“This has been a difficult year for the Sad Ones,” Pedro Haber said, but before he could continue, there was a metallic purr, which grew quickly into a feedback loop. The sound squawked over the ballroom, a room full of wrinkled men in brown suits and ageless women in immovable bouffants. Pedro tried to continue. He said, “Four who regularly attend these reunions have fallen, God has them in all his glor—”But he was cut off now, fatally. The screech made even a busboy put down his bread rolls and cover his ears. A devilish skeeeeeeeTWAAAAAAAAAweeeeeeSKEEEEE
refracted off the rented glassware and the golf club plates, a piercing white noise like a fax machine in your head. Old, trembling hands rose reaching for hearing aids.Pedro, class of ’59, stood calmly and stared at the microphone. One more betrayal in a lifetime of disappointments.SKWEEEEEEEEEE-BWAAAAAAAAAA-SOOOOOOOOOO.Pedro ran the reunions because he was the most stalwart, reliable, and capable of the men from the old days. But this was exactly why he disliked being called on to manage things, yet again. He was a friend to everyone. He did nothing to deserve this. Stress was bad for a man his age. But duty was duty: at sixty-two years of age, he was one of the younger men in the room.Unplug. Fiddle with knobs. Move cables. Start over. Forget to replug. Replug. Readjust knobs. Tap tap. “Can everyone hear me?” He was back in business. But nobody, all night, could handle the microphone. Not even the singer.Pedro Haber didn’t actually start by saying that it was “a difficult year for the Sad Ones.” He had said that it was a difficult year for the Dolorinos
. The word is rooted in dolor
, meaning “pain, ache; sadness, grief.” When Pedro said Los Dolorinos
it sounded like all of those things, a world of aching and grieving, the ones who suffer. But it had another meaning, for these were the men who, as boys, came from a happy place. Dolores was their old school, the Catholic academy, run by Jesuits. The Colegio de Dolores where they had all met had been a boarding school in eastern Cuba, once upon a time. The sadness had come later.Everyone in the room, from the busboys on up, spoke the twin languages of this nation-within-a-nation. But not everyone is equally ambidextrous, and thought and speech leapt between Cuba and the United States. At the far right of the room, near the entrance, was a special table reserved for VIPs and the guests of honor. Pedro Haber and I were sitting there, and the accents and vocabulary at this table were a mixture of proper upper-crust Castilian Spanish and plain American English. Two spots over to my right was Pedro Roig, a Dolores alumnus and Bay of Pigs veteran, who was now head of TV Martí in Washington. Immediately on my left was Lundy Aguilar, retired from his professorship at Georgetown University. And directly across the table was the Reverend Father Juan Manuel Dorta-Duque, one of the last surviving teachers from the old school in Cuba. He was a Jesuit, or more properly, a member of the Society of Jesus, perhaps the most influential of all Catholic orders. Dorta-Duque was eighty-four years old now, but that wasn’t old enough to have known Fidel Castro. Dorta-Duque told me that he didn’t arrive at Dolores until 1951. But he had known all the Jesuits who had taught Fidel, as well as some of the younger boys from those days, or the younger brothers of the boys who had studied with Fidel. Dorta-Duque lived in a Jesuit home now, retired from all work but that of joining his fellow Jesuits in their duties of worship and contemplation.“Yes, I remember them,” Dorta-Duque said, leaning forward. He meant that he remembered the students and teachers from long before the Revolution, when the future of the country was in the hallways of Dolores. “But they are all dead,” he added.One of them was sitting at the same table, actually. A survivor, just a few feet away. But Lundy Aguilar didn’t hear the remark, and Dorta-Duque’s mistake did no harm.Two languages, two minds, a Cuban inside every American. Even here, at their own high school reunion, among their very own, they were unmoored, their homes, lives, even their manner of speech, somehow without footing.Cuban exiles are on a journey that cannot be finished in one lifetime, a two-hundred-mile transmigration of the soul that is at once irreversible, and incompletable. The survivor suffers from temporal confusion, at once in eastern Cuba in 1941 and in Miami Springs in 2005. Equally at home in that lost Atlantis, the mythical Cuba from “before,” and in the Dade County real estate market. What a difference between the old Santiago de Cuba, in the long-ago republic, in a time of youth, privilege, and revolution, and this age of old faces at a golf club near Miami International? Weren’t these the same people? Like a snail, the exile carried his world along with him.The phrase Los Dolorinos
harked back to a starting point, before any expulsion from any garden. The Colegio de Dolores was the capital school of Cuba’s second city, the best education available in eastern Cuba. The richest gathering of the richest part of Cuba, a school of the chosen few. All Pedro Haber had meant, what he truly said, was that they, the Dolorinos
, had lost yet more friends. Four had fallen from the ranks this year. For this room of Cuban exiles, locked in an actuarial competition with Fidel Castro himself, attrition was a difficult subject.The reunion was held in late September, the middle of a very bad hurricane season. There had been eleven inches of rain in a month. The water table was up to the grass. It had rained again this morning, hard. Low clouds, lit up by the ground beacons of Miami International, by the strip malls along Le Jeune, and by the floodlights of an industrial park across the road, scudded over the golf course. Turbulent and wet, the clouds passed without releasing drops, for now. Black patches of night sky winked in and out.The old Dolorinos
and their wives had started arriving en masse at 7:00 P.M., most of them not just on time for the cocktail hour, but early. Over the next hour heavy American cars kept rolling into the lot, and then the same progression of aged legs crossed the street. The grass lawn of the country club would hiss as someone explored the possibility of taking a shortcut. A dress shoe came back out of the grass with a sucking sound, and a high heel stabbed an indentation in the lawn that began to fill with runnels of silt. The click of heels on brick soon followed. These men and women, averaging somewhere in their early sixties, cut no corners. Moving slowly, often supporting each other, they made right-angle turns on the brick walkways, which were uneven and slicked with algae. The men, in a mixture of brown and black suits, or sometimes the long-sleeved guayaberas, were jovial, even the one who arrived using a walker. The women had formality and reserve. (It wasn’t their reunion; Dolores was a boys school.) Or maybe the women had, in their upright carriage, just the composure required by cream gowns and structured black cocktail dresses, by shoulder wraps of the very gauziest pastels. Their hair was stiff. Usually short, a tropical reality, but fixed in uplifted constructions. Their lips and eyelashes were lacquered with precision. Even on the men, every hair was in place—brushed back, Brylcreemed, ordered and clipped. You had to draw the line somewhere and this was it: neatness of tonsure was a way of fighting back, of defending civilization against its enemies.The banquet hall of the Miami Springs Country Club is called the Legends Room, but it isn’t very big. There were 105 people in there by 8:00 P.M., and most of them were talking, a raucous atmosphere of jokes, bragging, disbelief, laughter, shouts, argument, and monologue, all of it bouncing off long tables of rented glass and dull knives. The crowd was prone to thick glasses and hearing aids, but functional, still able to dance and to argue. The men touched one another constantly, putting a hand on another’s arm, pressing a shoulder in their grip, even clutching one another’s lapels in a kind of menacing embrace. They wore pins in those lapels, showing off their allegience to political movements, their qualifications as survivors of various disasters, their enlistment in Masonic Lodges, the Elks, Lions, Odd Fellows, and Rotary, or ethnic allegiances, sporting clubs, religious leagues, cultural groups, charitable drives, and other bulwarks against the loss of everything. Ariel Dorfman, a Chilean, said that an exile had only two possessions, the language of his birthplace and the keys to a house that no longer exists. Cubans are joiners, filling their empty pockets with new things.On the way into the Legends Room, the door charge was $5, collected as a donation to the welfare fund for impoverished alumni of the school. For that money, you received a printed program for the reunion event. It listed the speakers, and featured page after page of pictures, old shots of the Colegio de Dolores in Santiago. There were many of the students of past days, and shots of the signature buildings of Santiago and the surrounding region.In America, someone is always standing by to sell you your history, so more of the same photography was available for sale at the back of the room. Two women in icy competition were selling similar arrays of souvenirs and memorabilia related to Cuba. Photographs and paintings. Antebellum cigar box labels. Stamps of the old Republic of Cuba. Tickets from the Spanish lottery. Coins. Most of it was fake.They both had maps for sale. One, a reproduction of early Spanish cartography, showed Cuba in outline only, with the interior a blank unknown, a paradise of the imagination. Even in such an old map, you could see what Cubans always claimed to see, the island shaped like a sleeping alligator, snout to the west and the long thin body stretching out to the east, with the tail tucked back under the body to make the stubby shape of Oriente province. It mapped out well enough. Medallions around the borders of the old map showed the four winds, and the native peoples in their imagined costumes. There were modern maps for sale, but not too modern. The most recent maps were still fanciful in their way, also decorated around the edges with symbols of never-was Cuba. Thatched bungalows. The old capitol building in Havana, now abandoned because it looks exactly like the U.S. Capitol. An American navy ship steaming past eastern Cuba. Up north some seventeenth-century natives paddled canoes. Hokey peasants on carts with huge wheels rolled up the middle of the island, passing schematic palm trees.In the south, somewhere near Grand Cayman, was a legend that said: THIS MAP HAS BEEN CREATED TO PRESERVE THE MEMORY, KNOWLEDGE, AND PATRIOTISM OF THE YOUNG CUBAN IN EXILE. And next to that was a list of “facts” about Cuba, including the statement that “Three fourths of all Cubans are white, of Spanish descent,” which wasn’t true in whatever past was being mapped here, and certainly isn’t true today.These were charts to a Cuba that didn’t, hadn’t, couldn’t, and wouldn’t exist. They were accurate in their way, though, as charts of the peculiar mental geography of Cuba in exile. Whether printed in great detail, framed and placed on a wall in a home, or distributed on disposable place mats in Cuban diners, these maps for exiles show a Cuba of six provinces, the original Spanish imperial demarcations dating back to the days of the Conquest. From west to east these six were Pinar del Río, Havana, Matanzas, Las Villas, Camagüey, and Oriente. Almost everyone here at the reunion tonight identified themselves as being oriental
, an easterner, from around the region that surrounded Santiago de Cuba. There were a few Havana people here, because there were always Havana people. But no matter who you were, wherever you came from, when they asked you your place of origin you answered with one of those old names, the provinces.That was Cuba, but that isn’t Cuba. Oriente doesn’t exist anymore. Fidel Castro had literally redrawn the map, turning the traditional six into a new fourteen. The old provinces and identifications were blown up and replaced with rational borders and, sometimes, names commemorating Castro’s own life. Part of old Oriente was broken off and renamed Granma
province, because Castro had run his boat Granma aground there. How could an exile say he was from such a place? The old Isle of Pines, where a young Castro had served jail time, had been split off to make a province called the Isle of Youth, contractually dedicated to education. Who could acknowledge such things?They didn’t sell accurate road maps, either. Never mind if Castro had built a new highway down the middle of Cuba, or that a better map would reveal all the satellite housing cities and rural polytechnic universities that had sprung up across Cuba. Nobody was going to that Cuba. The less accurate the map the better.I browsed through some copies of old photographs of Santiago, with men in straw hats, and views of the bay, or the old Bacardi rum factory. Next down the table was a Havana telephone guide from 1959. This old phone book, full of period illustrations and corporate optimism, is the single best selling item at the Cuba Nostalgia Fair, a memorabilia mart that draws thirty thousand people to a convention center in Miami once a year.The same brisk commerce was available the rest of the time from dozens of shops around the city: an endless supply of Cuban flag paintings, regional histories, and posters of Elián, the sacred child of the rafters, who was often shown being carried across the waves on a dolphin’s back. Just the day before, driving along Calle Ocho in Little Havana, I’d counted four stores in seventeen blocks that specialized in memories of Cuba. The latest, Havana To-Go, featured “Made in Manzanillo” T-shirts. The owner wasn’t even Cuban.
Copyright © 2007 by Patrick Symmes. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.