The Boston Globe Magazine
September 11, 1998

Daughter of Cuba

By Alisa Valdes, Globe Staff

When I explain to Cuban exile friends that I go to Cuba in search of an estranged, distant family, they shake their heads and say something like, "Yes, but you are letting him have your money. I would never give him my money.''

He is Fidel Castro, Cuba's communist president for four decades. And though he is the last thing on my mind when I go to Cuba, it is worth noting that for all Cuban-Americans, Fidel Castro is like a member of the family. For most, he is like the guy who married, then battered - or even killed - your favorite sister. For this reason, many exiles have let relationships with family members on the island languish by way of protest. For the most part, Cuban exiles are the whitest, wealthiest, angriest, and most overwhelmingly right wing of all Latinos in this country, having been the ruling class before the revolution.

My father and I are not of those exiles.

I was raised not in Miami, but in Albuquerque, New Mexico, by a Marxist Cuban exile father. A professor and self-proclaimed Cubaphile, my father listened through summer nights on his crackly short-wave radio to broadcasts out of Havana.

To us, Fidel was more like a benevolent surrogate grandfather, the Robin Hood of bedtime stories. I was taught that he was brave, true to his socialist ideals only 90 miles from the US border, surviving the US blockade and endless attempts on his life by the CIA. Our living room was decorated with a framed poster of "El Caballo" himself, playing baseball. Fidel is Fidel if you like him, and Castro if you don't. In our house, he was Fidel.

Dad was one of many orphans ferried out of Cuba in 1959 (the year of the Cuban Revolution) in what was known as the Peter Pan Boatlift. He did not come from money, as did many of the Cubans who fled at that time; he came from peasants and workers - the ones the revolution helped. We do not have a home or a business in Cuba to pledge to reclaim someday. For my father, Marx, Engels, and Castro were men who fought for poor landless boys. They were the family we never had.

I shouldn't say never. For the first nine years of my father's life, she was there: Eugenia Leiba. His mother, my grandmother. Then she died.

At 16, Eugenia began working as a maid in Santa Clara, in the house of a wealthy family by the name of Hernandez. They owned bottling factories and had two sons. Eugenia was beautiful. The two sons, 17 and 18, had a bet to see who could seduce her first. Ricardo Hernandez won. My father was the prize.

The Hernandez clan fired Eugenia when they found out she was pregnant by one of them. It was 1945. To escape the scorn of Santa Clara, she moved to Havana, where she went to work as a domestic servant 16 hours a day to pay for a small room for herself and her son. A single mother in Cuba then was little better than a dog on the street. My father has memories of this woman with the dark, intense eyes, and in his memories, she is almost always crying.

When my father was 5 years old, a loan shark named Elpidio Valdes fell in love with the 22-year-old Eugenia. He married her and said to my father: Your last name is Valdes now. You are my son. If anyone says you are not my son, tell me who they are, and I will kill them.

Elpidio had a lot of money. He sent my dad to an exclusive private school. Dad had nice clothes. Elpidio bought the family one of the first televisions on the block, and people used to crowd around the front window.

But Elpidio was brutal, too, and my father hated him. Elpidio made my father watch as he and his associates beat gay men nearly to death. Dad used to see Elpidio on the street from the window of his school bus, kissing women who were not Eugenia. And when Elpidio bought a shiny new bike for my father, who then left it out in the rain, Elpidio smashed it with a crowbar and said, If you don't care about your things, then neither do I.

My father was 6.

Three years later, when leukemia had shriveled Eugenia until she stopped breathing, Elpidio stood next to my father as they lowered the casket into the ground, squeezed his hand, and said: Do not cry. Real men don't cry. If you cry, I will beat you.

Her name does not appear on her tomb, just the message Elpidio had inscribed there: To mother, from Nelson.

Nelson, my father, did not cry. Not for 25 years.

From the time of his mother's death until he was 15, my father lived in Havana with a sickly woman whom Elpidio paid to take care of him. Dad played baseball with rocks and sticks. He grew up on a street corner, knew how to play knife games. He learned the art of leaning on lampposts, and when he smiled, it was both rare and intoxicating.

When Elpidio asked in 1959 if my father wanted to go to the United States, he said yes, and he came, alone. He lived in foster homes in New Mexico until he was 19. Then he married Maxine Conant, a beautiful 20-year-old hippie whose rancher father ran a trading post in a small town called Bosque. After a year, they had a son, Ricardo. Four years later, they had me. Twelve years later, they divorced. My mother ran away to New Orleans soon after that to escape a tattooed ex-convict boyfriend. I lived with my father until I went away to college.

Twenty years later, when my father visited Cuba in search of his roots, he discovered that Eugenia had asked that her 10 sisters in Santa Clara take care of my father after her death. In particular, she had asked one sister, Tomasita, to be my father's caregiver. Tomasita had tried, but Elpidio had hidden the boy from her, afraid to lose him. My father grew up thinking he had no family who loved him.

I decided to go to Cuba now, at 28, because I wanted to see Tomasita. I went to connect with the Leiba women. I have carried a certain emptiness for my father from before the time I knew how to name things. To be the daughter of an exile among exiles is to be lonely. I wanted to see if the sisters of Eugenia could fill this space.

I also wanted to see what Cuba had to say to me as an adult, 10 years removed from the squat adobe house of my childhood in New Mexico, where instead of Monopoly we played a bleak board game called Class Struggle, featuring a drab Karl Marx on the cover.

And I wanted to see what Cuba had to say about my father. It's hard to pinpoint the lingering resentments I have for him, because they are so mixed in with love and admiration. But I must allow myself to have them, to name this anger. It comes from witnessing my father, before his own transformation, engaging in one Elpidio-esque rage after another: throwing full wineglasses at my mother's head; knocking down my door as I was sleeping, just because I had not done the dishes, dragging me by the hair to the sink, and holding me in place to make me do them at 1 a.m. These things happened.

My North American therapist calls much of what happened in my childhood home "abuse'' and says my father has a "narcissistically self-absorbed personality'' that has rendered me "codependent.'' I went to Cuba to see what these things are called there.

The last time I was in Cuba, eight years ago, I met Tomasita. But I was not able to communicate with her directly then, because I had not learned Spanish either in school or from my father. Two years ago, I taught myself Spanish. I went to Cuba to see what parts of my inherited pain and poetry were from Fidel, and what parts were just from my father. I went to separate culture from dysfunction. But in Cuba, that proved impossible.

There are few cars in Cuba, where a US blockade has prevented trade with the United States for nearly 40 years. For decades, the only cars came from the former Soviet Union, which since its fragmentation has cut off aid to Cuba. And now, under the recent exile-influenced US Helms-Burton law, Cuba is unable to trade with most other nations, despite continued United Nations declarations that the blockade and Helms-Burton are unjust policies. So, there are few cars.

But there are even fewer airplanes.

The old Soviet-made beast I take from Cancun, Mexico, to Havana actually sweats from the ceiling, dripping all over the Europeans, the Mexicans, and me. It lurches through the sky like a giant dragon, groans without shame, and bumps out of the clouds with no dignity whatsoever.

Below, Cuba comes into view. It is a green land, cut into squares. In the fields, fires burn. I spot at least 10 fires at the bases of tall, black plumes. At first, I think these must be the spots where other planes have gone down. Then I remember. These fires are part of the process of sugar cane being grown. These fires are Cuba refusing to give up.

Next to me, a paunchy Mexicano is heading to Havana alone. He tries to comfort me about the flight. He sips from a green can of lime soda. I have a red can of cola. Tropicola, it says in white letters, disconcertingly similar to Coca-Cola. These Cuban soft drinks are new, one of dozens of approximations of North American culture Fidel has begun giving his people in hopes of squelching their discontent and their growing obsession with things American.

The last time I was in Cuba, Cuban soda was called Refresco, a nd it came in smudgy green glass bottles. It was carbonated molasses. I avoided Refresco. I drink this Tropicola, which has a bubble-gum aftertaste. I think, for the first of many times: Cuba has changed.

The Mexican says these flights are always like this. He is from Cancun. Despite US restrictions and threats, millions of tourists go to Cuba every year, but few Americans. Ironically, the Europeans, Canadians, and Latin Americans pay for their trips mostly in US dollars, which have replaced the ruble as Cuba's meaningful currency. Cuban pesos are accepted here with the same enthusiasm as used hankies.

I say to my new friend that it seems odd he would leave paradise for purgatory. He finishes off the soda, wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, and shrugs.

"Everyone needs somewhere to go,'' he says.

I look at the land racing toward the plane and wonder where the Cubans go when they itch. Then I remember. Cubans go nowhere. With few exceptions, they are not allowed to leave.

Once, just once, I asked my father about that when I was growing up. This was after the kids at school wrote "Alisa Valdes is a communist bitch'' on the blackboard.

My father answered, as he often did, with the following statement: Alisa, there are many kinds of freedom in this world. There is the freedom to, which you have in the United States if you have money. As in the freedom to go to the movies, or the freedom to travel, or the freedom to study; it is a freedom that comes only for the wealthy. And not many Americans have that freedom. Then there is the freedom from. In Cuba, they have freedom from hunger, freedom from illiteracy, freedom from being sick without ever getting medical care, freedom from racism. Which freedom would you choose?

I never knew how to answer that. Dad would take me on drives to Indian reservations or ghettos in New Mexico, and we would look around. You call this freedom? he would ask me, motioning to kids with no shoes, or drunk men urinating on themselves in gutters. I did not know what to say. So I agreed with him.

In the house where I grew up, that was always the best policy.

We land. The miracle does not slip past my fellow passengers. We all break into applause.

I expect soldiers in green fatigues to be waiting for us. The last time I came here, there were young men with rifles on their hips, stacked in rows in military trucks. The air was hot with papery insects. I rode to the terminal in the back of a truck.

But idling on the runway this time is a spiffy little tour bus, red, white, and blue. The uniformed, perfumed flight attendants guide us there. The driver greets us. The bus is air-conditioned.

Inside the terminal, the customs agents still wear the pea-soup uniforms they wore last time, but they talk to one another, and they laugh out loud. They take our passports, look at them casually, and wave us through. I am astonished.

Cuba has changed.

I move on to the inspection tables. The last time I was here, the agents opened my lipsticks and squinted into the caps. They twisted every page in my three fashion magazines. I thought they were searching for clandestine messages. Now I realize they were just looking at the pictures.

On the street outside, music blares from a taxicab. It is not the classic Cuban styles of charanga or guaguanco, but rather Toni Braxton. Unbreak my heart, say you'll love me again....

I spot two young men, both wearing shirts with American flags emblazoned across the fronts, and a woman with an American flag for a skirt. Last time I was here, the only American flag I saw was on a bulletin board, where it was crossed out.

Cuba has changed.

I spot my father and his new wife, Caridad, in the waiting mob. She is a Cuban who romanced my father through the Internet until he married her. She is five years older than I and a former fashion model.

Dad is wearing jeans and a T-shirt, humble clothes, as always. Cary is waiting in new espadrilles, silver and turquoise jewelry, and a sarong. She looks as if she should be in Santa Fe, not Havana. She has shaved her head nearly bald, and as we walk to the car, men stare, horrified. To be female and bald in Cuba takes guts.

In Cuba, it is illegal to own a private car unless you get a special license. Cary's cousin has one; he is sitting behind the wheel of his prized Soviet Lada. It is the dusty color of dried blood and makes noises.

There are three classes of car in Cuba: the Ladas; old American cars held together through ingenuity and luck; and new French cars, owned by party members or foreign diplomats or rented by tourists.

The air is thick with smog. My father takes the passenger seat in the front.

In the car next to us, Braxton sings: Undo this hurt that you caused when you walked out the door and walked out of my life. Uncry these teeearrrs....

We drive through Havana, and bicycles swarm everywhere. After the Soviet Union fell, Cuba rationed gasoline and gave out Chinese bikes. Now, entire families balance on raggedy machines, and the men pedal. The women sit sidesaddle on the bars or hunch on pillows jury-rigged over back tires. Children quiver on handlebars.

Few people are fat, as they can be in Boston. No one is hungry and desperate, either, as they are in Juarez, Mexico, or Santo Domingo. People in Cuba look bored and smart. They talk. A lot. On bikes, on corners. They smile. They laugh. And most of all, they do not rush.

"My God,'' I say. "Everyone seems so relaxed here. Why is that?''

Cary laughs bitterly, her long legs crunched up in the back seat. She eyes the street through her sunglasses and answers, "They have nothing to do here and nowhere to go.''

In Cuba, most people still get a government paycheck, whether they work or not.

Tomorrow I go to Santa Clara. Today, I see Havana. We sit on the wide porch, Dad and Irmina and I.

Irmina, who is black, was once a maid in this house for a white family. When the revolution came, the family left everything and moved to Miami. The government gave the house to Irmina, because she was already there. She also "inherited'' a yacht.

Irmina is Cary's mother, my step-grandmother. She is my father's age but seems much older. She is a stick of a woman with knobby hands of ice. It is 85 degrees out, and she wears a cardigan. Last year she took herself to the doctor, convinced there was something wrong, when everyone but she caught a cold.

Behind the slatted-wood doors is an expansive living room with marble floors and gilt mirrors. Forty years removed from its last paint job, the house is still glamorous. It sits above a sloping lawn on posh Fifth Avenue, something like the Rodeo Drive of Havana.

Cary has just left on her bicycle to pick up Renecito, her 8-year-old son from a previous marriage, at school. The reason Cary can't move to New Mexico to be with my father is that Rene's dad, Edgar, will not give the child permission to go. So my father spends half the year in Cuba with Cary and half in the United States, mostly on his own.

Standing on the porch next door is an elderly man in an undershirt, a transistor radio held to the side of his head. He watches the street like a bird of prey. Two well-dressed men stand in the driveway. "He used to be this neighborhood's Committee of the Defense of the Revolution guy,'' Dad says in English, motioning to the old man. The man once spied on everyone on this block and reported all things remotely counterrevolutionary to the police, my father says.

"People were terrified of him,'' Dad continues. "But since all the changes, he has become soft. Those guys standing outside? One of them is an Italian tourist.''

The man who was once the head of the CDR is now running a bed and breakfast out of his house. He rents out the back three bedrooms to tourists. He is making a lot of money. No one is supposed to know about it, but everyone does. Everyone is supposed to care, but no one does.

We hail a taxi at the corner. There are no left turns across Fifth Avenue because Fidel lives near here, in a house surrounded by high fences, thick foliage, and barbed wire. It is too risky. On each corner, an armed policeman in a little hut stands guard. These guys look you in the eye unwaveringly. Dad says the Cuban secret service apparently trains them to detect counterrevolutionaries by the way suspects respond to direct eye contact. This is common knowledge, so rather than be seen as suspicious, in Cuba everyone stares at everyone else.

"You never know who is a spy,'' Dad says. "They get used to staring like this. Don't let it bother you.''

We ride to old Havana in the taxi, through the tunnel connecting Miramar to the Malecon, or boardwalk, along the sea. It is getting dark, and the Malecon is lined with prostitutes.

The last time I was in Cuba, I attended with some academics a meeting of the national women's group here, at which we were proudly told that the revolution had dismantled prostitution. Women, we were told, had full equal rights in Cuba, and, astoundingly, we were told there was no longer rape in the nation.

Here on the Malecon, the youngest girls seem to be around 13. They wear the typical gear: short skirts, high heels, lots of makeup. And the new cars driven by Italians and Canadians stop for them. Family members are not ashamed of what these girls and women do, because it brings in dollars. Only in stores like the one at the Hotel Comodoro can you buy things like chicken and fish and cookies and batteries and tampons. These stores only take dollars.

These prostitutes are called jineteras, or hustlers; a jinetero, the male equivalent, is someone who washes your windshield or tries to fix your shoes. The jineteras are well-educated and healthy. For $100 a day, they will cook for you, fix your socks, talk politics, and have sex with you. In the words of one tourist, they are more like geishas than whores.

My father, who once lovingly framed a poster declaring the rights and advances made by women in revolutionary Cuba and who raised me to be a strict feminist, looks out the window and shakes his head. "It's a shame,'' he says. "It's a shame we had to go though so much pain just to end up in the same damn place.''

Cary does not want us to go to Santa Clara to see "those peasants.''

The peasants she talks about are my family, the sisters of Eugenia Leiba. Cary has never met these people; my father has never taken her to meet them. But Dad wants to honor my desire to connect with my family. So he has rented a royal blue Peugeot for the trip to Santa Clara. There is no other way to get there, except to hitchhike.

Cary, though, is furious. She thinks he should use the car to take her and Renecito to the beach in Varadero. "Those people, they are so ignorant,'' she says, talking about my family. "You know how those people in the east are. All they're going to do is ask you for stuff. They are going to want all your money.''

My Anglo family in the United States is distant. My mother's relatives are poor and live in trailer parks. My second cousin, who is 14, is in jail for murder. His brother is in jail for robbery. For the first three years my parents were married, the white Conants referred to my father only as That Goddamned Cuban Son of a Bitch. They blame my cousins' social delinquency on the "Mexicans they hang out with.'' Some of them still think of me as a foreigner. We were allowed, but never really welcomed, at family functions.

This trip to Santa Clara is a shot at finding a family.

Dad orders two hamburgers and two Coca-Colas at the Marina Hemingway. We sit by the ocean. Yachts from all over the world are anchored here. Big money. The marina is close to the suburb of Santa Fe, a fishing village that lost most of its residents to Florida in the Mariel boatlift.

This is my dad's new favorite place in Cuba. He wants to buy a yacht someday. He encourages me, in my search for a husband, to find a man with money. This is the first time in my life he has ever said anything like that. "Forget her,'' he says of Cary, shaking his head. "It is the most normal thing in the world to see your family.''

We pick up Eleuteria, a sister of Eugenia's who lives in Havana. We are taking her to Santa Clara, where she will see her sisters for the first time in many months. Eleuteria cries when she sees me, because I look like Eugenia. I am the age she was when she died. Eleuteria hugs me and searches my face. In New Mexico, growing up, no one knew where my nose came from, or my eyes. I did not look like my parents. "My God,'' she says. "It's as if she came back from the dead.''

She has showered and packed gifts for everyone. She smells like lilacs. She shuffles and holds my arm when I complain about my father, and she encourages me to forgive him. "He's had a hard life,'' she says. "He has always been like this. Forgive him for your grandmother.''

We begin to drive. The farther we get out of Havana, the nicer my father becomes. We play an Isaac Delgado tape I have, and Eleuteria talks about her health problems. Dad asks her questions, and the countryside unrolls, green and hilly and beautiful. Eleuteria talks about how much Eugenia loved my father, how my grandmother remembered everyone's birthdays and always sent money home to her sisters and mother, no matter how hard it was for her. Eleuteria talks about how difficult life was for women back then. She talks about tragedy and loss, and her eyes fill with tears. She scrunches my father's arm and says, "But that's all over now. You're back.''

My father's eyes in the rearview mirror have tears in them, too.

Three hours after leaving Havana, we arrive in Santa Clara. Ours is the only new car on the dirt streets of this poor town. The houses sag. Everyone stares. Open sewers run next to the roads. Stray dogs limp through the streets. The squawk of chickens breaks the air.

Eleuteria strains to remember how to get to her sister's house, but she is confused. Children who look hungrier than the ones in Havana cross the street with their mother. Eleuteria's eyesight is going, and she can't make out the places she knew as a girl. I remember the statue of Che Guevara on the hill in the park, and I remember that Tomasita's house is just down the hill from there.

I remember this house, the narrowness of it, the unpainted walls and the bald light bulbs on their wires. We knock, and Odalys answers the door. She is my age, my cousin; Tomasita is her grandmother. She also has my eyes and the confident grin of someone well loved. She is skinny, and with the dye in her hair, she looks like Debbie Harry. In another, gentler world, this could have been me.

I remember this quiet cousin, Richard, who stares. I remember this cousin, Yanaisy, who was a girl and is now married. I remember Odalys back then, how she looked at my short fingernails and shook her head, then took me upstairs to at least paint them pink. I have not seen her in eight years, since the time she took me all over town, introducing me to everyone, and tried to talk to me in broken English. She was studying to be a doctor then.

Now, Odalys says, she works in advertising for a Cuban cosmetics company. She has been married and divorced. Her boyfriend is at the house; she calls him El Chino, because of his upturned eyes. She might marry him, but for now she prefers her independence.

They are mostly women, these relatives. The few men go off to one side and talk quietly. The women chat loudly and laugh with gusto; they hug and push and knead and comment. 'But you are so fat!'' they say, over and over. "Fat, fat, fat, fat, fat.''

My dad, listening from the men's corner, calls out to me in English: "Remember, that's not a bad thing here. To be fat is good.''

Then he explains to them that in the United States, it's an insult to call a woman fat. Yanaisy, who could be a fashion model in New York City, says, with a pat to her narrow hips, "Wanna trade?''

A group of us walks to Tomasita's house, a block away. I stand in the living room, waiting for her, and I see that she has a picture of me on the wall. She comes from the back, and she begins to weep. She is an old woman, in her 70s, with her hair dyed black. She is short, and her skin is dark and webbed with wrinkles. Though dull with cataracts, her eyes are shrewdly intelligent. She looks at me and mouths the name of her sister.

"Eugenia!'' she cries. She holds on to me and does not let go for five minutes. Aunts of all sizes show up and begin to cry, because I look just like my grandmother. Several months ago, my father got a call from Tomasita on his answering machine in New Mexico. Cary, who was visiting, heard it and told him not to call back. My father feels bad about this now. Cary thought Tomasita would just ask for money.

I ask Tomasita if she's OK. Her bed is tiny and lopsided. Her clothes rest on a chair. She explains that she gets 78 pesos a month from the government, or about $5, and not enough medicine. She is diabetic and asthmatic. She sells her ration of milk to get other things on the black market. I take $200 from my wallet, fold it up, and slip it into her hand.

Again, she whispers her sister's name. I tell her that for as long as I can remember, I sometimes have felt this ghost of my grandmother. Tomasita tells me my grandmother was Catholic, and she tells me not to be afraid. It's a good thing, she says. She wants to help you.

We walk back to Odalys's house, where a hard, skinny chicken has just been slaughtered for me and my father. This leaves the family with zero chickens. The women have dispersed through the town and come back with prized rarities: lettuce, tomatoes, and potatoes. They create a feast.

Tomasita looks at me across the table. We hold hands.

"I wish he wasn't like this,'' she says of my father. "But with the father he had, what can you expect?''

Tomasita hated my grandfather for not marrying Eugenia, for abandoning her. "Men are like that,'' she says.

As we eat, they ask about my love life. They say that when I marry, it must be here, in Santa Clara. They say they will make me a dress. They say they will use the cathedral here, and everyone will come. Odalys suggests I dye my dark hair blond, and I laugh. After dinner, we go back to her room to look at pictures from her wedding.

"I wish you could have been there,'' she says. "I want you to feel like my sister.''

My father is an angry man. Because the Cubans in Miami are also angry, I assumed that to be Cuban was to be angry.

The women in the Leiba clan of Santa Clara teach me that this is not the case.

My cousin Odalys puts a hand on top of mine and tells me that she loves me.

"I want you to feel like part of this family,'' says Odalys. "I want you to never think you are alone.''

There are rich tangles some of us are twisted into as children. As adults, our jokes are too pointed or we cry too much. Some of us stick there, dangle, never know that the knots were made for us by some outside force, never know that we are crippled.

Others of us wrestle with the binding threads until we can stand apart. Then we spread them out on the floor and try to figure out where the hell they go. That's why I keep going to Cuba. Because when I finally look at them, all my threads lead there.