On Tuesday this week, after more than 40 years of standing stalwartly against Fidel Castro, the leading organization for Cuban exiles in Miami, the Cuban American National Foundation dramatically split apart as nearly two-dozen board members resigned. Those resigning contended the mother group had forgotten its goal and had gone soft on Cuban issues.
The conflict comes from a philosophical division between younger foundation leaders who take a less confrontational approach and older ones who abhor any appearance of compromise. On one side, the old school believes the battle should be fought on Cuban radio and in the streets of Little Havana in Florida. On the other side, the new generation wants to raise the group’s profile by acts such as lobbying to bring the Latin Grammy Awards to Miami from Los Angeles and spending tens of millions of dollars on a cultural center.
These problems in the group focus on the increasingly divisive issue among Cuban-Americans. Many Cuban-Americans are divided between those old enough to remember fleeing Cuba when Castro seized power and those young enough to have heard of the revolution only from their parents and grandparents. Many of today’s criticisms are aimed at Jorge Mas Santos, the foundation’s American-born chairman and son of the late Jorge Mas Canosa, who founded the organization and epitomized the hard line.
Under Mas Canosa there was no such thing as any kind of tolerance with Fidel or his brother Raul, but the younger generation is moving steadily toward tolerance – toward finding an accommodation.
What could be more fitting at this time in Cuban-American relations than to turn to a quite apposite collection of stories that capture the lives and cross-cultural patterns of people in post-revolutionary Castro’s Cuba and the exiles in Little Havana. Ana Menendez is the daughter of Cubans who fled first to Los Angeles, then settled in Miami where she eventually covered Little Havana for The Miami Herald.
The prize-winning title story was originally published in Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope: All Story magazine. It quite wonderfully captures the pathos and dark humor that underlie the apparently anodyne daily life of exiles who can never fully forget their homeland.
Four elderly men gather in a small park each morning to sit under the shifting shade of a banyan tree, “and sometimes the way the wind moved through the leaves reminded them of home.”
Maximo begins to tell the joke he had prepared for the day. “So Bill Clinton dies in office and they freeze his body.” He wakes up in the year 2105. Curious about what’s been going on, he goes up to a Jewish fellow and says, ‘So how are things in the Middle East?’ The answer comes, ‘Wonderful, wonderful, everything is like heaven.’ Next Clinton goes to an Irishman, and learns, ‘It’s one Ireland now and we all live in peace.’ Clinton’s really happy, so he does that biting thing with his lip.”
Maximo stopped to demonstrate and Raul and Carlos slapped their hands on the domino table and laughed. Maximo paused. Even Antonio had to smile. Maximo loved this moment when the men were warming to the joke and he still kept the punch line close to himself like a secret.
“So, OK,” Maximo continued. “Clinton goes up to a Cuban fellow and says ‘Compadre, how are things in Cuba these days?’ The guy looks at Clinton and he says to the president, ‘Let me tell you, my friend, I can feel it in my bones. Any day now Castro’s gonna fall.’
As the men sit in the park, Maximo remembers times past, his late wife, his daughters – successful in California. A tourist bus passes, a guide says, “most of these men are Cuban and they’re keeping alive the tradition of their homeland. Folks, you here are seeing a slice of the past.” Maximo could no longer sit where he was, accept things as they were – it was a moment that had long been missing from his life. He stood and made a fist at the trolley.
That night, Maximo didn’t even prepare dinner. Next morning at the park, he says he remembers now the story of the little dog who’d come to Miami. The Cuban dog sees a beautiful white poodle and addresses her in Spanish. “‘I beg your pardon? This is America – kindly speak English.’ So he says, ‘I would like to marry you, my love, and have gorgeous puppies with you and live in a palace.’ The white poodle looks haughtily at him. ‘Do you have any idea who you’re talking to? I am a refined breed of considerable class and you are nothing but a short insignificant mutt.’ He’s a proud dog, you see, and he’s afraid of his pain. ‘Pardon me, your highness,’ Juanito the mangy dog says, ‘Here in America, I may be a short, insignificant mutt, but in Cuba, I was a German shepherd.’ Maximo turned so the men would not see his tears.”
Stories are set sometimes in Cuba, sometimes in Miami – all are marked by a powerful nostalgia for a land that some only know from what they have heard from parents or grandparents. There’s bitterness and love, tenderness, and a fine sense of a time that once was … and just may be found again. It’s a gem of a book.