Cuban boy bridges cultural gaps as refugee in Miami
“Learning to Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy” by Carlos Eire. Free Press
(New York, 2010). 307 pp. $26.
Reviewed by Agostino Bono
Catholic News Service
A gem of a book, “Learning to Die in Miami” is a sublimely written true story of an 11-year-old boy uprooted from his Cuban home in 1962 and flown to Miami without his parents. With the literary craftsmanship of a novelist, Carlos Eire recounts his pilgrimage in search of a new life in a country he has never seen, in a language he does not speak and in a culture he only knows through films and television programs.
Carlos “dies” numerous times in an effort to become Charles, the English equivalent of his Spanish name. Yet something of Carlos always remains. He favors the vivacious bare-bellied, hip-swinging women in Cuba’s carnival parades over the banal baton twirlers in Miami’s Orange Bowl parade. He has trouble understanding how a chicken with all its feathers, legs and beak could be transformed into colorless, tasteless slices of cold cuts. Others also remind him that his past is present in him. Even after he develops a substantial English vocabulary and grammatical knowledge, his classmates laugh at his accent. The book is available in Spanish from the same publisher, titled: “Miami y Mis Mil Muertes: Confesiones de un cubanito desterrado.” In the Spanish title, Eire replaces “refugee” with “desterrado,” a term fraught with emotional and psychological meaning. He defines it as a “landless” person or “someone robbed of his land.”
The author, now a professor of history and religious studies at Yale University, wrote the book in English and collaborated in the translation to “Cubanize” the Spanish.
What Eire describes is a pilgrim’s progress to adult self-identity as the culture he left behind and the one of his adopted land struggle to weave a new cloth.
Eire came to the United States legally as a refugee with his brother, Tony. They were among the more than 14,000 children sent by their parents, who accurately judged that Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution was leading to a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship. The children were resettled in the United States under Operation Pedro Pan organized by U.S. Catholic officials.
In the United States, Eire quickly experiences the good and the bad. His first foster parents are a caring Jewish couple who arrange on his first Sunday to have a neighborhood Catholic family take him to Mass. His second household is formed by a Cuban couple, professional foster parents, who physically abuse their charges and treat them more as servants than family.
Eire eventually moves to Bloomington, Ill., to live with an uncle before his mother is finally able to leave Cuba in 1965 and establish a humble home for Carlos and Tony in Chicago.
The story is told through the eyes of an adolescent but enhanced by the reflections of a mature self-made man who has written academic books on faith and religious history. Throughout lies a sublime spiritual message of how a soul evolves amid a person’s emotional, psychological, cultural and physical development. Eire mixes discussions of life, death and rebirth with faith themes of sin, guilt, resurrection and redemption.
Eire best summarizes his book when he says that “all genuine pilgrimages ultimately lead to the core of the soul through a linking of heaven and earth; past, present and future; self and other; dreaming and waking; and the here-and-now with the then-and-there.”
This autobiography is an emphatic reminder that every person torn from his or her native land is a unique human being who has to sacrifice a lot of himself or herself to find roots in another country.
Bono, a retired CNS staff writer, covered Hispanic and Latin American issues.