In Foreign Land

My mom keeps telling my sister she’s not in exile. She could go home any time she wants. But what is home for a Brazilian immigrant in the US for the past ten years? If home is where your family and memories are, certainly Brazil is the place. How about the present connections, a different way of living, new perspectives gained as obstacles were surpassed, challenges overcome? That’s where the clash of identities happens.

This was also my view of Carlos Eire’s Cuban American soul, an eternal conflict what he was meant to be brutally interrupted by political shifts in his country with what he became. Or did he keep his Cuban soul full of memories who had to be locked for survival in a foreign country? Immigrants struggle to preserve an let it go. Interesting to  notice that the back and forth of Carlos’ dynamic narrative was of a time of childhood, of hope, not much of his gloomy underworld life in America. He’d come to America to suddenly go back to what was dear, what was part of his Cuban spirit full of passion and intensity, to the people who he truly loved and longed for. When you are an immigrant you freeze what was dear to you, and you keep the city, they people, the food, the smell, the feelings frozen in time, as they were when you left.

Just like Carlos, my Italian family emmigrated to Brazil in difficult times of war. My 85-year old, most dear zio Luigi, has the same vivid memories of his past, telling them as if it were present. We can picture the scenes, the places, the people. Both haven’t had the chance to go back to their countries of origin. Who are they? Where do they belong? They hold to traditions and let them go. They need to survive, they need to adapt.  One of my favorite passages in the book is when Carlos, describing the hot dog chino, says that

“we can adapt quickly to the strangest circumstances, sometimes better than animals, but we can’t change the color of our skin, or the way our tongue handles unfamiliar sounds”.

Though we try to accommodate to the new culture, to blend in,  our genes don’t let us deny our origins. Among many other sarcastic, real, transparent passages of Carlos, there’s one that I feel now as a foreigner in Key West. He mentions that

It would take only one brief plane ride to turn him from a white boy int a spic. And he’s reminded of it every time he has to fill out a form that lists “Hispanic”as a race, distinct from “white” or “caucasian”.

May2008 (35)

I know exactly what it is to be a foreigner in the US with latin origin, but, in my case, even harder for people to grasp. I’m a Latin with no hispanic origin. I don’t speak Spanish, but I look like a hispanic. When I have to fill out any form, there’s generally the option of Hispanic. My husband is blond with blue eyes. When he marked “white”, the lady said he wasn’t. She marked hispanic, and he tried to tell her he was not. She just said “whatever…”. I know exactly what it is to be part of a paradox in a country who needs immigrants, but still for many citizens they’d rather not have them. I live in a city where Cuban culture is in every detail, from the music played on the streets, the roosters protected by law to the iguanas near my house. Still, Cubans try to free themselves from a country with no freedom coming to a country that most of them will be trapped in the underworld that Carlos tries to forget, if they get to arrive in American soil traveling in boats, starving with kids dehydrating. If they land on American soil, there’s still hope of a better life than the one they had in Cuba. If they are caught in the sea, they are deported to Cuba. I see this happening very frequently here, in Key West, the closest you can be to Cuba from the US, only 90 miles away. In Key West, my favorite restaurant is Cuban with dishes of fried plantains, carne asada, or pescado with rice and beans. I see passionate, warm-hearted people all over.

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Carlos Havana was devastated just like his soul, but as he mentions we die and are born many times in a lifetime. Foreigners, immigrants learn to be chamaleons. They adapt, deceive even themselves, they deny, they go to the bottom, they surface. Carlos concludes

I’m camouflaged. I blend in so well as a respectable Cuban boy from a good family, but underneath I am a rebel, a worm, and a refugee in the making.

Dec07 204

As my own memories coming from a family of immigrants of many underground stories, many times embellished by the shades of time, and successful endeavors, I ask myself, how long will my sister resist being a lonely, silent immigrant? Will she find happiness in the new land or back to what was home?

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Waiting for Snow in Havana – a personal review

I finished reading Waiting for Snow in Havana a week ago.

I had to stop. I had to let it settle down. I couldn’t go into written reflection just right after. My emotions were not letting me reflect…not the way I wanted. Not the way I had imagined I would write this review…actually just an opinion on that writing that made me travel to a place I didn’t know – I’ll never know – to a time I didn’t live in, to a world that wasn’t mine, but which I was invited to enter when I started to get immersed in Carlos Eire’s narrative.

I am not going to attempt a kind of academic review – this is just my felt opinion. I am not going to try to characterize the characters in the book, I will not use the traditional structure to provide my opinion about this book. I will just write down some random thought about it: my views, how and what I feel while reading it, what I think I have learned. In short, my personal insight – what I truly believe to be the main purpose of literature – to free the reader from his/her own world , and give him/her freedom to imagine and to consider that written world through his/her own eyes. And this is a reflection without references; my own opinion, and no one else’s. That’s what I will try to convey here. I don’t mean I don’t agree with other reviews and different ways of approaching this narrative. It is just I still haven’t read any. On purpose. I first need to provide my view and then compare it with others. That’s what I’ll do next.

So, it’s now that my reflection starts …or it gets transferred to words.

I could just summarize Eire’s work to one sentence: I really liked the book.

However, I want to go a bit deeper than that. I would like to say that I enjoyed the way the book is written – it’s appealing to me – it sounds real. It feels honest too. It’s human! I appreciate the way Eire conveys his passion and his desolation about his lost life. It has feeling. It feels personal. It brings memories. It incites sympathy. It is the mixture of misery and of good fortune – the mixture life is made of – that really attached me to this life narrative.

I see the author mainly as an observer – an observer of himself – of what he was and what he has become – as well as an observer of the others who were important to him (in that reality). He allows us in that now vanished world and reports with a mist of humour and anger about a life he was stolen from. I think that above all this story is about healing, it’s about trying to leave a past behind – a past that never became future, but that, I am sure, still plays an important part in many people’s present. A past that many of us will never fully understand, not with the same intensity or feeling.

What has stayed with me from the entire plot:

The way Havana is reported – from the wealthy side of Havana to the entirely destroyed Havana – the Havana Eire lived in. He reports about the Havana he got to know. The part of the city and the context he lived in. I imagine those parties and mandatory Sunday Masses. I can relate to a house full of people, coming and going unannounced. And the close connections to relatives and friends. Knowing one, it automatically means you know others. Latin people make, or rather used to make, bonding so much easier. Then we move to the sophisticated countries and we see ourselves behaving in a sophisticated way: we lose the capacity of showing genuine affection or assure the others we care. We no longer hug for nothing and everything (todo y nada), we can’t take you in our car because you can die and then you can sue us; we no longer kiss on the cheek – it’s not in the culture….[these were thoughts that emerged while I was reading some of the passages of the book].

The going away – leaving the home country is always tough; It’s even tougher when you haven’t got a choice. The toughest is, I guess, to leave the others behind a thick glass that suffocates the sound of voices we care about, and makes us die right there and then when at the entrance of an unpredictable future in the promised land.

Leaving is not easy, but staying isn’t either. And if I find the words to express my opinion on this one, I will be arrogant enough to say I totally understood D. Louis’ attitude. Loving is also about being able to let go…to grant others what they think better for themselves. I think that’s what unconditional love is all about [ this is also what I’ve learned from an expert: my mother]

And a third remark I would like to make on this story is the fact that the author assumes his death…over and over again – but he has never really mentioned re-birth…. or maybe he has… We learn with our experiences, we grow with them. We are what we become. Sometimes a part of us dies, or hibernates in our deepest self. All of this is experience. All of this is living. It makes us what we are, even if we don’t fully conceive it as such.

This is an extraordinary report about a small fraction of the author’s own story. I think the writing has helped him understand himself better. Additionally, it can also help us, the readers, to understand a tiny little bit better of how the vision of some can impact on so many, many souls and with such gravity….but I don’t want to go deeper into this subject…not now anyway!

Above all, this is a life story, and therefore worth reading it. As Prof. Richard Green says: story-telling is also part of the healing process…

Nina’s thoughts on Waiting for Snow…

Carlos Eire was one of 14,000 Cuban children airlifted to the United States in 1962.  At the time, neither the parents nor the children had any inkling that their separation would last as long as it did, or that Fidel Castro would remain in power for as long as he did.  Carlos Eire went on to become a historian and an academic.  He married an American, had three children, and lives in Connecticut.  But the Elian Gonzalez affair in 2000, when Castro claimed that Elian should be returned to Cuba because all children should be with their parents, triggered the gush of memories that is this book.

Most of the book concerns Carlos’ memories from his ten years as a privileged younger son of a wealthy judge in pre-Castro Cuba; a few of them stem from his later years in America.  All are written in rich prose.  Eire has a flair for sharing the sensory details of his memories: the magical, colorful cloud of parrotfish in the sea, the taste of the Chinese man’s hotdogs, the sounds of religious items being smashed by the revolutionaries, the hot light of the Cuban sun….  He also develops the many characters in the book with affection and humor, such as his father, a fat man in baggy pants obsessed with collecting art and antiques whom Eire refers to as Louis XVI, since he apparently believed that he had been the French King in a former incarnation.

I was alternately appalled at some of the things that Carlos and his friends did, and that were done to them and others, and convulsed with laughter over their antics–sometimes simultaneously.  It was really hard for me to imagine a childhood like that.

I have always been rather more sympathetic to the Revolution than to the Cuban-American population in Miami and elsewhere which has lobbied incessantly against normalization of relations with Cuba, a tiny country which could not possibly harm the United States.  It seems that they do this out of pure spite, because it makes absolutely no sense.  Even as he describes his life of privilege and luxury in pre-Revolutionary Cuba, Eire remembers the poor dark-skinned boys who dived for money in the sea.  But I think that the poor, dark-skinned people of Cuba did not, for the most part, benefit much from the change in regime which enriched some and sent others into exile with two changes of clothes and one book.

I still think that the United States and Cuba should normalize their relations, but I have a lot more understanding of, and a bit more compassion for, the Cuban Americans who have thus far prevented it from happening.  And I am really glad that I read this treasure of a memoir.

Originally published at Nina’s Reading Blog (…of-a-cuban-boywaiting-for-snow-in-havana-confessions-of-a-cuban-boy/)

Waiting for Snow in Havana by Carlos Eire

Carlos Eire, the author, was one of some 14,000 unaccompanied children who were airlifted out of Cuba in 1962, three years after the Cuban Revolution. This is his story. I learned that he felt compelled to write this story in the Spring of 2000 while the world was witness to the fate of another Cuban boy, six-year-old Elian Gonzalez. I had assumed the story would flow like a river, from one destination to another, but instead, I am finding that it is told more like  a series of waves that undulate, crest and crash on the shore. The subtitle of the book is “Confessions of a Cuban Boy” and indeed, the ocean plays a significant role in many of his confessions. I have read about 120 pages so far, roughly one-third of the book, and I am intrigued by the waves of memories that are sometimes poignant, sometimes hilarious and sometimes sad, but don’t seem to follow a pre-determined path. 

In his acknowledgments, Eire says that he wrote the whole book in four months, writing every single night from 10 p.m to 2 or 3 a.m. while teaching, chairing a department, mowing the lawn, swimming with the kids, and doing other research and writing.  I have heard other authors talk about the lengthy revision process of writing, revising, rewriting, reorganizing, revising and so on, but Eire claims he wrote without a plan and without revising. It sounds as if this was a story that fermented somewhere in his brain for nearly forty years before it could no longer be contained. Dennis found this very interesting webcast presented at the 2004 National Bookfest.   It is quite long (35 minutes) but well worth watching if you would like to meet Carlos Eire. 


The Tunnel by Ernesto Sabato

When I left for Buenos Aires in February, our first book was to be The Tunnel (El Túnel) by Ernesto Sabato. I asked our Argentine friends to suggest an Argentine author that would not be too difficult so that I could read it in Spanish. My first week in B.A., I found the book, walked over to a café, started reading and to my delight, I became completely engrossed. Getting lost in a story while reading in a second language is a kind of ultimate virtual reality. I often say that I like the way my brain feels when I speak a second language–the way I have to think ahead and plan a strategy to express what I’m going to say if I don’t have the vocabulary. When reading in a second language there are all of these marvelous discoveries of idiomatic and syntactic usage that pull me into this other world. The level of difficulty with this novel was perfect because I rarely had to look up more than one or two words per page, but I was able to puzzle out the meaning of expressions that had recognizable roots but were phrased in ways I had never seen before. I hope my students feel this same delight when they are reading in English. Since many of the teachers contributing to this blog are non-native English speakers (but whose English is a whole lot more fluent than my Spanish!) I hope you will share some of the interesting cultural and linguistic gems you notice along the way.

Now, a word about El Túnel. In the very first sentence the narrator, Juan Pablo Castel, tells us that he is a painter and that he killed a woman named Maria Iribarne. In retelling his account of how this murder occurred, Sabato immediately draws in the reader. The first time Juan Pablo saw Maria was at one of his exhibits where she stopped and stared at a corner of the painting, at the essential core of the painting, at the part that revealed the whole story, at the part that everyone else had missed. Observing her observing his painting, Juan Pablo was obsessed to track down this woman.

Strangely enough, my first weekend in Buenos Aires, I went to the district called La Boca where there are brightly coloured houses and many art galleries. I noticed that the paintings that appealed to me the most in all of the galleries were by the same artist, so I searched out his own personal gallery and met the artist himself. I had a delightful chat with him and found that he was absolutely passionate about what he did–painting canvases from morning to night, always searching to express himself in his artwork. I thought how I would love to study art under him, to see how he takes a virgin canvas and turns it into these masterpieces…and then Sabato’s characters started playing games in my head and I felt like Maria talking to Juan Pablo, and just wanted to get away before I had a chance to become another artist’s victim! The power of literature!

As the story progressed and Juan Pablo became more and more obsessed by Maria–wanting to know where she was and what she was doing every moment of the day, I kept asking myself, Is this because he’s crazy or Latino? Does machismo breed this kind of insecurity, or did he have such tunnel vision that he could no longer think clearly? Is Sabato warning us of the danger of viewing life as a tunnel?

Virtual Book Club Launch

Next week the EVO’s will wind down and my adrenaline will wind up as I’m off on an adventure to the southern hemisphere. Although I have visited some 60 countries in my life, this will be the first time for me to cross the equator–I’ll have to see for myself if water really goes down the drain differently!

I had the best of intentions for this blog, but the reality is, I just have my fingers in too many different pies, so rather than abandon the blog, I would like to launch a collaborative virtual book club. With such an international group of contributors among the Blog4Ed moderators, I suggested that we read books from different parts of the world–with the opportunity to learn about each culture first hand from our local members. Since I’m off to Argentina, I asked the Argentinian divas to recommend an author and a book. Suggestions came in for Jorge Luis Borges, Ernesto Sábato and Julio Cortázar. I’m hoping to read the selection in my very rough Spanish, so I asked for something easy. The winner seems to be El Túnel by Ernesto Sábato…I will do a bit of research and post what I learn–then next week I hope to buy the book somewhere on the streets of Buenos Aires! 

Creativity and Collaboration through Gaggling

Here is a link for a wonderful video on Collaboration sent in by Vicky in the Blogging4Educators group: [kml_flashembed movie="" width="350" height="300" wmode="transparent" /]

As I watched the video, I was thinking that “a gaggle of educators” sounds disorganized and chaotic with all the honking and position-changing, but they may actually be in the process of propelling each other forward to distances none of them could have achieved alone.