Learning to Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy

Print More

Learning to Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy
Carlos Eire
Free Press
307 pages.

This stand-alone sequel to Waiting for Snow in Havana, Carlos Eire’s National Book Award-winning memoir of his childhood in Cuba, opens on April 6, 1962, after Carlos, 11, and his brother Tony, 14, arrive in Miami on a plane full of unaccompanied minors. Sent by their parents to escape Fidel Castro’s regime, they were among 14,064 children airlifted from Cuba to America during Operation Pedro Pan between 1960 and 1962. So swiftly were these children sent to foster homes and relatives across the United States that most Americans never noticed them.

When Carlos awakens in a camp on his first morning in Florida, separated from Tony, he feels “totally alone in a dark void” – the first of many panic attacks that plague him for years. But he is lucky – his parents’ friend, lawyer Juan Becquers, who moved his family to Miami – has found a foster home for Carlos with the Chaits and for Tony with the Rubins. These American Jewish families warmly accept two Cuban Catholic boys into their homes, just three miles apart. The brothers meet at Sunday services. Contact with their parents consists of weekly letters and bimonthly three-minute phone calls.

Carlos has never seen lawn sprinklers, remote controls and other such conveniences. Food is rationed in Cuba; here, grocery shelves are overflowing. Bowling, TV and the neighbor’s swimming pool make life “peachy keen.” Carlos vows to forget Cuba and become American.

Determined to fit in, Carlos introduces himself as Charles. At school, he thrives in English immersion classes for Cuban immigrants. “Don’t ask me what I think about my fellow Hispanics who insist on bilingual everything,” Eire declares today. “I get too angry. There’s no better way of keeping Hispanics down in the United States than to tell them that they don’t have to learn English.”

Eating delicious Cuban food – especially fried green plantains – with the Becquers in their shabby, crowded house made “my split personality surface,” he says. “I’m no longer just ‘me,’ but Charles and Carlos!”

Carlos is puzzled by his classmates’ odd questions, such as what it’s like wearing shoes for the first time, or why he’s blond instead of dark. A dark-skinned boy threatens to beat him up. He is teased for pronouncing “s” incorrectly. His bike and other possessions are stolen. A paragraph in his textbook suggests why: Cuba is “too backward to handle democracy or genuine civilization” – demonstrated by a photograph of two half-naked black children beside a grass hut.

Carlos is too focused on Halloween trick-or-treating to notice the Cuban Missile Crisis – until his foster mother tells him that emigration from Cuba has halted. His mother had just received her exit permit. Now she won’t be with him for his birthday in November. Will he ever see her again? Carlos becomes so hysterical at his birthday party that Mr. Rubin shoves his face into the cake to quiet him. A home movie confirms the incident, but Eire has no memory of it.

The adult Eire inserts his caustic description of the missile crisis: Not allowed by Nikita Krushchev to “vaporize” American cities, “Fidel has to find an outlet for his frustration,” he says. “I’ve seen my cats act in exactly the same way. They’ll just attack one of the other cats in the house, especially those that are minding their own business.” Meanwhile “President Kennedy assures Nikita and Fidel” that he will never let Cuban exiles “lift so much as a finger against Castrolandia.”

The boys’ foster families had offered temporary homes; now their mother isn’t coming. Their Uncle Amado must settle in Illinois before Carlos and Tony can join him. Seven months after their arrival, a social worker moves the brothers to a rough Miami neighborhood. With 10 older gang members and other Cuban boys, they are crammed into two small bedrooms in a house infested by mice and cockroaches. Rules are strict, food is scarce, and the other boys fight and steal their belongings. Their coarse Cuban foster parents – whom Eire dubs Lucy and Ricky Ricardo – criticize the brothers as too refined.

“The Cuban exodus,” Eire explains, was driven by “political repressions, and all of the unsolved class issues went into exile, too.” Class tensions in the Ricardos’ “hellhole” are another death for Carlos. For Tony, who carries “an abyss around inside him like a black hole,” it’s a significant plunge in his lifelong downward spiral.

When a social worker finally visits, she is surprised to see ragged Carlos and Tony: “You’re supposed to be with your uncle.” With new clothes and shoes, they fly to Chicago in September 1963, 18 months after leaving Cuba. “We’re not the same boys,” says Carlos. “Tony and I have each died at least three times.”

In Bloomington, a small city in the Illinois Corn Belt, Uncle Amado struggles on a miniscule salary to support his wife, two daughters, and two nephews. At 13, Carlos is now Chuck – inscribed on his sneakers – reveling in brick streets and towering pines, “totally unlike anything I have ever seen.” His first snowfall is ecstasy. Helping his uncle write letters in English, Chuck also writes to “a mere memory” in Cuba.

Chuck is 15 when his mother Maria arrives in Chicago in November 1965; she and her sons have been apart for 1,307 days. Damaged by childhood polio and never learning English, Maria gathers other lost refugee souls as she labors in a factory. Leaving “Chuck” behind to join her in Chicago, Carlos excels in school and family responsibilities. After graduation, he works a factory shift with Maria and evenings as a grocery stock boy, before going on to college.

Meanwhile, Tony’s descent from school failure to rocky marriage and dead-end jobs leads to drug and alcohol addiction, obesity and jail.

Eire becomes a professor of history and religious studies at Yale University, a writer of books, and a happily married father of three children. Yet his burden is crushing: constant flights from Connecticut to Chicago to avert one medical or housing crisis after another, eventually placing both mother and brother – eternally displaced – in nursing homes. Only near the end of the book does Eire reveal details of Maria’s exit from Cuba, and why his father – who remained a judge under Castro – never leaves, deepening his family’s scars.

Throughout this vivid reconstruction of his life, Eire flashes forward and back in time to examine how he has become who he is. His tone can be wry or sarcastic; it segues into grief or joy. His mystical faith is arrestingly expressed: As a child of 12 being driven to his most inhospitable foster home, Carlos saw the trees above Coral Way turn into guardian angels, demon-slayers, “their wings as taut and perfectly angled as those of any eagle when it dives in for the kill.” Years later, when adult Carlos finishes writing about the angel trees, he finds a huge feather on his deck. It “vanishes within the next hour.”

Carlos/Charles/Chuck experiences many deaths before he learns to live inside his own skin as “plain old Carlos Eire.” His melodic, angry, jubilant meditation on the journey touches the refugee in all of us.

(212) 632-4993, www.simonandschuster.com.