It all finally sank in overnight after a day that oscillated between numb surreality and tears. El Keed died on a Sunday, which was serendipitous. Sunday has about it a mythic sense of expiation. An efficiency. One feels more deeply in shock and then cries harder at tragedies occurring on a day recalibrated by theology and habit for recycling tragedies. Monday brings with it our no-nonsense capitalistic impulse to shake orf last week, Sunday included, and get back to work. That too has its tonic utility. I suspect this is all especially true if you’re an observant Catholic, as most Cuban-Americans are.
So I headed for my little local cafe Cubano for breakfast this morning, picking up copies of both major area newspapers as well as the Spanish-language El Nuevo Herald to keep me company, intending to save them all the way I’ve saved Feesh-themed major stories for two decades now. For a middle aged Russo-Ukranian-Romanian Ashkenaze white guy whose links to the old countries of his grandparental origins are two generations’ old fading culinary memories and a few scraps of stories mostly unintelligible in Bubbeh‘s Yidlish, the organicity of the Miami Cuban connection to the mother island is a little mysterious. I had to reconstruct my sense of it all by learning first Espanglish, then Spanish. I sometimes speak more Spanish than English on days when our jardinieres or fontaneras are working here. I reconstructed much of the rest of it by eating Cuban food. Consuming croquetas de jamon and boliche week after week is like receiving a DNA transplant. The eyepopping shots of cafe Cubano are like entire chromosomes. You stop at the produce section of Publix Sabor, the Latino-themed version of the big chain supermarket that they’ve built in heavily Cuban neighborhoods like Little Havana and thoughtfully roll a mamey around in your hand, checking for ripeness. A middle-aged Cuban woman comes along with her cart, sniffs out the Anglo checking over the wondrous, nutritionally overloaded tree fruit that tastes like a cross between melon and caramel and chuckles, “you can’t get them as good here as we had in Cuba.” Yet the stuff rewires your nervous system and makes you so receptive to Cuban jazz that American pop begins finally to sound like the tripe it really is.
What you really have to stretch to construct, though, is the sense of loss and pain every exiled Cuban feels in their hearts and bones. You have to listen to the horror stories of expropriation, of browbeating and arrogation, that they will tell you before you can begin to understand why the recalcitrant anger at the regime they left behind. And you really need to tax your imagination to comprehend the undiminished love so many of them feel for their lost homeland despite the sense of outrage and indignation at the treatment that forced them to leave, often at peril to their lives.
Being non-Cuban, much less non-Latino in a polyglot Latino town where Nicaraguans, Colombians, Central Americans and, most lately, Venezuelans all have many of the same kinds of experiences to relate, is a challenge. One tries not to succumb to exasperation, jealousy or petty cultural chauvanism. There’s a lot of Anglo and also Black resentment about the Latino hegemonism obtaining in our local polity. It finds its expression most often in Trumpestic shibboleths like “Why do I have to learn Spanish? Why can’t they learn English?” The reality, of course, is that a far greater proportion of “them” have learned and can speak English than Anglos have bothered to learn functional Spanish. Their children, in turn, have assimilated phonically to an overwhelming degree. As a matter of fact, after sixteen years of teaching university level English composition and critical writing down here, I was unsurprised by how much better the papers my Hispanic students turned in were than the ones written by so many of the comfortable, privileged, intellectually lethargic offspring of the Anglo professionals of Coral Gables, South Miami, Coconut Grove, Pinecrest and Palmetto Bay, et al. Strip that Anglo-Black resentment of its xenophobia and envy and there isn’t much left to toot about.
Anyway, after most of a richly squandered lifetime here in Macondo (a name for this town derived from the work of an author who many exiles detested for his friendship with Castro), I jokingly say sometimes that I’m Cuban by osmosis. No, I don’t buy into the scorched-earth spite-ourselves-to-reject-Castro politics of the Cuban-American Republican dinosaur politicians like the vapid prettyboy Marco Rubio or the living fossil Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. But then, neither by an increasing margin do succeeding generations of Cuban-Americans. On the other hand, I do understand where these stubborn cold warriors are coming from and over the years, without embracing their position, I have come to be at least a little more sympathetic.
This was never so true as during the last couple of days. Almost as quickly as the nondenominational exclamations of shock and sorrow faded with the next morning’s edition of the local newspaper, la voz Cubana rose up in the local press, English and Spanish. I had it all right there at my small cafe table to mull over as I sipped my Cuban coffee and munched my croquetas. First up a subhead in one of the sports sections, a quote from the Iron Giant: “I’m still waiting to awaken from this nightmare.” For Cuban Miami, the last couple of days have been a nightmare indeed, but paradoxically not one from which, like Giancarlo Stanton or even Portrait of the Artist‘s Stephen Dedalus, they were trying to awaken. Rather our Cuban community was consciously and deliberate self-immersing in the tragedy, buffered by how much of tragedy they have already lived and survived. This is stuff too rich and painful and of legacy born for Anglo blood. These writers of Cuban descent or extraction were feeling around inside themselves for all the common pangs and identities that get blended out of recognition sometimes in the process of assimilation. Separating them out. Sharpening dull amorphous ache into cleanly defined dolor. El Keed was the reason they kept going to games even though they hated Loria and the rest of Marlins management passionately. Jose’s two failed escapes from Cuba and brutal imprisonment as a teenager spoke to them in a telepathic Español even redemption projects like yours truly couldn’t viscerally understand. He and his mother escaping in an overloaded boat under fire from the shore inflected the experience of so many others who got here in rickety boats, paddle-hubbed pickups or truck tires. His jumping out of the boat in eight foot seas to rescue his mother when she fell overboard magnified the quotidian heroism of attempting the trip at all to the status of legendary heroism. The lower middle class life in Tampa where he had to learn English from scratch, and did; the struggle back to excellence from TJS – Jose was their American story in a nutshell. What you heard and read today was the bottom line experience that got drowned out on Sunday finally finding its venue: It wasn’t just losing one young man. In his death, they all died a little yesterday.
What’s there to read this morning is a paen to memories dying and also a sorrowful gesture towards the increasingly less than enthusiastic embrace of their cultural past by first and especially second generation American-born Cubans. The death of El Keed is the loss of an anchor in the present of the experience of hearth and homeland, of the dangers of flight and the challenges of exile. Jose was a present reality, with all the concreteness accompanying presence, incarnating diaspora narratives otherwise dwindling from presence to memory, thenceforth to books, plays and myths.