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ReMembering Cuba

ReMembering Cuba
Legacy of a Diaspora

Through narratives, interviews, creative writings, letters, journal entries, recipes, photographs, and paintings, Cubans from various waves of the migration and their descendants piece together a complex mosaic of the exile experience and diasporic identity.

January 2001
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376 pages | 6 1/8 x 9 1/4 | 22 photos, 2 maps |

Longing for their lost homeland unites Cuban exiles and their children, many of whom have never seen the Island. Yet as decades pass and the hope of "next year in Cuba" fades, the Cuban American community has had to forge new understandings of where "home" is and what it means to be "Cuban," "American," and/or "Cuban American." The testimonies gathered in this book offer over one hundred perspectives on the Cuban diaspora and on what it means to be Cuban in exile. Through narratives, interviews, creative writings, letters, journal entries, recipes, photographs, and paintings, Cubans from various waves of the migration and their descendants piece together a complex mosaic of the exile experience and diasporic identity.

In her introduction, Andrea O'Reilly Herrera describes how she conceived the project and chose the contributors, including both unknown and established artists and writers such as Gustavo Pérez Firmat, Sylvia Curbelo, Pablo Medina, Lourdes Gil, Ricardo Pau-Llosa, Heberto Padilla, and José Kozer. The contributors' diverse and sometimes conflicting voices offer a more inclusive and complex understanding of Cuban American identity and the various Cuban "presences" residing throughout the United States. Likewise, they overthrow a perceived "hierarchy of suffering" among Cuban Americans, which purports to dictate who can and cannot speak authentically about exile and loss, as well as what form their expression can take.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Andrea O'Reilly Herrera
  • Section I : The Interior Exile ("insilio")
    • Leandro Soto: Testimonio de un artista
    • Rafael E. Saumell: Oh, La Habana
    • Manena's Cuban American Recipes
    • Hector R. Romero: Life in Exile
    • Sara Rosell: The "Sandwich" Generation
    • Efrain J. Ferrer and Vivian de la Incera: The Thirteenth Suitcase
    • Enrique Patterson: Sin calcetínes
    • Julio J. Guerra Molina: Beyond Fear
    • Luis Cruz Azaceta: Dead Rafter II
    • Silvia Curbelo: Balsero Singing
  • Section II: "Merely a Player"
    • Heberto Padilla: Los que se alejan siempre son los niños
    • María Brito: Merely a Player
    • Ileana Fuentes: Portrait of Wendy, At Fifty, With Bra
    • Luz Irene Diaz: The Wooden Suitcase
    • María Emilia Castagliola: Once upon a Time in May of 1961...
    • Juan Manuel Alonso: Crossing into the Mainstream
    • Gabriella Ibieta: Fragmented Memories
    • Tony Mendoza: Going Back
  • Section III: Crossing the Generational Divide
    • An Afternoon with Ernesto F. Betancourt
    • Adela Betancourt Jabine: Growing Up Cuban American
    • María Antonia Soto: My Life in Exile
    • Francisco Soto: Lost Memories and Nostalgic Obsessions
    • Flora González Mandri: Thirty-Two Years Later
    • Rachel Werner Baldwin: Island of Color
    • Alicia Serrano Machirán Granto: Life al revés
    • Gina Granto-Penque: On Being Cuban
    • Ada Manero Alvaré: One Mother's Testimonial
    • Tia Ada's Arroz con leche
    • Carlos Alberto Alvaré: Losing Eden
  • Section IV: Snapshots
    • Ricardo Pau-Llosa: La hora de los mameyes
    • María Cristina García: Abui
    • Olga Mendell: A Cuban American Memoir
    • Virgil Suárez: Song for the Royal Palms of Miami
    • Silvia Curbelo: Photograph of My Parents
    • Silvia Curbelo: First Shift at Hershey's, 4 A.M.
    • Andrea O'Reilly Herrera: Inhabited Woman
    • Nilda Cepero: Burialground
    • Raquel Romeu: A Journal from the Bay of Mariel
    • Jorge Luis Romeu: Political Exile
  • Section V: The Culture Wars
    • Gustavo Pérez Firmat: The Facts of Life on the Hyphen
    • Lourdes Gil: Against the Grain:Writing Spanish in the USA
    • Lourdes Gil: From "The Necessary Treasons"
    • Marta Elena Acosta Stone: Understanding del Casal
    • Mayling C. Blanco: A Cubana in NewYork
    • Virgil Suárez: Arroz
    • Carolina Hospital: What Kind of Cuban AreYou?
    • Nilda Cepero: Tropical Flavor
    • Elías Miguel Muñoz: Flags and Rags (On Golden Lake)
    • Kenya Carmen Dworkin y Mendéz: Next Stop Ninety Miles
  • Section VI: "The Bite of Exile"
    • Jose Kozer: The Bite of Exile
    • Jose Kozer: Autobiography
    • Heberto Padilla: Culture and Exile
    • Ricardo Pau-Llosa: The Wages of Exile
    • Jorge Guitart: Foreigner's Notebook
    • Jorge Guitart: In the Wilderness
    • Connie Lloveras: Living on Borrowed Ground
    • Virgil Suárez: Clotheslines
    • Carlos J. Alvaré: Letter to His Niece
    • Emilio M. Mozo: exilio
    • Emilio M. Mozo: sombras
    • Nilda Cepero: Paradox
    • Pablo Medina: Where Are You From? A Cuban Dilemma
    • Pablo Medina: The Chosen
    • Carlota Caulfield: Even Names Have Their Exile
    • Carlota Caulfield: The Photo That Watches
  • Section VII: "Grace under Pressure"
    • Leandro Soto: Cubans in the U.S.
    • Grisel Pujalá-Soto: Exile: Reality or lmagination
    • Heberto Padilla: Entre el gato y la casa
    • Raúl Fernández: Musicians in Motion
    • Raúl Fernández: From"Celia Cruz"
    • Raúl Fernández: From"La magia musical de Cachao"
    • Carmen Herrera: Yesterday/Ayer
    • Rafael Soriano: E1 descanso del heroe
    • Rocío Rodríguez: Head and Vessel
    • Luis Cruz Azaceta: From Outside Cuba/Fuera de Cuba
    • María Martínez-Cañas: Historia rota (Broken History)
    • Orlando Rodríguez Sardiñas (Rossardi): Exilio
    • Roberto G. Fernández: Abode
    • Jesús J. Barquet: Lluvia y primaveras
    • Yara González-Montes: Autobiography, Historiography, and Mythography in Matías Montes Huidobro's Desterrados al fuego
  • Section VIII: Inheriting Exile
    • Gisele M. Requena: On Being an American-Born Cuban from Miami
    • María de los Angeles Lemus: From "Stories My Mother Never Told Me"
    • Victor Andres Triay: ABCs in South Florida Suburbia
    • Alberto Rey: Appropriated Memories
    • Margarita Engle: Inheriting Exile
    • Cecilia Rodríguez Milanés: Un Testimonio
    • Gabriel Rodríguez: The Grand Finale
    • Maura Barrios: Memoirs of a Tampeña
    • Andrea O'Reilly Herrera: Una cubanita pasada por agua
    • Cata's "pie" de guayaba
  • Select Bibliography

The American-born daughter of a Cuban mother and an Irish American father, Andrea O'Reilly Herrera is Associate Professor of Literature and Director of the Ethnic Studies Program at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.


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To think of exile as beneficial, as a spur to humanism or to creativity, is to belittle its mutilations.... For exile is fundamentally a discontinuous state of being. Exiles are cut off from their roots, their land, their past.
—Edward Said, "The Mind of Winter: Reflections on Life in Exile"

In truth, this project was first conceived when I was about seven years old. Driven by what I have come to believe is an ancestral yearning for all things Cuban, I used to beg to hear my grandparents repeat their stories about their lives on the Island—stories that fed my imagination and have since become the wellspring of my scholarly work and much of my fiction. At one point, I even followed my grandfather, Pipa, around the borders of his beloved garden with a tape recorder, watching him pull the stubborn weeds from among the lavender and blue hydrangeas. We all knew that he had been involved in some type of clandestine activity in Cuba following the revolution, but he persistently refused to talk about it. Unable to overcome my gnawing curiosity, I pleaded with him, convinced that my dogged persistence (a universal family trait) would eventually wear his resistance down and convince him to record these stories. I can still remember the way he mopped his brow with the handkerchief that perpetually hung from his back trouser pocket like a panting dog's tongue. His agitation was visible to me in the impatient movement of his hands; his resignation, in the long sigh that he gave out. "In the first place," he told me in his booming voice (which usually sent his grandchildren scattering in all directions), "I cannot tell you those stories—mostly because I am afraid." "For whom?" I asked. "For those who are left behind," he answered, lowering his voice. "In the second place," he added, "no one would ever believe me if I told them what I knew."

Over the years, I have never forgotten his response—little did he know that his words had only sharpened my desire to act as the guardian of our stories, our history.


The actual catalyst that prompted me to begin the arduous task of gathering together the works in this collection occurred many years later in the wake of my grandfather's death. It was during a trip to south Florida, where I attended the Caribbean Writers Summer Institute at the University of Miami (1996). During the course of that trip, I had the opportunity to reunite—after many years—with family members and close friends who had all left Cuba under duress during the various waves of immigration following the 1959 revolution. Although they all shared the same urgency to relate their experiences and to talk about their lives in exile, perhaps the most emotional reunion was with two of my grandfather's sisters, both of whom had never learned to speak English and both of whom still considered themselves to be in a state of exile after nearly forty years.

The eldest sibling,Tía Asela, was 101 years old at the time. When I asked her to tell me stories, she began by recalling the changed atmosphere in Cuba following the Spanish-American War. Gently stroking my hand as she spoke, she then told me about the volunteer work she'd been involved in following her husband's premature death. "Tell me stories about Cuba after the revolution," I finally asked. At my words, Tía grew silent, her mouth drawn into a thin curve of pain and sorrow. After a few moments, she signaled to Tía Yoyín, the youngest of her siblings. "Tell her about when the soldiers took the house," she said, leaning forward in her chair and gesturing at her sister. "We had only a half an hour to pack our bags," Tia Yoyín began, taking up the cue. "A lifetime of memories," she added, with lowered eyes, "in only one bag."

For the remainder of the afternoon I, along with my husband and three children, listened to Tia Yoyín as she recited a series of stories at her sister's prompting—stories, she told me, that were too painful for Asela to relay herself, but that she nevertheless wanted me to know. Just as my grandparents had, she wanted me to know what they had witnessed—what we had lost. At the time, I could not help but recall my first visit to Miami, not long after Tía Asela had arrived from Cuba. I will never forget the tone of their voices as she and her sisters described the conditions under which they had lived. In vain, I attempted to record their stories and capture with words the emotion that thickened their voices and galvanized their slight frames. It wasn't until I saw for the first time the "Dark Paintings" of Goya that I found images that came close to representing the nightmarish vision that the old aunts described.

Tía Asela died shortly after celebrating her 102nd birthday. Though I choose to believe that chance had nothing to do with it, I was in Miami at the time of her death and was able to hold vigil (with a room full of women who recited a litany of prayers together in one voice) and wish Asela safe passage to the other side. After the funeral mass, we buried Tía in a mausoleum beside her sister,Teté. (Long before, the three sisters had arranged to be laid to rest side by side.) As I watched her coffin slide into the slot beside Tía Teté's and my gaze fell upon the empty crypt where Tia Yoyín would eventually lie, I could not help but think that we were laying Asela, the matriarch of our family, to rest in what was to her a foreign land. She had left us with the unfulfilled hope of seeing her beloved motherland again. Exile, for her, was a permanent mutilation, a wound that would not heal. Never before had the proportions of this loss, this tragedy, seemed so immediate and so great to me.

In the short amount of time that has passed since I first began writing this introduction, we have now lost Tía Yoyín, the last of my grandfather's siblings. As I sit in my home in Colorado, revising this passage to register the loss, I can almost feel the weight of time pressing down upon me, for I write with the knowledge that at this very moment Yoyín is surrounded by a dwindling group of old women holding vigil at her side. I write with the knowledge that the next time I return to Miami, my remaining tía-abuela (my grandfather's sister-in-law, Ada) might be gone, taking with her the stories—the memories—of this world that I have never seen, but to which I somehow belong. Frustrated at the ground that seems to be slipping away at my feet and the immense distance that separates me from my family; filled with regret at the thought that I can no longer sit on the arm of my grandmother's recliner at her shore house, listening to her and my grandfather recite stories (as she rubbed circles into my back and he rocked back and forth in his brown leather chair, twirling his thumbs together); I realize, as my dear compañera Lourdes Gil has reminded me, that I number among those who are "burdened" and "blessed" by this history that resides in my name and sits upon my shoulders. And so it occurs to me that this most sacred task of delivering over these testimonials is finally at hand.

(February 9, 1998; September 15, 1999)


“To date, no [other] book representing such a wide and extensive sampling of views and experiences of the Cuban Diaspora exists.”
Isabel Alvarez Borland, author of Cuban-American Narratives of Exile: From Person to Persona