My Brother’s KeeperRoundup
tags: immigration, Cuba, memoir, Cuban Revolution, Latino/a history, Mariel Boatlift
Ada Ferrer is the Julius Silver Professor of History and Latin American and Caribbean History at New York University and the author of Cuba: An American History, which will be published in September, 2021.
My mother was always asking my sister and me to do things—to call her union about her monthly pension checks (forty-nine dollars), to research the contraindications of a new prescription, to drive her to the wholesale distributor to pick up fifteen-pound boxes of frozen tilapia and some nice eye-of-round roasts. Six years ago, when she was eighty-seven, she wrote a letter outlining everything that we would need to tend to after her death. Her first request was that we send a hundred and fifty dollars to Tía Niña—our name for her sister Ada—every December, March, June, and September. She included the phone number and address of the man in Hialeah who would deliver the money to Cuba. “Even dead,” she added in parentheses, “I will bug you.” If we cooked the food she cooked and made sure that her granddaughters could play dominoes, she would be happy in Heaven. She would await our arrival there, she wrote. Buried in the middle of the letter was my mother’s most fervent appeal, one we had heard before. “As to Poly, don’t ever abandon him,” she said. “He is the way he is because of me.”
My half brother Poly, or Hipólito, was born in Havana in 1953. Our mother and his father were married only briefly, and, when Poly was still small, he and my mother went to live in the three-bedroom rental out of which her family ran a little restaurant. It sat half a block behind the city’s military hospital and not far from Camp Columbia, Cuba’s main military installation at the time. In 1957, as many Cubans were waging a revolution against Fulgencio Batista and his government, my mother met and fell in love with my father, an Army stenographer and a lunchtime regular.
In the early-morning hours of January 1, 1959, Batista fled the island in defeat, and Cubans poured into the streets to celebrate. Cars blasted their horns, churches rang their bells. Fidel Castro, who had been fighting Batista’s troops in the mountains of eastern Cuba for more than two years, arrived in Havana a week later, to thunderous cheers. My mother was delighted, and distributed red T-shirts to her neighbors. My father, who was wary of the new regime and steered clear of revolutionary rallies and political organizations, immediately quit the Army and began to sell sandals in the park behind Havana’s capitol. He moved into my mother’s family home; every night he would count out his earnings in front of Poly and give him a small share.
In March, 1960, President Eisenhower approved a plan for the C.I.A. to train Cuban exiles in guerrilla warfare so that they might return to Cuba and topple Castro. Though the operation was supposed to be covert, the training camps in Central America and elsewhere made the headlines in the U.S. and Cuba. As John F. Kennedy took office, Castro was already preparing to repel an invasion. On April 15, 1961, exile pilots bombed Cuban airfields, missing many of their targets and killing at least seven people. Castro addressed the nation at a funeral for the victims, calling on Cubans to defend the revolution, which for the first time he defined as socialist. Across the country, the government began to arrest thousands of people who it suspected might side with the invaders.
That night, my father did not come home for dinner. My mother eventually found him, and many other detainees, at the Blanquita Theatre (later renamed the Karl Marx). He was still there on April 17th, when, in the early hours of the morning, exile troops landed on Cuba’s southern shore, at the Bay of Pigs. The invasion failed spectacularly. A hundred and fourteen of the exiles were killed, and 1,189 were captured and imprisoned.
In the aftermath, the U.S. government severely tightened its economic embargo on Cuba, and Castro accelerated the country’s transition to a one-party state. Every day, twelve hundred Cubans applied for entry to the U.S. The Kennedy Administration welcomed the arrivals, pointing to their growing numbers to discredit the revolution. In April, 1962, when my mother was seven months pregnant with me, my father left Cuba and settled in New York City, working as a short-order cook in a hotel in midtown Manhattan. As soon as he could, he began the paperwork for my mother, Poly, and me to join him.
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