Chapter 1 January 1959
The people knew it was coming. Everyone in the tiny rooms of el solar was waiting, but when La Revolución came, it was a surprise.
Mamá was drawing a sharp line down the middle of my scalp with the tip of the comb when voices swept in the open front door. I held tight to the red hair ribbon in my hand and we went searching for that new sound that grew louder and closer.
El solar was made from a big casona built by rich people long ago and then divided into little rooms so that the people could all live together.
Pink or blue or green or yellow, the doors of el solar all faced each other and were always open and people came in and out all day and talked and drank and ate together.
Luisa, who I called “tía” even though she was not my aunt, lived next to us with Rolo, who was not my cousin. She stepped out of her yellow door, tightening the belt around her housedress. “¿Qué es eso?”
Adela La Gorda who lived at the green door, came running down the courtyard, yelling. “Los barbudos arrived!”
Mamá waved everyone in. “Voli, turn on la televisión!”
I turned the botón on the TV.
“Make it louder!”
But the sound was already as loud as it could go. We had the only TV in el solar because Mamá won it playing the numbers game with the man from la bodeguita. Neighbors pressed into our doorway to see the bearded man. Others leaned in our window, wiping their foreheads with big white pañuelos. Our little room filled up quick with the smell of the sweating crowd.
Everyone got quiet so we could hear the words from the man in the box.
“...I want to say to the people and to the mothers of Cuba, that I will resolve all problems without spilling one drop of blood. To mothers, I say that never on our account will they have to cry again....”
The man inside the little black-and-white box shouted and held his fist up. Everybody in the room cheered and everyone inside the TV also cheered. When the talking in the room got loud again, the bearded man’s mouth still moved, but his words were gone.
Tía Luisa whispered in Mamá’s ear. “Maybe your daughter can come back from Nueva Yorr now?”
Mamá shrugged and hugged me tight to her side.
Someone said “¡Vamos!” and everyone ran out to see the barbudos with their own eyes. Mamá lifted me up under my arms and I held on tight while we went out to the streets. Crowds were laughing and hugging, pressing together on the sidewalks, running to keep up with the soldiers riding their jeeps. There were people on top of the buildings looking down. A soldier wearing a metal hat and a rifle hanging from his shoulder stood on a balcony.
The sea air left salt on my tongue as we followed them along El Malecón. The people were all smiling and the sun made their faces full of light.
Behind me, the ocean blew its breath on us and lifted the hair behind my neck, tickling me until I laughed.
We followed the people moving along the curved walls covered in black holes that I later learned had been made by bullets and we climbed up the many steps of la universidad where people sat high up to watch the barbudos moving slowly along the street and listened to the sounds made by the crowds.
Mamá lifted me so I could look into the beautiful face of the big statue of the black woman with the long dress and her arms wide open.
“Now, mi niña, la universidad will open again and you can go there when you grow up. And Alma Mater la negra will watch over you.”
The black lady sat very high in a chair that was bigger than anything all around. We sat at her feet as her eyes faced the sky and I reached up, trying to touch her.
A man climbed all the way up and put the red, white, and blue flag over the black Alma Mater. A lady in a skirt stood next to him holding a rifle.
Adela shouted with her fist in the air. “¡Viva Cuba!”
The crowd answered her and I raised my hand and sang with them. “¡Viva Cuba!”
The words were loud and flying all around the air high above us like a wind that knew how to speak words like people did. Once in a while the people shouted suddenly at the same time and their breath rushed out all together and rose and swept over all of us and onto the sky like an ocean breeze made by people. And they were saying that everything was going to change, “todo va a cambiar ahora.” Now!
We left the speeches behind. On the way home, Adela La Gorda, Tía Luisa and Rolo, and Yolanda, who was his real cousin, all of us stopped at la bodeguita to drink batidos. There were so many people, they were spilling out of the front door. Through the open windows, we could see arms and elbows and shoulders and legs all squished together and moving like one giant sweating animal trapped inside.
We squeezed in among them and men stood to give up their seats and Mamá sat down and put me on her lap.
Music was playing but the really loud noise was made by all the people talking and laughing and arguing and pointing fingers in each other’s faces and slapping each other on the back.
El Gallo walked in. The room got even more excited. Everybody said saludos. He was very thin and always wore a guayabera that had long pleats in front of his shirt with threads running through it like lace. His guayabera smelled soft and cool when he picked me up to hug me and leaned down so I could touch the feather in his hat.
El Gallo put his arm around Mamá and said “¿Cómo está mi vieja?” and pulled her arm so she could dance with him, saying this was his favorite song. Mamá giggled and made believe she was pulling her arm back really hard and she said that she didn’t know how to dance but liked to watch.
And then they both laughed.
El Gallo danced around the tables, his right hand on his stomach and his left arm high and his black shoes moved very quickly forward and back and side to side like two little black birds chasing each other in circles around the floor of la bodeguita. The music got louder and El Gallo pushed his hat back from his shiny brown forehead and closed his eyes and danced and danced with his skinny hips moving in circles and his legs waving like the strings tied to the electric fan in the corner. A tiny feather was stuck to the side of his hat right under a ribbon that went all the way around the hat and it was always the same color as his pants. Today the ribbon was green because his pants were green too.
Everyone in la bodeguita stopped to watch El Gallo dance. People smiled and nodded and tapped their feet or shook their shoulders back and forth and called out “¡Epa!”
I got excited and called out “¡Epa!” too and everyone turned from looking at El Gallo and looked at me and laughter exploded really loud in the room and I pushed my hot face into Mamá’s chest so she could pass her hand on my head. I did not say it again.
El Gallo picked me up under my arms and spun me around the room. His hand held me tight as I leaned far backward and laughed, watching the ceiling go around and around as we twirled. Then he sat down and pulled me into his lap and I dried my face on the pleats of his guayabera.
El Gallo’s lips were the color of red grapes and they turned down as he looked into Mamá’s face. “Tell Rosario this should have been my daughter.”
Mamá looked at him from the side of her eye, laughing. “Don’t be a fool. She was already carrying her husband’s child when you started pursuing her.”
El Gallo shrugged. “I would have loved them both, mother and baby. She should have stayed and left that pale-faced husband of hers back in New York. One thing I can promise you: If this were my little girl, I would never be separated from her.”
Mamá showed El Gallo her teeth. “Things are going very well for her over there with her husband.”
The waitress put three glasses on the table. Mine was wet and cold on the outside and I held it with both hands and drank.
“But things are finally getting good for us here. Batista is gone. Tell her she should come back. This is a new country. She needs a new man.” He reached over and wrapped a curl from my head gently around his finger. “Maybe she’ll come back for this little one.”
“I don’t think so. And I don’t want to leave, especially now.”
The waitress led a man to our table. “Here she is. He was looking for you at el solar and they sent him here."
The man said “telegrama” and gave Mamá a little envelope. She took it and gave him some coins from the pocket of her dress. Mamá read it fast and rubbed her face with her handkerchief.
El Gallo asked her, “Bad news?”
She didn't answer him, but folded the paper and put it inside her blouse, next to her breast. Then she stood up and pulled my hand. “Let’s go home.”
It was cool and quiet indoors. Mamá said it was time for my siesta. From my little bed I could see her and Adela La Gorda sitting in the other room drinking cafecito. Mamá was fingering the thin, wrinkled paper of the telegrama.
I listened to the music of their soft voices. The corner of my pillowcase was magic. When I was in my bed, I stroked it softly against my cheek. Little by little the picture I saw when my eyes were open went away while I listened to the soft voices in the next room as they got farther and farther away.
When I woke up, I stayed in my bed listening to Mamá talking to Adela. Their voices went up and down. I put my feet on the cool floor and walked toward the soft whispering sounds. The sunshine came in and made window patterns on the black-and-white mármol tiles as I walked toward them.
The voices got louder as I walked to the back of the house and the patio. I heard the spoons making tingling sounds against the tiny coffee cups.
Mamá was outside in the kitchen cooking and when she saw me, she smiled and Adela La Gorda smiled and I smiled and I knew that this was how we said hello.
Mamá was preparing la merienda. I sat right outside the back door and dangled my legs over the step and watched Mamá cooking outside in the kitchen.
She cut a yellow mango in three long slices. The middle one was hard because it had a big hairy seed inside. She made long cuts on the soft inside of one slice and then made short cuts across. Then she pulled the peel inside out until a little city of mango squares appeared. I ate each stringy square one at a time, pulling each sweet drippy block slowly away from the peel with my front teeth.
Mamá's legs walked back and forth, back and forth, stirring the pots over and over, lifting the ¡qué rico! smells in thick clouds.
The patio was thick with matas de coco, banana trees, avocado trees and green plants that kept growing in the cracks in the floor even though we pulled them out. The giant banana leaves wrapped me in a green tent. When it rained the branches of the banana tree came alive, bobbing their giant leaves under the tapping of the heavy drops.
I sat and watched Mamá and Adela La Gorda talking.
“Did you hear the Three Wise Men showed up in Santiago this year wearing long black beards?”
Mamá doubled over laughing. “In fatigues?”
“Rifles slung over their shoulders?”
“On tanks instead of camels?”
Mamá and Adela were laughing so hard, they had to hold their bellies and I laughed with them too.
Mamá put the lid on the pot and took big steps and picked me up under my arms and held me close to her and kissed my sticky cheeks. Her lips felt soft. “You taste like a mango.”
She laughed and rubbed a cool wet towel on my face and hands before carrying me back indoors.
On the way to the big room with the checkered floors, Mamá stopped in front of the picture on the wall. There were two people, a man and a woman. I saw them every day on the wall but I didn't know them. She pointed to the people in the picture, first to one, then to the other, and said “tu mami y tu papi.”
I looked at them and back at Mamá's face. “Your mami and papi!”
Mamá shook her head. “No. Yours. They are your mami and papi, not mine.”
I wrapped my arms around her neck. “Mi mamá...”
She pulled my arm gently. "Look at them. Say ‘mi mami y mi papi’.”
I rubbed my nose in her neck. “…No, no, no, no. Mi mamá, mi mamá, mi mamá.”
Adela La Gorda was watching us. She moved closer and kissed my cheek. “She doesn’t understand.”
Mamá put me down and turned away. “No me queda más remedio. I have no choice. I have to bring her to her mother and she has to get used to the idea.”
“What does your daughter actually say in the telegram from Nueva Yorr?”
“Only four words: ‘Bring me my daughter’.”
Chapter 2 Paredón, Paredón
Tía Luisa was standing at the door, out of breath. Rolo’s fingers were red where she had held on to him too hard.
Mamá walked fast to the door. “What’s happened?”
Tía Luisa stepped inside. “Your marido sent a message. He can’t get away, but can you meet him outside El Capitolio in an hour? It’s about your daughter in Nueva Yorr.”
Outside, the sun was shining. Mamá and I are going to pasear in Tío Lario’s car!
Tío Lario had a car that anyone could ride in. He drove around and people stopped him if they wanted to go somewhere and he asked them where they wanted to go. Then he raised his hand in the air and moved his two fingers to say “get in” and he took them to the movies, or to the beach, or to buy ice cream, or to visit someone at a house. Then they got out and gave him money for the gasolina that he had to buy to put in the car to make it run so he could take people where they wanted to go.
Mamá and I rode in Tío Lario’s car, but we did not have to pay because we were familia.
There were many, many people on the streets. Tío Lario stopped the car near the big white Capitolio building and said he would wait for us.
Mamá and I walked up to the round building and I waved at Abuelo. He kissed Mamá and passed his hand over my head.
“You daughter sent me a telegram.”
“When she’s being difficult, she’s my daughter, otherwise she’s yours?”
“Did something happen? ¿Qué pasó?”
“No, no. She wants my help to arrange exit visas for you and la niña. The American newspapers are full of the bloodbath going on here. More Cubans are arriving there daily with horror stories. Here, read this.”
Abuelo took me in his arms and passed Mamá a piece of paper.
“...Get them out now. Before it becomes impossible….”
Mamá leaned her head on Abuelo’s shoulder. “Are we safe here? Do you think things will get worse?”
Abuelo put one arm around her and carried me with the other. His moustache moved when he talked. “Even if they do, I’m not leaving.” He sighed and looked far away. “You know I’m needed here. We are forming a new government.” He looked into Mamá’s face. “What do you want to do?”
Mamá stood up straight. “I really want to stay too. I know legally she belongs with her mother, but I want to keep her here, with us. We are her grandparents.”
“And she willingly left her in our care as an infant. As far as the law, everything is too chaotic right now for the authorities to bother with this. Do you really think she’d made a legal claim? Even after all these years, I still don’t know how she feels, not really.”
Mamá smiled with the corners of her mouth pointed down. “She still blames me—for everything.”
Abuelo looked in my face. “That job I got her with my client is secure. The whole family is safe.”
Mamá looked down and brushed the tip of her shoe back and forth. “What about your wife and children? Are they safe?”
He cleared his throat. “They’re all in France, for good this time.”
I touched his cheek. The sun made the gold in his eyes shine. He kissed the palm of my hand and put me down. “I have to go back inside.”
Mamá took my hand and smiled with one side of her mouth. “I know. I know. You’ve got a country to build.”
Abuelo threw his head back and laughed. Then he looked at us and shrugged his shoulders. “I’ll tell my driver to take you home.”
“No, no need. Lario is waiting for us.”
Abuelo turned around and went into the shadows. He stopped and looked at us, then the door closed behind him and he was gone.
With his long arm. Tío Lario opened the car door for us without leaving his seat and we got in. Mamá held me tight in her lap. “All these people.”
“I have to drive slowly.”
A strange man started walking next to our car holding on to the car window. Behind him there were people yelling “¡Paredón! ¡Paredón!”
Tío Lario took the man’s hand away from the window. “¡Oye! I’ve got a niñita in the car! Let go! ¡Suelta! ¡Suelta!”
The man put his face in the car. Mamá squeezed me hard into her lap with her arms. My chest moved in and out. The man looked at me, then let go of the car and made waving motions with his hand. “Go. Go.”
Tío Lario made the car move faster. “Let’s get out of here!”
Mamá looked out the back window as Tío Lario shook his head. “Some of these are the people who want me to take them to see the firing squads at night.” Drops of sweat rolled down Tío Lario’s face. “I don’t have the stomach for it.”
The people in the mirror on the side of the car were getting smaller, but their shouts still came inside the car. They were yelling with their fists in the air. “¡Paredón! ¡Paredón!”
Mamá was breathing hard against my back, but then the car moved faster and her arms relaxed as she held me loose around my waist.
When Mamá put me in my crib, the sounds of el solar came in through the window. I looked up. A tiny bird was watching me. “Pío.” The bird said. “Pío.”
I got up from my bed and brought my dolls into my crib.
“Pío, pío.” The bird sang.
I told my dolls and the bird a story.
“All together they were screaming, ‘¡Paredón, paredón!’ But some of them were lined up on one side. The mean ones with the long guns. The other ones stood against the big wall for paredón. And the other ones pointed their long guns and shouted. ‘¡Fuego!’ Boom! Boom! The big guns made fire.”
I stopped the story and looked at my dollies and the birdie. They were trembling.
“And then Mamá came running and grabbed my hand and said, ‘Run, quick! Let’s go inside.’ But I looked back and I saw the people fall down in the big hole.”
I picked up my nurse and my doctor dolls.
“When I feel sick, Mamá calls la curandera. And she asks me. ‘Where does it hurt?’ But sometimes I can’t touch where it hurts.”
My nurse doll walked across my crib and found the people with the hole from paredón.
“‘¡Ay! ¡Ay! ¡Doctor! Come quick! This doll has a big yaya in her eye. Please help!’ El doctor came running with his black bag. He poured alcohol on the cotton. ‘Señorita, this doll needs an inyección right away.’
“And Mamá brought the big box of curitas. She put one on my leg when I fell from my bicycle and cut my knee. The curita came off when I was sleeping. First, I just wake up. Then I get out of bed. Then I see the curita on my bed. On the inside was the old blood. That means no more blood was coming out of my knee anymore.
“Then the people in the hole got up and they all went to the hospital to see the doctor.
“The people in the streets were still screaming, ‘¡Paredón, paredón!’ outside the hospital.
“That’s why Mamá took me back home. She grabbed my hand and brought me back home in Tío Lario’s car. We came fast. We came home. I don’t know what happened to the paredón people after I came home. First they were on the TV. But I don’t know what happened to them. They went away.”
I finished my story and the “pío, pío” bird was gone from the window.
Mamá was standing by the door watching me. She came to the bed and gave me a kiss. “Go to sleep now.”