I’ve always wanted to go to Cuba and I used to envy Barbara Walters her Fidel Castro interview. But now that I’ve read Leaving Little Havana, a memoir by Cecilia M. Fernandez , I’d rather talk to her, a fiery journalist who could show me both her slice of Miami and the magnificent dichotomy of her birthplace.
When Sailing Magazine interviewed me in 2014 the writer picked up on my wanderlust for Cuba in what at the time felt like a cheesy, impossibly optimistic quote about “a lot of faith and hope in Cuba.” <squirm>.
The comment was self-fulfilling prophecy. Travel restrictions have lifted. My farfetched vision of sailing to Cuba isn’t so zany after all. Legend had it that the ‘Fat Albert’ surveillance blimp stationed in the lower Florida Keys can read your registration numbers in Hemingway Marina. The blimp is history. But I’m not heading over there until I know I can return without a hassle.
I’ve anchored my sailboat Chip Ahoy in Miami several times, at Stadium and Star Island anchorages, and off Key Biscayne near former President Richard M. Nixon’s southern White House. More than once it’s been my pleasure to watch festival fireworks over the city skyline. But the only taste of culture I’ve experienced is a Cuban restaurant near the Miami Yacht Club; my husband and I traveled by dinghy with several other sailing couples, in early 2003. Earlier in the trip we scaled a peach stucco bridge in affluent Hurricane Harbor to gain access to the Key Biscayne Publix Grocery Store. The plush community of opulent mansions and lush gardens, uniformed servants and high fashion, was almost as daunting as the rappel back down the bridge when we returned with our groceries at low tide.
In her memoir, Fernandez bluntly lays out how this mass migration and upward mobility occurred and what the United States government did to help it along. She also details how the revolution affected everyday life among everyday Cubans, bending the definition of freedom and straining this vibrant country to the breaking point. But there’s so much more than historical background. Fernandez paints a personal picture of what it was like to grow up in a time of harsh, confusing, continuous change. It’s a riches-to-rags scenario that forces her to face the odds and some very real inner and outer demons at a time when most children are still able to be children. To be happy. Carefree. Secure. Safely held in the love of her family.
It is one thing to navigate forced immigration. Fernandez was also forced to negotiate the challenging peaks and valleys in the country of the soul. Her brilliant mother mentally checked out. We feel both the compassion and the frustration of that. The feelings are less mixed about her father. The portrayal of a driven, philandering, self-centered, emotionally and financially unavailable physician who severed family ties with less than surgical precision reminds us that deadbeat fathers and their empty promises exist across all ethnic and socioeconomic spectrums. He rose to a prestigious Biscayne Bay view, but he didn’t take his wife, his daughter – or his parents, even though they came to stay – with him.
The memoir also pulses with frenetic color and energy. Fernandez and I are same generation. So I had the most fun with the 1970s section. In the (psychedelic) flowering of young womanhood we were doing and wearing many of the same things, defiant disco divas in our elephant-bell pants, acting up, acting out. Maybe we weren’t looking for Mr. Goodbar, but we were looking for love – sometimes in all the wrong places.
As a long-time journalist and newspaper editor I also related to her struggles to establish a life path when the party animal days ended. To figure out how to forge a writing career. And I cheered her on.
I am so looking forward to meeting this woman! I want to know more. How is her mother? Her father? Has she gone back to visit Cuba – is she planning to? What about her family there?
Discovering this compelling story is another reason to be grateful for finding my publishing home. Check out a sample of Leaving Little Havana: A Memoir of Miami’s Cuban Ghetto, at Beating Windward Press
Who else wants to go to Cuba? Who’s ready to meet me at the Miami Book Show – or tour Little Havana?