Why did I write a memoir?
At 18, my life took an unexpected turn. Up to that point, I had aspired to become a pianist, a dream my family and friends had helped me shape since I was a child. “You’ll be like your Abuelo Clemente,” mamá’s father, a respected musician who died before I was born. I was a believer of the dream and worked hard to make it come true. Of course there had been moments when I wanted to break away from the rigors of a musical life. But it never took long before I was back in its thrall, flying on the wings of the dream again.
On April 1962, three months after my 18th birthday, I was a politically naive young man with my head so far above the clouds that I could not see the atrocities, nor smell the bloodshed happening literally under my nose. But then the unimaginable happened. I had to choose between my musical dreams and the politically safety of my parents. At the time I didn’t realize I was also securing my own safety. So, I came to this country. With a younger brother. My parents and two sisters left behind. Under the auspices of a program known as Operación Pedro Pan, my brother and I, among 14,000 other Cuban children, crawled our way through the American Dream.
Over the years when people learned where I was from, they wanted to know my story, and I’d tell them a truncated version of it. “I came with my brother and without my parents.” The responses were often similar. “How did you survive the separation?”
I would keep my answer simple: “Children are resilient. I thought of it as an adventure.”
It was easier to attribute my survival to resiliency than the truth, which was far more complicated. It was best to pretend I was made of stronger fabric. Then one day I felt compelled to understand a political history I had been part of and a program that had served as my “Welcome Wagon” to America. I had to write about it. Difficult or not, I would peel the layers of my experience as a young refugee, how those years impacted on my relationship with my parents and how it influenced the man I am today.
I also wanted to understand what my parents had gone through. Why would they take such risk and send us away? Protecting their young is a basic instinct parents possess. They want to keep their children out of harm’s way. When a small child starts school or the teenage son or daughter goes off to college, parents suffer the same separation anxiety as their children. In those cases, parents can ease their fears by building relationships with a child’s teacher or visiting the college campus. When separation from their offspring has a political root, and children are sent off to exile, anxiety can be crushing. Letting go of their children in those instances is the ultimate sacrifice parents can make. Parents can’t build relationships with teachers or visit the dorm as part of a school tour to ensure the environment is one they think is suitable for their sons or daughters. Children and parents on opposite sides of the exile shoreline are stuck in a gulf of shark-infested waters that eat at and transform them forever.
My parents were. And so was I.
That transformation is at the core of my memoir.
Writing it helped me understand the person I am today. And the sacrifice my parents made in order to provide a life for us free of communism.
How about you? Did you ever as a young child have to say good bye to your parents or a dream you held dear? How did you survive?
Did you have other types of experiences you’ve always wanted to write down? Have you written them? If not, why?
To learn more about children who participated in Operación Pedro Pan, read my interview with Fernando Hernández on The Cubans: Our Footprints Across America. His book is available on www.amazon.com. Hernández will be honored with the Premio Nacional (National Prize) at the XI Festival Hispano Del Libro in Houston, TX on October 6th, 2013. The event will take place at the Houston Hilton, SW.
If you’re interested in learning even more about the Cuban experience in this country, check out www.cubamericanthemovie.com. The film, written, produced and directed by José Enrique Pardo, is playing to sold-out houses in Los Angeles, CA. Previously shown in Miami, the film will also be shown in Chicago from the 19th to the 21st of October. It centers on the heart-wrenching decision of leaving one native’s land and assimilating into the United States as a CUBAMERICAN.