The heart-breaking, yet powerfully uplifting story of a family in crisis, and how one man rises from the shadow of a violent, brutal father to become a shining example of transcendance.
This is a story about how I was saved by love, at a time when most people considered me beyond rescue.
So begins Victor Rivas Rivers in this powerful chronicle of his escape from the war zone of domestic violence—too often regarded as a “private family matter”—and his journey toward independence, recovery, and renewal.
In A Private Family Matter, Victor recalls his days as an angry youth living under the rule and wrath of his father. A Cuban immigrant, Victor's dad was nicknamed El Ciclón for his tempestuous temperament, which led him not only to beat his wife but to abuse—and eventually kidnap—his own children. How Victor managed to seek help for his family and criminal punishment for his father, overcome his demons and learn to love himself, and share his experience with other victims and survivors of domestic abuse is at the heart of this profound and affecting memoir.
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About the Author
Victor Rivas Rivers, a veteran actor who has starred in more than two dozen films (including The Mask of Zorro, The Distinguished Gentleman, and Blood In, Blood Out), is the spokesperson for the National Network to End Domestic Violence. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and son.
Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1:sancti spíritus (1955-1957)
The multitude of palm trees of various forms, the highest and most beautiful I have ever met with, and an infinity of great and green trees; the birds in rich plumage and the verdure of the fields; render this country, most serene princes, of such marvellous beauty that it surpasses all others in charms and graces as the day doth the night in lustre. I have been so overwhelmed at the sight of so much beauty that I have not known how to relate it.
Christopher Columbus, on Cuba,
to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, 1492
Olga Angelica Lopez Ibarra was born prematurely on September 21, 1929, at 3 P.M. in a hospital in Havana. She was the size of a small Coca-Cola bottle, all of four pounds. With no neonatal units or incubators to nurture her into life, she began her existence much as she would live it in struggle.
My mother, to me, was the embodiment of Cuba. She was a natural beauty, dark, exotic, proud, intelligent, opinionated, ironic with a sense of tragicomedy, but unspoiled; then later, like our island itself, conquered, exploited, oppressed. My father did his best to obliterate her; he broke her into many pieces, but she refused to be completely vanquished. She had native and Spaniard coloring but was a mix of other ethnicities, like Cuba, my homeland. Many of her memories and experiences were passed on in my cells, my DNA, or were told in fragments over the years, usually with her back to me as she bent over our various kitchen counters preparing countless numbers of meals, often, if Papi wasn't around, while her beloved Cuban music played on scratchy records or obscure radio stations.
In public, my mother danced with an abandon and joy whether slow or fast, son or mambo that seemed to belong to someone else, but at home she wasn't allowed to dance, as though it might rouse her to counterrevolution against Papi. But music or not, she moved with a sensual grace to some internal Cuban beat, its core from African culture, with the rhythm of the claves two thick wooden sticks about a foot long keeping time.
My mother had another distinctive quality that she kept secret. She had the gift of sight. She could read omens and feel the presence of ghosts. Her energy produced heat and caused still water left in drinking glasses to bubble up as in a boiling cauldron. She had innate healing powers that, had she been free to direct her own destiny, might have led her to become a licensed medical professional. These powers may have been strengthened in her earliest days when she struggled between life and death, "all eyes and hair" as her parents described her at birth.
Pero con el ayudo de Dios but with the help of God (Mami's favorite phrase) baby Olga survived and was soon allowed to go home. Her father, a handsome, stern policeman by the name of Jose Manuel Lopez known as Manolo carried his firstborn out of the hospital in one of the oversized pockets of his suit jacket. In their modest home, her mother, Eladia Ibarra, a pretty young seamstress, sewed garments smaller than doll clothes to fit tiny Olga.
Other struggles ensued. Less than a month after she was born, the Wall Street crash plummeted Cuba into its worst economic crisis up until that time. Four years later, a second child, Carmita, was born to the Lopez family, just as the country teetered on civil war. In the atmosphere of uncertainty, President Gerardo Machado resigned before boarding a plane to Miami, and a youthful army sergeant named Fulgencio Batista took control of the island nation.
Despite her family's relative poverty and the national instability, love and protection were in abundance at home, such that Olga remembered her childhood as simple and quiet. She never thought of herself as a great beauty, she would say, but admitted later, "I had a certain look and knew how to win people over." Was she too modest? "Well, they used to tell me that I was friendly and funny. Perhaps, due to my good nature, I was showered with happy moments."
That charm, that positive, attractive energy drew her many suitors. After her diminutive start in life, she grew surprisingly tall five foot six, taller than most Cuban girls of her generation; and with her milk-chocolate-colored eyes, thick long lashes, and a mane of wavy black hair, Olga Lopez, struggles notwithstanding, had the sparkle of one fated to be lucky in love. But then, through an unlucky series of circumstances, she met Antonio Rivas. Her gift of sight apparently fled her. For the rest of her days, Olga could not for the life of her recall what she had seen in him.
Nor could she fathom why she had recently broken off her engagement to Artemio, the true love of her life. Maybe it was partly because she had been only twelve years old when they met on the Havana city bus that she took to school (where her adored English teacher was Miss Amelie, who, as it so happened, went on to have a son named Andres, later to become famous as the actor Andy Garcia).
Aside from the fact that Artemio was nine years older and worked as a bus driver, he had qualities Olga liked. He was dark-haired, six feet tall, with a stylish thick mustache and a wonderful smile. Even though she was too young for suitors, he was a gentleman and very persistent, eventually earning her parents' permission to take her on chaperoned dates. They made a striking couple, everyone agreed. With her gentle but hawk-eyed mother at their side, Olga and her beau experienced the glittering, glamorous Havana nightlife of the late 1940s. Though she was only the daughter of a civil servant, and he was but a humble bus driver, they were the most popular couple on the dance floor. With his rich singing voice, Artemio also made her feel special when, on occasion, he was asked to join the orchestra to sing and dedicated his crooning to her.
The plan was for them to be married once Olga completed the teaching program in which she enrolled after graduating from high school with honors. This career path was not entirely of her choosing. When she had told Manolo that she intended to become a nurse, her father had said, "Absolutely not." A good man and a protective father, he was of the old-fashioned mind-set that nursing was not a respectable profession for an unmarried young lady. Why? "Because," he insisted, "doctors carry on affairs with their nurses, ruining their reputations."
Engaged to marry Artemio, in accordance with Manolo's wishes, she pursued her teaching curriculum, but without her father's knowledge and consent, she enrolled in nursing school at the same time. For three years, on top of her demanding studies to become a teacher, Olga secretly worked as a nurse's aide at a local hospital that treated police officers.
In her circle of friends, there was a general attitude that fine, educated young ladies ought to seek marriage above their station in life. At first, this did nothing to mar her feelings for Artemio, who had patiently, attentively watched her blossom from adolescence to womanhood, remaining respectful of her innocence all the while. Olga's friends agreed he was handsome and polite, but pointed out other concerns. Money and social status mattered, as did a prospective groom's family name, despite what the love songs said. In fact, in America front-page headlines blamed the escalating divorce rate on crooners who made romantic love seem so simple, when, as everyone with any sense knew, marriage was work, hard work.
Olga couldn't keep these notions out of her head. With what looked to be a life full of promise ahead of her, she broke off her engagement. The towels had already been monogrammed.
Only later did she come to regret ending her relationship with Artemio as the second worst decision of her life.
Meanwhile, after graduating with her teaching degree, Olga was preoccupied by an unexpected set of adventures and challenges that had come her way. Though she had assumed her first assignment would be in a school in Havana, she was instructed to pack her bags, as her job would be taking her out to classrooms across Cuba, in the underserved countryside. Almost like a young missionary, sometimes traveling on her own, she subsequently saw her island as few did, visiting every province of the land that lay beyond Havana Baracoa, Santiago, Bayamo, Camagüey, Trinidad, and Sancti Spíritus. No doubt this turn of events worried her father, but she assured him that wherever she went, she was well treated.
Senorita Lopez taught students from all walks of life from the families of wealthy ranchers and from the poorest of peasant families. She marveled at those who had little or nothing but managed to be very generous with whatever they did have. As she taught, she was also learning picking up, for example, some of the folk medicine and healing rituals of Santeria, the white magic that combined African and native Caribbean spiritual beliefs, in addition to food recipes from the different regions.
Manolo had been a mess chef in the military and had taught both of his daughters to cook at an early age. By the time she was nine years old, Olga had been cooking most meals for her family. Now added to her repertoire were recipes she collected as she traveled across the countryside, yielding her versions of traditional Cuban dishes like arroz con pollo and lechón that were arguably among the best ever tasted, and eclectic creations without rival like her Cuban fried rice, inspired by descendants of the Chinese traders who had once come to the island expecting to pass through but could never bring themselves to leave.
For a young woman who had been so sheltered, Olga Lopez became unusually independent traveling in various modes of transportation not limited to boats, trains, and buses, but sometimes by coche (horse-drawn buggy) or even on the backs of horses and mules. She had many occasions to be fearful but managed to survive the ordeals of travel, until one of her assignments took her out into the countryside at night and she was caught in a torrential downpour, on horseback, while crossing a river whose banks had overflowed. Terror seized her. For an instant she panicked, pulling back on the horse's reins to turn him around as he pitched and reared, almost throwing her off into the turbulent water. She was sure she was going to die. Then she closed her eyes, allowing a calm to wash over her as she put herself in God's hands, asking him to guide her horse. Beneath her, the horse began to swim and she clung to his mane the whole way, finally ending up miles from her destination wet, still terrified, but safe.
Beautiful, strong, a teacher and a nurse who happened to cook like an angel, and an exceptional dancer, Olga attracted many suitors, among them a doctor, a sugarcane engineer, and an officer in the military. Despite the fact that she was almost twenty-three by many standards old not to be married yet she was not in a hurry to become engaged, and enjoyed their attentions. That changed when Batista's minister of agriculture, Eduardo Suarez Rivas, began making unwanted advances toward her.
Minister Rivas first spotted her at a public art exhibit of her students' work in the city of Sancti Spíritus, the capital of the province of the same name. Olga had taught in various schools in the region that catered to the children whose parents toiled on the big sugarcane plantations, as well as to the children of plantation owners. She also continued to offer her nursing skills to the local populace when she could.
The city of Sancti Spíritus or Holy Spirit presented her with further history lessons regarding her country's early struggles. When the Spaniards first attempted to establish the city, a well-organized defense was staged by the area's native inhabitants hordes of notorious stinging ants which made life unbearable for the conquistadors. The city of Sancti Spíritus was then moved to a new location, which was subsequently burned to the ground, not once but twice, by pirates. Lost in the blazes was Cuba's first church, the Iglesia Parroquial Mayor del Espiritu Santo, built in 1522 and rebuilt later.
As a journalist riding with the Spanish army, a young Winston Churchill had visited the city in 1895. The region's lush beauty and its undercurrent of imminent danger were impressed upon Churchill when he narrowly escaped death during a skirmish with Cuban independence fighters.
Senorita Lopez had no inkling of her imminent danger when the head of the ministry of agriculture first laid eyes on her at the public gathering to view the artwork of the students in the city. Aristocratic and chivalrous, the elderly minister merely took note of her, masking evidence that he was quite smitten. He may have turned and said something to a younger man at his side, his twenty-two-year-old nephew, Antonio Arturo Guillermo Rivas Garcia-Rubio who also bore an aristocratic, charming air to find out who she was. Neither said anything to her until another gathering in Sancti Spíritus provided an occasion for the minister to approach her, introduce himself, and ask her where she was from, how she had come to teach in the area, and who her family was. Innocently enough, Olga answered his questions, volunteering that she was hoping to return to Havana soon to see her family.
"Well, then," Minister Rivas declared, handing her his card, "you must come to see me when you're in Havana." He promised that if she did and his desires were now clear he might be able to arrange for her to receive a promotion.
Since Olga was still in an apprentice program and had not obtained her permanent teaching credentials, she badly wanted a promotion. But not if it meant submitting to the lust of a man older than her father. When she didn't come to see him in Havana, the official continued to pursue her; she continued to fend off his advances. Finally he threatened that unless she gave in to him, he would arrange for her dismissal.
Distraught that all of her schooling and hard work would go to waste because she hadn't fulfilled the fantasies of an old man, Olga, when she happened to run into the minister's nephew, couldn't refrain from confiding in him.
Antonio Rivas, or Tony, as his friends called him, listened empathetically. "Don't worry," he told Olga, "my uncle will change his mind. I'll see to it."
True to his word, he pulled the appropriate strings and she was able to keep her job, continuing, for the time being, to teach throughout the province of Sancti Spíritus. Olga felt indebted to Tony and appreciated how he had so gallantly extended himself on her behalf, without asking anything in return. Or so she thought.
What she didn't suspect was that perhaps Tony wanted to prove himself by snaring the unobtainable woman that even his powerful uncle couldn't obtain, not so much because he was smitten or in love, but almost as a kind of macho contest. Ironically, when he made occasional visits to see her at the schools where she taught, Olga assumed that his interest was only platonic. Of course, she wouldn't have minded if he had romantic intentions. With his white freckled skin, light reddish brown hair, and intense light eyes not to mention that he wasn't so tall he wasn't her type. But he was rich. Or so she thought.
Antonio Arturo Rivas Garcia-Rubio had been born into one of the most prominent families in Sancti Spíritus. His father, Victoriano Rivas, was locally revered as the magistrate of the province. The majority of the family wealth came from cattle ranching through the Garcia-Rubio lineage of Tony's mother, Maria Garcia-Rubio. The family owned and resided on a sprawling ranch called Las Minas the Mines.
Yes, Olga had to admit that she was impressed by his pedigree, by his stylish, immaculate attire, by the articulate way he spoke with his flair for drama and most of all, by his flattering words about her generous spirit, which he witnessed in her classroom. Tony told her that it was obvious how much all the students loved their friendly, funny, and attractive teacher, and that he admired her infectious goodness, which made it so easy for her to win people over. He also expressed his shock and concern that she had to suffer working conditions that were unsanitary for both her and the children without any form of ventilation or fans to relieve the monstrous tropical heat and humidity. He pledged to use his influence to help.
In this subtle, chaste way, he was pursuing her, Olga soon understood, not with any sexual overtures but with personal interest that was more than that of a kind friend, and that possibly she may have secretly hoped would lead to a marriage proposal. She waited coyly for a courtship to evolve. It never did. He did not ask to be her boyfriend, or invite her to elegant places to woo her. They didn't go dancing, never held hands, never kissed.
Instead, to her surprise, Antonio Rivas arrived at her parents' home unannounced during one of her visits to Havana, asking to have a conversation with her father.
"Senor Lopez," Tony began respectfully, "I don't want your daughter to work anymore. The conditions are unbearable. She shouldn't have to suffer such hardships."
Manolo was annoyed at the young man's presumption, aware that he was rich and couldn't fathom the fact that some people had no choice whether to work or not. Biting back his annoyance, he said, "Yes, that's true, but I do not approve of a single woman not having a legitimate job, with the implications that go along with that."
"I understand," countered Rivas. "In three months I intend to marry Olga. Con su permisión, of course."
"What? Three months, you say? Is there a reason for such a quick wedding date?" As a policeman, Manolo had been trained to control his anger. But he was clearly furious.
Tony apologized profusely for any misunderstanding, explaining that he wished to marry her as soon as possible in order for her to stop working so that she could take her rightful place in his home. "I would marry her tomorrow," he swore, "except that it will take a little time to organize a proper wedding, as she deserves. With my parents' help as well." His family would take care of the costs, he insisted.
Manolo was now impressed. Who was he to stand in the way of his daughter's marrying into a family of the stature of the Rivas Garcia-Rubios? Throwing off his earlier misgivings, he acquiesced to the plan. After Antonio left to return to Sancti Spíritus pleased to have, in effect, just bought himself a beautiful, virtuous bride Manolo presented the news to Olga.
She was overjoyed, even though it occurred to her, in passing, that she was sorry to give up her work the teaching and especially the nursing. But this was a sacrifice she was willing to make, if it mattered to Tony, because other than that, the life she was about to begin seemed like a dream come true, a Cinderella story. Caught up in imagining a future married to the heir of a vast fortune, Olga didn't consider how little she really knew him. She didn't question how she really felt about him, assuming perhaps that she would grow to love him in time, and she ignored warnings that she would have otherwise heeded.
For example: in Havana, Tony Rivas had a reputation as a playboy and a troublemaker. He was a known member of a motorcycle club that raced in a pack across the island along the palm-tree-lined highways, wearing their black leather jackets and black leather-brimmed caps, with no political agenda other than following the drive of their testosterone. (Later photographs revealed his stark resemblance to Marlon Brando in The Wild One.) This was how Tony earned his nickname as El Ciclón the Cyclone; he was at the center of the storm that roared into Havana to raise hell in the nightclubs before blowing out, back to the provinces.
Olga also didn't know that the reason Tony's parents had sent him to America to be educated at a Georgia military school was disturbing behavior in his childhood and youth that had given him, as the youngest of their three children, the role of black sheep in the family. She was aware that he was extremely smart, capable of attaining success in any number of professional capacities. But she dismissed clues that he had already squandered most of his inheritance and had no money of his own, and that one of the reasons his parents were eager for him to marry her was probably the hope that her responsible, upstanding nature would rub off on him.
Of course, none of that was suggested by his parents or siblings when they arrived in Havana a few weeks before the wedding. Unlike the Lopez family, which had more indigenous blood, the Rivas family members were essentially Spaniards in their appearance and attitudes. Tony's father, Victoriano, a distinguished-looking gentleman with a head of well-coiffed white hair, carried himself with the stately air that went along with the office of a provincial magistrate reminiscent of President Woodrow Wilson. Tony's mother was likewise elegant, gracious, and sweet, "a saint" in Olga's eyes. She was equally impressed by Tony's older brother, Jose Luis, who was tall and dashing, with a quiet intelligence, and their beauty of a sister, the fair-skinned, regal Maria Rosa.
In the midst of her unfolding fairy tale, only days away from the wedding planned as a simple ceremony to be well attended Olga was just too excited and busy to entertain second thoughts. But Manolo was not as blindsided. When he sat his daughter down for a talk, his face was grave as he began, "Don't marry this man."
Dumbfounded, she sat frozen until she could muster the courage to ask why her father had changed his mind about Antonio.
"Because," Manolo stated without reservation, "he is not a good man."
Was he forbidding her to get married? No, but he begged her to call the wedding off. "Mark my words," Manolo warned, "he is a mama's boy."
Olga saw her father's genuine worry. She knew he wanted only what was best for her, to protect her for as long as he could, and she also believed he was deeply perceptive, that he usually saw through the most adept of disguises a quality she had inherited from him. So she deliberated carefully, weighing his concern against thoughts of how the invited guests would react if she called everything off, not to mention Tony's parents, who had taken care of all the expenses of the wedding and the lavish honeymoon, in addition to the house they had rented for the new bride and groom in Sancti Spíritus complete with expensive furniture and all the necessary items for a couple to begin married life together. Ultimately, she decided that Manolo was just being overly protective, not so uncommon for any father about to give his daughter's hand away in marriage. No, he had to be mistaken about Tony. He would see.
On July 24, 1953, Olga Lopez married Antonio Rivas in a chapel in her hometown of Arroyo Narango, a suburb of Havana. She was radiant, the most stunningly beautiful bride any of the guests had ever seen, or so many repeated at the wedding reception which, oddly enough, seemed to bother the groom after hearing it said with every "congratulations." Olga didn't notice that when they posed for family photographs, he was the only person in the wedding party who refused to smile for the camera.
On July 26, two days later, the theretofore little-known Fidel Castro and his band of revolutionaries attacked the army barracks of the Moncada garrison in Santiago. The coup was a total failure and those who survived, including Castro, were imprisoned on the Isla de los Pinos the Isle of Pines. But it was not the last of Fidel or the revolution; rather it was the beginning of the end of everything Cuba had been before.
That same night, in her honeymoon suite, my mother's fairy tale was quickly unraveling. It was the end of everything she had been before, the beginning of the nightmare.
As I was growing up and hearing the different pieces of her story, Mami spared me the graphic details of how that first assault took place. She had a talent for understatement that way, always facetiously referring to Papi as "El Caballero": "the Gentleman."
Part of the picture I got was that, in Jekyll-Hyde fashion, he turned out to be one of those abusive men who believed that once he had married a woman and taken her virginity, she belonged to him to beat as he pleased, as he might a horse he owned at the ranch, the way he mistreated servants. On a whim.
But there was something else, some weirdness in the bedroom that led to the violence when it erupted the first time. Later Mami said she thought it was jealousy underneath the rage that caused him to beat her senseless as he called her a whore and used a pair of scissors to ruin each of the lovely dresses that had been made or bought for her honeymoon, by slashing them and then cutting them up into hundreds of little pieces. Instead of being proud of her good looks, he was jealous of them, if that was possible, enraged by her beauty and by the way others found her attractive.
My mother locked herself in a hotel room, packed the remains of her clothing into her suitcase, and made the decision to leave the next morning and return to her parents. When morning came, she hesitated, remembering the sacred vows she had taken, feeling ashamed for not listening to her father, and not wanting to bring further shame to her family. But all her inner voices were telling her leave, leave, leave!
My father showed up before she left, crying morosely and wringing his tear-streaked white handkerchief in his hands, begging for forgiveness. He assured her that an outburst like that would never happen again. He promised to replace the dresses. For the next few days he was his charming, considerate self, but when he brought the new dresses to her several of them she was mortified to discover that they were long and unflattering, severe, meant for older, matronly women.
Mami's gift of sight returned to her then. She prayed to her saints for protection and guidance to help her awful choice of a husband to improve, but she remained wary. For the time being Papi did improve. He tried to control his temper for the most part, at moments showing her warmth, affection, and even the fun, seductive side of El Ciclón. Unfortunately, this was a side of himself that he liked to show to others too. After Mami became pregnant, some three months following their marriage, she was informed, somehow, that the housemaid who had been working for her and Papi had paid a startling visit to Las Minas.
The maid asked to speak with my grandparents, whereupon she disclosed that she had been having an affair with their son Antonio and was pregnant with his child. Apparently the young woman had already learned that her employer had no money to give her, so she was appealing to his parents for financial support.
Victoriano who may have dealt with similar appeals in the past did not question whether she was telling the truth or not. But he did remind the unwed mother that she was of legal age and therefore the baby was her responsibility. He sent her away empty-handed.
Mami later heard that the maid gave birth to a girl, though the paternity was never verified. If Papi was the father, somewhere in the world there would be a half sister to my siblings and me, born roughly in July of 1954, around the same date that my mother went into labor with her baby and was rushed to La Clínica de Los Angeles.
During the excruciating hours that followed, Dr. Orizando eventually came to the conclusion that if he was able to save the baby, the mother, given her weakened state, would probably not survive the birth. The problem, so Mami explained, was that Antonio Arturo Rivas Jr., weighing over ten pounds, was obviously quite content to stay in her safe, warm, aquatic womb, and simply refused to come out. If it is true that prenatal babies can hear and sense the world that's waiting for them, that would make sense in my family's case.
When Tony was finally born, on July 9, Mami's vital signs were fading and she began to hemorrhage. She lost so much blood that Dr. Orizando was now certain that giving life to my brother was going to take hers. Pero con el ayudo de Dios...she survived. I later wondered if in that tunnel through which we are said to pass after death the dark gauntlet with the glorious light at its end where Mami's saints would have been waiting to guide her to heaven she didn't turn back and decide to return for her new infant and the other children to be born to her. She may have known how much we would need her.
My father undoubtedly was overjoyed to have a First Son, his namesake, almost as if Tony Jr.'s goodness and brilliance would redeem Papi's shortcomings. There was never a question in my young mind about his proud, loving feelings for my brother. In my role as Second Son I was cast in the position of always having to try harder to prove my worth, and I didn't always recognize the toll that Papi's expectations for perfection took on Tony, starting at an early age, in addition to the stigma he bore for being the baby Mami had almost died for when bringing him into the world.
My birth, fifteen months later, on October 1, 1955, at La Clínica de Los Angeles in the town and province of Sancti Spíritus (amid angels and holy spirits), was much less auspicious, except for the accidental fall Mami took on the last day of her ninth month when, during a visit from my Abuela Maria and Abuelo Chucho (our nickname for Victoriano), she tripped and landed awkwardly on the edge of a drawer with her huge belly. Maybe it was an omen that I was destined to withstand major physical onslaughts later on, accidental and otherwise.
When she was pregnant, Papi's violence tended to be restrained, so in a way she was fortunate to be as fertile as she was although, considering the size of her babies, this was a mixed blessing. Thankfully my delivery was not the gargantuan struggle Tony's had been, but I was even bigger, weighing in at a hefty ten and a half pounds. "A beautiful baby!" Mami liked to say whenever remembering except, well, there was one thing. The fingers. I had been born with six fingers on each hand, an ominous sign the meaning of which was never explained to me. The doctor snipped them off and preserved them in a jar for Mami, who kept them under lock and key, another family secret.
In honor of both my grandfathers, my parents named me Victor Manuel Remigio Rivas Garcia-Rubio Lopez. While Tony had my mother's darker coloring and features, from Papi's side I was fair skinned, with light eyes.
Back at home, Mami had two babies to nurse, one for each breast. At church and other community or family gatherings, we presented a handsome picture of a happy, loving, upper-class Cuban family. My father was a magician at striking the pose of normalcy. My mother's open smile became forced. She learned to keep more secrets.
Papi's roaming continued. Shortly after my birth, during a dash to and from Havana, he broke his leg in a motorcycle accident. While he was in a cast, he volunteered to sleep on the living room sofa so as not to disturb Mami's sleep and to avoid any accidental kicks from her.
She didn't object but was highly concerned at one point when she woke in the middle of the night to hear my father moaning and gasping, seemingly in a bout of horrendous pain. Mami hurried to the living room to help. The bedding on the sofa was in disarray and he wasn't there, as if he had tumbled out and dragged himself to the bathroom. With the volume of his moans escalating, she ran to the bathroom, imagining that he had slipped on the tile. He wasn't there either. Following the reverberation of what was starting to sound more like pleasure than agony, she made her way to the live-in housemaid's bedroom. After a moment's hesitation, she opened the door. There he was, leg cast and all, on top of the young woman, humping away. Mami closed the door, swallowed whatever outrage ought to have been hers into a silent, cold shield that was forming around her heart, and returned to her bedroom.
Manolo had been right. Antonio Rivas was a mama's boy: he saw what he liked and he took it, with a sense of entitlement that had nothing to do with how he was raised. But on a more encouraging note, Papi seemed to take seriously his role as a provider. When he and Mami were married, his father had gotten him a post with the Justice Department the first job he had ever held and though that hadn't lasted long, he struck on a better idea, announcing to Mami late in 1956 that he had decided he wanted to move to the United States. His days at the Georgia military school had left him with fond memories of the good life in America, and he assured her there would be plenty of professional opportunities there for which he was well suited.
Just three years later, the first great wave of Cuban exiles would begin migration to American shores, fleeing Castro's communist regime and all that it entailed. But our departure had nothing to do with the revolution, even though its roots were taking hold out in the provinces, partly in reaction to the growing decadence and corruption that flourished in Havana. Oblivious to the political winds that were blowing, my father, then as later, simply wanted to move somewhere else, somewhere better (perhaps away from the scrutiny or judgment of his parents and siblings), and made arrangements to do so as quickly as possible.
Because it would be easier to obtain the necessary paperwork in the capital, the four of us moved to Havana to stay with Mami's parents. Soon after that, Papi was granted his visa and went on ahead of us to search for work and housing. For almost a year, my mother waited for him to send for us. In the interim, she rarely heard from him and he never sent her any money, so both sets of grandparents supported us. Finally, not long after my second birthday, Papi called to say he was ready for us to join him.
On October 26, 1957, Mami, my brother, Tony, and I flew to the United States, leaving our tropical homeland officially for good. Only one submerged memory of my earliest childhood in Sancti Spíritus came with me. Other memories of Cuba were acquired a year and a half later, thankfully, when Abuelo Chucho and Abuela Maria sent for my brother and me in the summer of 1959 to come for a two-month visit.
Some of the grainier images stayed preserved, very generally, from what was my then almost four-year-old awareness, like bright, wide swipes of color in multiple shades of green everywhere, in tropical, jungle shapes, in snaking narrow roads through expansive fields bursting with crops of different kinds, swatches of grazing land with contented livestock dining away, and air so thick with humidity it refracted all those colors like a prism. Other recollections were more vivid and specific, like the day that my grandparents took us to the famed beaches of Varadero, where the sand was so white and squeaky underneath my feet that it felt as if I were walking on talcum powder.
Our stay in Sancti Spíritus at Las Minas also left strong impressions: the long, unpaved driveway lined by towering palms that led to the opulent two-story main house, with gardeners, ranch hands, chauffeurs, cooks, valets, housekeepers, and other servants (apparently more populous than the number of actual residents), all of whom seemed to welcome our presence and cater to our wants. Most memorable was Moya, the head cochero driver who worked on the ranch with his wife.
Moya was one of the most striking men I had ever seen, with ebony black skin so dark he was almost blue in tone, and a royal demeanor that, in my perception, put him in my wealthy grandfather's league of importance. When he wasn't chauffeuring family members in a luxury car, Moya drove an old topless army jeep around the ranch, running errands, on which Tony and I volunteered to join him as often as he would have us.
That is, until the day we went out with him and he had to stop back at the ranch to get something. Moya turned off the motor, took his keys, and bounded into the house. Tony who had just turned five slid over to the driver's seat, placed his hands on the steering wheel, and pretended that he was driving.
Entertained, I laughed and said, "Let me try!"
Tony ignored me and instead studied the mechanics of the stick shift, jerking it hard enough to force it out of gear and into neutral. We could feel the jeep begin to roll slowly backward down the slight incline of the driveway as we exchanged big smiles. Magic!
Tony held the steering wheel straight as we began to pick up speed, at exactly the same moment we looked back to see Moya emerge from the house. Racing toward us, he waved both of his hands at us, screaming, "Coño! Que estan haciendo?" Our laughter turned to frightened hysteria as it became clear that the faster Moya ran after us, the farther away from him we were. Picking up speed, somehow the jeep which fortunately did not have power steering maintained a fairly straight reverse course. We flew backward down the entire length of the driveway and across the paved main road, careening into shrubbery so dense that it behaved like a latter-day air bag, cushioning our crash.
Moya's immediate concern was for our well-being, not the blame he was going to shoulder for our mishap. Seeing that we were uninjured, though traumatized, he told us we were extremely lucky that there had been no traffic on the main road and that we hadn't crashed or tipped over into a roadside canal. Moya's message had another implication for me, which was that a protective adult would do anything in his power to make sure children in his care were not hurt. My father's messages from this era told me something else.
When we visited my mother's parents in Havana, they too made us feel safe and loved unconditionally. Even though I have only a dim recollection of their home and lifestyle from this visit, I later wondered if the feeling of safety that I associated with Abuelo Manolo and Abuela Muñeca (she was affectionately nicknamed "Doll") had come from our earlier, yearlong stay with them when Papi had already left for the United States.
When Tony and I left Cuba at the end of the summer of 1959, we said good-bye to my mother's parents not knowing that we would never see them again.
Only three months after we left, Fidel Castro's New Year's Eve coup toppled Batista's regime in Havana and flooded the country with fatigue-wearing revolutionaries. There was no mention in our household of why it was happening, what it meant, or how this might impact us or our relatives. Certainly, the prospect that we would never see our homeland again was not suggested.
As other events and challenges occupied my attention, the soil from which I first grew became more and more distant in my sensibilities, and my early years all but faded from conscious memory. Many years later, I had a strange dream in which I was a toddler, maybe a little over one year old, that I eventually recounted for Mami, as usual when she was busy in the kitchen, this time while doing dishes.
In the dream, I told her, I was wearing a diaper and had the terrifying, helpless sensation of falling backward, as though in slow motion, attached somehow to a high chair.
With her back to me as I described the odd emotion of shame that accompanied my fall in the dream, I saw her suddenly freeze. Her shoulders hunched over the sink and began to shake involuntarily. She was crying.
Without turning around, Mami said, "Ay, hijo, como tu te puedes acorda te ese momento? Tu tenias meno de dos anos." How can you remember that moment? You were less than two years old.
What I hadn't recovered in my dream was that just before the fall I took in the high chair that day in Sancti Spíritus, she had, innocently enough, told Papi that she had found me in my high chair with my hands down the front of my diaper obviously having discovered my penis and the primal pleasure that came from touching it and she hadn't known what to do to discourage such behavior.
For Mami, there was a lesson to emerge from this episode, making it the first and the last time that she asked El Caballero to resolve a situation involving her children that she could handle on her own. For me, the lesson filtered into later years, bringing with it the idea that whatever punishment I received, I deserved.
The moment Papi heard what his fifteen-month-old Second Son had been doing, he walked over and gazed down at me, and then, without a second thought, gave me a stinging backhand slap. The force of the blow not only sent the high chair and me toppling over backward, but threw me out of my chair so that I hit the back of my head on the coffee table.
All that came to me in the dream at a later age, however, was the sensation of free-falling backward, my first memory in life, one of my few memories of Sancti Spíritus.
Copyright © 2005 Atria Books
Reading Group Guide
A Private Family Matter
By Victor Rivas Rivers
"This is a story about how I was saved by love at a time when most people considered me beyond rescue," begins Victor Rivas Rivers in this powerful chronicle of how he escaped the war zone of domestic violencetoo often regarded as a "private family matter" and went on to become a good man, a film star, and a prominent activist.
The Cuban-born author begins by recalling when he was kidnapped, along with three of his siblings, by his own father, who abandoned Victor's pregnant mother and took the children on a cross-country hell-ride that nearly ended in a fatal collision. This journey of survival portrays with riveting detail how, instead of becoming a madman like his father, Victor was saved by a band of mortal angels. Miraculously, seven families stepped forward, along with teachers and coaches, to empower him on his road from gang member to class president, through harrowing and hilarious football adventures at Florida State and with the Miami Dolphins, to overcoming the Hollywood odds and becoming a champion for all those impacted by domestic violence.
Though at times Victor's odyssey is heartbreaking and disturbing, A Private Family Matter is ultimately a triumphant testament to humanity, courage, and love. Profound and poignant, it is a compelling memoir with a cause. Victor Rivers's way of thanking all the angels and advocates who made a difference in his life is by trying to make a difference in all of ours.
Questions for Discussion:
1. Victor begins his story with a description of his coming-of-age, an event "marked by our crossing of the road's graveled edge as our overloaded brown-gold '63 Impala station wagon sped out of control toward the dark rocky ravine beyond the gravel." What about this moment is so pivotal for Victor?
2. Victor notes several times that, although he received the lion's share of his father's violence, the other members of the family suffered in different ways. Discuss the ways each member of the family is impacted by "el caballero." In particular, how do Tony and Victor's roles as "First Son" and "Second Son," respectively, affect their experience?
3. What does the fate of Victor's brother Robert tell us about both the state of the Rivas family and the treatment of children with special needs in the 1960s?
4. As he relates her history, Victor describes his mother as "the embodiment of Cuba," and in many ways the island's history may be seen as analogous to Olga's life. What role does Cuba and its tumultuous history play in the Rivas's family drama?
5. Describing his antagonistic relationship with a coach at FSU, Victor writes, "his militant approach was to rid us of our individuality, and that touched off a nerve that reminded me just too much of Papi." How does Victor's relationship with his father affect his later relationships, especially to older men?
6. Describe the role that sports play in the transformation of Victor's life. Why do you think sports, especially football, hold such an attraction for him as an adolescent?
7. As a young child, Victor frequently gets in trouble, both at school and at home. For which kind of behavior is he most often punished? Knowing that he will suffer the consequences, why do you think he engages in this kind of behavior?
8. Discuss the significance of the appearance of Victor's father's ghost, years after his suicide, when Victor returns to Miami in the late '80s.
9. Victor mentions two celebrities whom he fantasized about having as his father - John F. Kennedy and Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird. What does the young Victor see in these two figures?
10. Many factors contribute to Victor's recovery from his brutal childhood: among them, his involvement in sports, the constant love of his mother, help from friends and advocates, and becoming a husband and father himself. Which factor or factors do you think were most important in transforming Victor's life? At which moments do you see this transformation most clearly?
Enhance Your Book Club:
1. Hold a bake sale, garage sale, or other fundraiser to raise money for a local or national program for domestic violence prevention. A good place to start is the National Network to End Domestic Violence: www.nnedv.org.
2. If you are the leader, host your book club meeting over a traditional Cuban dinner - arroz con pollo and lechón are among the traditional Cuban dishes Olga Rivas prepares in A Private Family Matter. Find recipes at www.tasteofcuba.com.
3. Follow your discussion with a screening of one of Victor Rivas Rivers' films. See him in The Distinguished Gentleman, The Mask of Zorro, or Blood In, Blood Out.