While waiting for the results of the International Latino Book Awards, for which my book, Cuba, Adios, has been nominated in two categories (Best First Book, and Best Autobiography), I was delighted to read the following editorial review of the book (the awards will be announced on September 8th, so keep tuned in)
by Lorenzo Pablo Martinez
reviewed by John E. Roper
for U.S. Review of Books
“Memories tend to fade with the passage of time, but when an event affects a person’s life in profound ways, it retains its vibrancy over the years.”
Just as a storm at sea can sometimes suck unsuspecting fish from the water miles from shore and then dump them inland, so, too, can people get caught up in events that rip them from the lives they have always known and plant them in new places. Wars and natural disasters are the usual culprits, creating thousands of refugees and displaced people who often struggle to survive in their new surroundings. But occasionally the reasons are more political and ideological in nature. As a young man with a future goal clearly in sight, the author suddenly found himself part of what would one day come to be known as Operation Pedro Pan, one of the largest relocation movements of unaccompanied children in the history of the Western Hemisphere.
In 1962, Lorenzo is eighteen and proud to be living in Cuba. Blinded by the revolutionary rhetoric that his parents have long seen through, he basks in Castro’s support of the arts and dreams of the day when he will win a music scholarship to study in Prague. That all changes one day with the news that he and his brother Beni have been given permission to go to the United States. Although he is technically too old to qualify for one of these ostensibly “educational” visas, strings have been pulled to get him one. Angry at having his aspirations derailed and forced to immigrate to somewhere he doesn’t want to go, Lorenzo eventually bows to family pressure and accompanies his brother to Miami.
Life in what many see as the Land of Promise doesn’t start out well. What began as a program in late 1960 to bring over a couple of hundred Cuban children as a means to eventually see their families be allowed to escape Castro’s regime, as well, has swollen to a point that by October of 1962 over 14,000 minors have been funneled into the United States. The logistical nightmare of housing and then dispersing these children throughout the country is incredible. Lorenzo and his brother, like many of the youngsters, do not always end up in places where they are very welcome. However, Lorenzo manages not only to survive but also thrive, eventually obtaining a doctorate from Columbia University and having his musical compositions performed on radio and television.
This is not just a story about his and his family’s participation in Operation Pedro Pan. Lorenzo also shares the often painful account of his early struggles and confusion with his sexuality. After some brief heterosexual relationships in Washington State, he moves to New York and immerses himself fully into the gay lifestyle which culminates in his current life partnership with a man for over thirty years. Unlike in so many weaker memoirs, the author recounts this aspect of his life fairly tastefully without resorting to the amateurish use of titillation and graphic sexual depictions which tend to degrade otherwise excellent autobiographical narratives.
Despite the fact that the author was no longer a child when the majority of the events take place, his tale is very much a coming-of-age story. Martinez has expertly captured the emotions of a young man determined to become independent yet trapped in many ways by the needs and expectations of his family. He also generally shows a good sense of balance when reflecting on how hard it must have been for some of the people he and his brother encountered along the way, such as their host family the Tudors, rather than depicting them stereotypically. Possibly the strongest point of the book, though, occurs when the narrative comes full circle on Lorenzo’s return to Cuba as an adult to both face his memories and one of the key individuals who helped shape his life—a literary technique that gives this well-written memoir a sense of bittersweet completion.