Thursday, August 03, 2006

Fearing Fidel

From James

Miami is a main character in almost all of my novels, and since it is home to hundreds of thousands of Cuban exiles, Fidel Castro (mostly in the form of hatred for him) is part of the local fabric. For years, however, I was afraid to write a novel about Castro, but probably not for the reason you’re thinking. From the time I start writing until the date of publication takes about two years. I figured Castro couldn’t last forever, and my fear was that my book would become obsolete before it was published.

He lasted 47 years. On Monday he ceded power to his brother Raul because of a serious illness. No one knows if he is dead, dying, or on the mend. But that didn’t stop Miami from erupting in celebration on Monday night. The crowds in the streets were bigger than when the Miami Heat won the NBA championship last June—bigger, some journalists said, than the crowds in Rome when Italy won the World Cup.

If you don’t live in Miami, this may be difficult to comprehend. It took me quite a while to understand it, and it was ultimately this understanding that compelled me to write a novel not so much about Castro, but about Cuba. This is what I wrote in 2004, when "Hear No Evil" was published. I hope it will give you some idea of how emotional and personal the Cuban experience is to anyone who lives in Miami:

Jack Swyteck discovers his Cuban roots in Hear No Evil, and the journey leads him all the way to the little town of Bejucal, Cuba. Readers of the Swyteck series know that Jack is a half-Cuban boy trapped in the body of a gringo. That's a glib way of saying that Jack's Cuban-born mother died in childbirth, and Jack was raised by his father and stepmother, with no link whatsoever to his Cuban heritage. Hear No Evil is the fourth Swyteck novel, and the series now spans roughly a decade in Jack's life. I figured it was about time for Jack and my readers to learn more about the mother he never knew, to visit the Cuban town in which she lived before coming to Miami. Of course, I could have picked any place in Cuba. Havana. Cienfuegos. Varadero. You may wonder why I chose Bejucal.

If you've ever heard of Bejucal, it's probably because Hollywood movie star Andy Garcia is from there. That's not why I chose it. My best friend, Carlos Sires, also lived in Bejucal (his parents actually knew Andy's parents). About two years after Castro took control of Cuba, the Sires family left Bejucal and fled to Miami. They left everything behind -- their home, relatives, friends. I first met Carlos's parents, Kiko and Amparo, in 1978, some seventeen years after they'd left Cuba. I was a student at the University of Florida, relatively new to Miami, having just moved from Illinois. My Spanish was quite bad, and their English was even worse. I had never tasted black beans or plaintains. I had no idea that the Cubans made better rice than the Chinese, or that a jolt of Cuban coffee was as much a part of mid-afternoon in Miami as thunderclouds over the Everglades. I had yet to learn that if you ask a nice Cuban girl on a date, the entire family would be waiting at the front door to meet you when you picked her up. In short, I -- like Jack -- was the gringo who suddenly found himself immersed in Cuban culture. Whenever I visited Kiko and Amparo, I was welcome in their home, embraced by them, loved by them. By the time I graduated from college, they referred to me as their "otro hijo," their other son.

I was eager to learn about everything Cuban, and they were eager to share with me. Some things I learned quickly. Others took more time. It took me quite a while to develop a genuine appreciation of the love that the first wave of Cuban immigrants have for the land they were forced to leave in the 1960s. I remember one day, in particular, I was at the Sires house. Every time I visited, Amparo would have something for me to eat, and Kiko would have a story to tell me, or something he wanted to show me. This time, Kiko pulled down a glass vase from a shelf. There was a white ribbon tied around the neck of the vase, and inside was something black and coarse that looked like coffee grounds. He showed me the vase, asked me to touch what was inside. It was dirt. "Is from Bejucal," he told me.

I didn't know what to say, especially in my broken Spanish. I'd never been forced to flee from my own home by a dictator. I could only imagine what it must have been like to leave friends and family behind, move to a new country, give up a nice job as a banker in Cuba to become a bartender in Miami. My response at the time was completely inadequate, but that moment has stayed with me over the years. I can't say that I have a complete understanding of what was in Kiko's heart when he showed me that vase. But I know that as the years have passed, as Kiko and Amparo grow into their eighties, as it becomes clear that they will never again see Bejucal, I've gained a better understanding of how much that vase with the white ribbon meant to him.

So, it is with love and affection for Kiko and Amparo that my fictional hero goes back to Cuba, back to the town his mother knew as a little girl -- back to Bejucal.

2006 Postscript. Amparo passed away in October 2004.

James Grippando


  1. Yes, the reaction in Mia-muh is far more intense than elsewhere. The L.A. Times yesterday had a small front-page story...not nearly as much coverage as the Mel Gibson story. Ah, those female sheriffs with "tetas de azucarar."

    By my count in yesterday's Miami Herald, there were 16 stories about Fidel, 9 video clips, and 1 slide show. As Jim suggests, if this gets any bigger, it might top the Miami Heat winning the championship.

  2. Great post, James.

    And BTW, Paul, Steve Lopez claims in today's L.A. Times that the "tetas de azucarar" comment was not part of the official report. Apparently, what Gibson actually said was even worse, rendering it unprintable. Regardless, why isn't he being denounced for dissing a woman deputy, and a sergeant to boot? Where's NOW when you need it?

  3. Ach, MEL....

    Meanwhile, it's feeling like Cuba Week here at Naked, what with Fidel, Mojitos, and the Morro Castle. Talk about zeitgeist! Or is that more "collective unconscious"?

    Great post, James!