Their front doors were open, no one seemed to be around. Down our block, Nena's two-story house — where I'd spent so much time playing with her granddaughter Gema — was deserted. I worried about Nena and her husband, but my main concern was whether my girlfriend Gema was still around. As if reading my mind, my mother said, "They probably fled with Batista."

"Maybe they went to visit her uncle in Florida," I said.

All the way home on the plane, I kept imagining my telling Gema about my first real New Year's Eve party! About my hair, my shoes, and the handsome boys who'd asked me to dance. I couldn't have guessed she would've left. I'd known Gema my entire life. Our mothers were best friends. Gema's parents lived in a nearby neighborhood, but she spent a lot of time at her grandparents' home. When she was there, we were inseparable.

I never dreamed that just standing in front of my house could make me so deliriously happy or that seeing Belén there, holding the fort for us, could make my heart chuckle. I ran to hug her. She was my Rock of Gibraltar, and when she said "Puchita," and flashed that smile with a gold tooth, I knew I was safe. I asked her, "Belén, do you know if Gema left?"

"How would I know? People who left didn't exactly say goodbye, you know. Not that they would have told me, of all people. They just disappeared."

"Caballero," she said. She always addressed my father with the Spanish word for "gentleman" and my mother simply as Señora. "¿Sabe quién se mató?" she asked. Looking straight at him she told him. One of my father's closest friends, a judge, had committed suicide, probably fearing accusations of corruption.

"Señora, ni le cuento," Belén told my mother.

What was it she couldn't begin to tell my mother?

Monday morning, fussing more than usual, I readied for school. I couldn't wait to tell my friends about my thrilling holiday in Mexico, about the New Year's Eve party, but mostly I wanted to see and hear what had happened while I was gone. Would Phillips School be just as I'd left it or would it be revoluciónario like the rest of Havana? And my classmates, would they still be there or gone like Gema? I still remember what I wore that day, a black-and-brown plaid long-sleeved cotton shirtwaist dress — it was winter — anchored by a wide beige belt. Once a gangly tomboy, I'd recently become keenly aware of my appearance and budding femininity. That morning I found it hard to tear myself away from my mother's full-length mirror. My legs are too long, my torso's too short, my head's too big. I look like a lollipop. "Puchita, hurry up, you're late," I heard Mami say.

As we walked out of the house I asked my father once again, in hopes of wearing him down, "Aren't you ever going to buy a new car?" He drove a pugnosed, lusterless black 1950 Chevy, and it was 1959!

"They don't make them like this anymore," Papi said.

"I'll say." I shot back.


Excerpted from "Approaching Freedom"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Maria A. Nodarse.
Excerpted by permission of Maria A. Nodarse.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Approaching Freedom: An Exile's Quest for a New Self 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
rwe More than 1 year ago
This is a fascinating true story of one immigrant family and their experience with America. A timely and interesting read. Approaching Freedom tells the story of Maria Nodarse and her family as they cope with the Cuban Revolution and endure the exile and emotional consequence that follows. The story isn’t political, but deeply personal, focusing primarily on navigating their lives through the maze of 1960’s American culture and finding their place within it. She was constantly questioning where she lay on the exiles spectrum. So many parts of the Cuban exile community repulse her. Their ways are old fashioned and out of sync with the world around her. Where does she belong? An intense longing to understand the girl Maria left in Cuba draws her back to her homeland. But is it still the place she left? She’s compelled to find out. If you are a member of a "hyphenated" family or have the direct experience of immigration yourself, you understand firsthand the difficulty of separation and the need for adaptation and the creation of a new identity. For the rest of us, we have narratives like Nodarse's to guide the way.