Saturday, November 26, 2016

Long lived Fidel—for way too long

I won't pretend to add anything to the torrent of obituaries marking the death of Fidel Castro, Maximum Leader Emeritus of Cuba, at age 90. For the definitive good-bye, read Anthony DePalma's piece in today's Times.

I can add some very personal reminiscences, though, because for nearly 58 years I've lived with Castro's words and deeds echoing in my head, alongside the sound of my parents' anguished and implacable rancor toward him which I could not comprehend until we all grew older.  

Indeed, during my long-haired college days, when I was taken by the lefty-ish, hashish-enhanced fervor gripping American college campuses, I pored through Ché Guevara's rhapsodies about the new Socialist Man being fashioned out of the revolutionary clay in Cuba, and even some of Castro's hours-long harangues, as if they were holy texts.

It was exciting, fantastic stuff, in retrospect a childlike naivete on my part fueled by a secret pride in how Castro had transformed our otherwise insignificant island of six million, known mostly for whores, booze and sunshine, into a volcano of worldwide revolutionary inspiration, or mayhem, from Bolivia to Angola. Everywhere I've ever visited, except Antarctica, I've found Ché Guevara tee shirts, posters and books celebrating some aspect of Cuba and its revolution. What other Latin American country can claim that? How many other Latin American dictators have received a front-page, twenty-one gun sendoff from the New York Times?
Fidel, during his prime poster days.

Sometime during the sixties I bought three large colorful propaganda posters commemorating Castro's 1968 campaign to produce ten million tons of sugar, which ultimately was a disaster.  I reverently kept the posters as if they were precious mementos, and later had them framed, thinking they might be worth something someday.

For a while they hanged on one of the walls of our dining room in Chicago, as so much conversation pieces, until my mom came to visit. She didn't say much except she insisted in sitting at the table with her back to the posters. The posters have long disappeared, worth nothing to me except that, ironically, her silent, pained reaction, and my thoughtlessness, helped me appreciate the impact Castro's revolution had inflicted on my parents and on so many Cubans.

My parents left Cuba in 1965, three years after me, and after spending several months in Madrid, living on charity handouts at a shelter for refugees, joined me in New York. Except for the singular, and significant, achievement of sending me through college and graduate school, their life in New York was no Horatio Alger replay. Both in their mid-fifties, with no mastery of English or marketable skills, they survived on low-paying jobs, my dad for decades at a non-union printing shop that at age sixty-five sent him off to retirement with no more than a pat on the back and a Social Security check. My mom, a public school teacher in Cuba, only got as far as a working as an orderly at an old people's home despite her ferocious determination to get herself ahead and me through college. Hers was a union job that at least provided a meager pension and some medical insurance until she died.

To my parents Castro was as an incendiary a subject as Donald Trump was at many Thanksgiving family dinners this week. I once found a crinkled picture of my mother shaking hands with Castro when he visited Santa Clara, except that after their love affair soured she had taken a pair of scissors and meticulously excised Castro from the picture, as if a tumor, leaving a photograph of herself shaking hands with a hole. As for my dad, I once asked him what he thought should be done in Cuba and he said, "Mi'jo (my son), the only solution is to go back there, machete in hand, and kill every communist in the island." No room for detente or compromise in my dad's world when it came to Castro.

For years I chuckled at my parent's Cro Magnon politics but as we all got older, and I retired at fifty-seven, I learned to understand and appreciate how devastating it must have been for them at a similar midlife pivot to lose everything they had spent a lifetime building to the communist hurricane that ravaged the island. Just as they thought they'd had reached a modest level of middle-class comfort, including a baby blue 1954 Chevrolet Bel Air and my dad's printing and stationery business in the somnolent provincial capital of Santa Clara, it all vanished overnight.

Dreams of my parents: A 1954 Chevy Bel Air 
Communists dying at the blade of my dad's rage? I could finally comprehend.

Still, I'm awed too at the impact Castro and the Cuban revolution have had on the world, even though back home the island's economy is still spinning its wheels in the muck of one failed socialist experiment after another. American visitors are now enthralled by the old American cars farting black smoke around Havana— in my living room I have a photo I took of a Havana-plated 1957 Chevy—but I wonder if the tourists grasp how indescribably depressing it must be for the classmates I left behind to find themselves living in a decrepit tourist curio shop after nearly sixty years of revolutionary privations.

I keep a shelf-full of books about Cuba, as a shrine of sorts, ranging from antique history tomes, early takes on the revolution, Andrés Oppenheimer's spectacularly premature "Castro's Final Hour"—published in 1992—plus memoirs and historical fiction mostly by Cubans in exile. Amid the books is a small pewter reproduction of the capitol building in Havana.

My favorite writer is Mirta Ojito, who for a while reported for the New York Times and wrote "Finding Mañana: A memoir of Cuban Exodus," and more recently Richard Blanco, who read one of his poems at Barack Obama's 2013 inauguration and later on the occasion of the reopening of the U.S. embassy in Havana. In 2014 he published Prince of Los Cocuyos, a delightful memoir of growing up Cuban in Florida.

But by far my most memorable and tragic writer was Reinaldo Arenas, who dared to live an openly gay lifestyle in Cuba and defy the crush of government censorship and persecution. He left the island in 1980 as part of the Mariel boatlift, was diagnosed with AIDS in 1987 and committed suicide in New York at age 47. His stirring "Before Night Falls" memoir was turned into a movie starring Javier Bardem.

So the old man, the one Cubans once admiringly called El Caballo, or The Horse, to signify his outsize physical and personal presence, is finally dead, his body cremated instead of mummified like Lenin, Mao or Ho, to be venerated by the faithful at an imposing mausoleum. I expect many reverent memorials to be held around the world, including here in San Miguel de Allende, where a small cadre of faithful Marxists sponsor occasional tours of the island to marvel at Castro's achievements.

I must confess a certain pride in all the talent, literary and otherwise, that has emerged from the small Caribbean island during the past sixty years. I'd even admit to a perverse admiration for Castro, who put Cuba on the world geopolitical map by defying the odds, the U.S., cut-offs of Soviet aid and innumerable other calamities that would have vanquished a lesser man.

Except any such admiration is quickly extinguished by the realization of how much destruction Castro's megalomania brought to so many people in the island, most especially my parents.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Two weeks after the Apocalypse

Yesterday morning I spoke on the phone with Rogelio, a mellow, slow-talking childhood friend from Cuba who after I mentioned Donald J. Trump raised his voice several decibels and erupted into a torrent of expletives not suitable for a family blog like this. He said he hadn't slept the night of the election and had felt nauseous the day after, before skidding into nearly a weeklong depression.

His reaction was typical but probably the most extreme was that of a friend who said she was so upset she ate a whole pecan pie right out of the box. She is still cursing Trump, two weeks after the election.

To say we are all just sore losers is a false and unfair equivalence. I was disappointed when George Bush Sr. defeated Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1988, particularly after the racist Willie Horton ad aired by the Republicans; dismayed when the U.S. Supreme Court handed the election to George W., in 2000 even though Al Gore had won the popular vote; and doubly dismayed when Bush was reelected in 2004, with the catastrophic, multi-trillion-dollar Iraq War already thundering in the background. I'm sure Republican friends were angry too when the Kenyan-born Barack Obama was elected and reelected. But we all accepted the results and moved on.

This is different. For all the faults and misjudgments of the Bush father-and-son team, and later Obama, they were basically honorable people with political agendas we didn't agree with. Now we've turned the presidency to an out-and-out racist, xenophobe and misogynist, who lies almost as often, and as casually, as he breathes. It feels as if he is about to desecrate the highest office and the White House, bringing along, for added insult, a former topless model to pose as First Lady.

Michelle and Barack, whatever your faults, we're going to miss you.

The first reaction Stew and I experienced after the election was the usual stage of grief—denial. Not that we didn't believe Trump had won but that we could shield ourselves against that reality by not watching or reading any news. We even abandoned the PBS News Hour, then headed by Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff, our favorite news team. To worsen matters a notch, Ifill died unexpectedly a few days after the election.

Then, for a moment, I embraced the "accepting the things we cannot change" fatalism proposed by some. But I don't buy that. I like Rogelio's rage much better—if only a bit more focused than yelling at friends on the phone, and seasoned with some historical perspective and even optimism.

Indeed, both Rogelio and I came to the U.S. in the early sixties and since then have witnessed this American democracy that is now our home go through some awful, seemingly catastrophic crises that would have plunged a lesser country into dictatorship or civil war.

Think of it: Today is the fifty-third anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination, which was followed by the killings of his brother and of Martin Luther King, and attempts on two more presidents. The political fabric of the country was ripped by race riots, wars, domestic terrorists, and seemingly unbridgeable political chasms. All this may seem like distant history but should reassure and help us get through this latest low point.

A starting point is a searching, bipartisan post-mortem of how our political discourse has turned so poisonous and illogical. How did working class Americans, who for decades were well served by labor unions embrace a Republican party—think Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker—that has set out to undermine or destroy labor unions? Or how did Democrats—think Bill and Hillary Clinton—join hands with Republicans to become shills of Wall Street interests that led directly to the economic debacle of 2008 that punched middle-class Americans right in the gut? Why do Republicans, historical supporters of open markets and free trade, now talk about walls and trade wars? And hey, didn't Sen. John McCain and liberal Democratic paladin Sen. Ted Kennedy co-sponsor a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2005? And didn't Ayn Rand—libertarian goddess and guiding light of Rep. Paul Ryan—vehemently defend personal freedoms, including the right of a woman to choose whether to have abortion?

It's a screwy political era we live in, no doubt, in which winning at any cost trounces reason, principles or comprehension of other points of view. As Toni Morrison eloquently wrote in The Nation, "...when the political discourse is shredded by an unreason and hatred so deep that vulgar abuse seems normal, disaffection rules. Our debates, for the most part, are examples unworthy of a playground: name-calling, verbal slaps, gossip, giggles, all the while the swings and slides of governance remain empty."

To pull political discourse from the present swamp we'll need new leaders, probably some unknown to us right now. I wouldn't dare to propose any Republican candidates except there has to be a better lineup than the cavalcade of clowns we witnessed during the primaries, like Texas vacuum tube Gov. Rick Perry and others who just refuse to go away. Republicans need candidates who can articulate an economic and political platform that stands on something other than attacks on groups of Americans deemed to be different—be they immigrants, gays and lesbians, blacks or Muslims—that promote the discord that has led us to the present conundrum. If the emerging Trump cabinet is any indication, Republicans are a long ways from that ideal.

The Democrats too, need to find some new leadership and quit pretending that a jigsaw puzzle of special interests equals the national interest. Clinton, smart and capable as she may be, was no such inspirational figure. Instead she was a bruised and battered warrior with a sense of entitlement that it was "her turn." Millions voted for her with resignation rather than enthusiasm. To paraphrase Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, "Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine, and Hillary, you're no Jack Kennedy."  Who the new Kennedy might be isn't clear. The Democrats have just four years to find him or her.

But perhaps the most essential but challenging ingredient to a political renewal is a sense of individual and communal compassion. The coal miners in West Virginia are not "deplorables" or white trash, but working folk desperately clinging to the only way of making a living they know. Mexican immigrants, even those who are undocumented, are not rapists or criminals but people who work to bring you the cheap and wonderful fruits and vegetables that you demand at Whole Foods. Muslims hanging on to sinking boats in the Mediterranean are not all fearsome terrorists but the latest image of souls trying to survive a horrible situation, just like the boat people from Cuba, Haiti or Vietnam, or the Ellis Island hordes that included Stew's parents from Norway.

If the rage, disgust and exhaustion most Americans feel after the recent presidential cycle is channeled into compassion for each other and a faith in the proven history, it can pull us out of this mess, I'm sure. We've done it before.

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Tuesday, November 1, 2016

How should we remember the dead?

Despite the reading of some irreverent and even humorous poems by Billy Collins about death and dying, Sunday's Unitarian Fellowship service for the Day of the Dead was a somber affair. We commemorated the passing of both, prominent members of the congregation as well as people known only to individual congregants. About a dozen people,  their words often drowned by sobs and tears, spoke briefly about relatives and friends they had lost.

I sympathized with their grief. When my mother died, I couldn't stop crying loudly and sometimes uncontrollably, for about a week even though, in truth, we didn't have the warmest of relationships until her final two or three years.

It may be that the sudden absence of someone—not distant memories, pleasant or otherwise—is what unleashes the grief. A couple of years ago, a friend told me that waking up to a half-empty bed after her husband died was the toughest ordeal, that it felt as if some part of her had been torn away.

Remembering the dearly departed. 
While I appreciate and respect others' mourning, I've gradually embraced the more celebratory tone of Mexico's Day of the Dead, when the dearly departed are said to come back for a visit to exchange memories with the friends and relatives they left behind.

On November 2, either at homes or cemeteries, altars are assembled containing pictures of the departed and some of their favorites items, even a fifth of tequila if, to be honest about it, Uncle Pepe was known as a bit of tippler. At cemeteries, in a tradition that may resemble a picnic with food and drink and even songs, some relatives congregate around freshly cleaned and decorated graves to reminisce about grandma and others who've moved Upstairs.

To someone raised in Catholic traditions that glorify death, suffering, blood and tears as essential signposts along the road to eternal salvation—just walk around a Mexican church and check out the expressions on the statues—the festiveness of the Day of the Dead may seem scandalous, sacrilegious.

It's not that Mexicans are incapable of grieving for lost ones. A month ago, Félix reported that a brother-in-law in his forties had died overnight after a long fight with kidney disease. His eyes filled with tears and it took all of Félix's macho self-control to avoid outright crying. I shook his hand and gave him a quick hug, after which he told me all about José María, his family and how long he'd been sick. Félix and his the family will go to the local cemetery tomorrow to visit with José, and also one of Félix' sisters who died from a tumor when she was just twenty-one, and two other siblings who were stillborn.

After an initial period of grief—of detachment—I like the idea of celebrating and reminiscing about the dead, warts and all, rather than mourning them in perpetuity. Mexican writer Octavio Paz famously explained the contradiction in Mexicans' attitude toward death and grieving as ultimately one of acceptance.

"The Mexican...is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it. True, there is as much fear in his attitude as in that of others, but at least death is not hidden away: He looks at it face to face, with impatience, disdain or irony." 

So this year Stew and I have put together our own Day of the Dead altar over the mantle of the fireplace, with the requisite orange marigolds, votive candles and photos of our dead relatives whom we will remember: Both of our parents (Mario and Georgina, and Thorleif and Frances); our grandmothers, mine maternal (Herminia), Stew's paternal (Verda); my paternal uncle Alejo and my cousin Gustavo, a lovely, dog-loving human being who succumbed to mental illness and committed suicide while still in his forties. Naturally we've also included some of our pets that have gone on to claim their eternal reward of kibbles.

We don't expect to be chatting with any of them or pretending that we don't miss them. In one of his more ironic poems, Collins notes that people die in order to make room for the next generation—to get out of the way—so younger folks can step up with new ideas presumably for improving this world. Next in line at the departure gate will be us.

That reality is not necessarily sad or joyful, just our turn in the inevitable cycle of life. I just hope to get a chance to visit Downstairs once a year to peek on how everyone is doing.

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