I spent National Margarita Day in Miami. It’s a small office and our hosts are hard-eyed but stiffly elegant and when they heard me talk about the “holiday”, they went to two different restaurants to find a place that served the best kind. They didn’t drink them, instead relaxing over beers and watching us with amused curiosity. They each had flights out that night, to Bolivia, and they were calm until it was absolutely time to go, then, declaring themselves worried about making it to the airport in time, they swiftly disgorged us into the beautiful night. The margarita had left me with a glowing feeling of well-being and the full moon that had caused such a ruckus for our travel and our dreams was hanging precariously in a palm tree overhead.
I gave a presentation to our South American staff and I had a translator. I would go through a few sentences and the translator would watch me and the slides, and then retell my lessons in Spanish. When he first came into the bland conference room, he seemed like nothing other than a gangling and aged schoolboy, lanky with wire-rimmed glasses and silver in his hair. He seemed young and upbeat, spoke English without much of an accent and I didn’t take much notice of him until we began to work together. At that point, I realized the depth of his quick intelligence and how difficult his job was. He had to completely and thoroughly understand the material I was presenting and be able to repeat it back, picking words and phrases that communicated the concepts. It became a very deft symbiosis of my English and his Spanish, stopping every few sentences to check in with each other. He translated the questions to me and my responses and I think by the end he was as tired as I was.
Instead of going back to his office after the presentation was over, he stayed in the conference room with my boss and me, checking his emails. We worked in quiet and focused harmony until he brought back coffee for us, small thick cups of dirty Turkish brew from the restaurant downstairs, and we began to chat. I thought he might have been a native English speaker who had learned Spanish as a second language, but instead I learned that he was Cuban by birth. His parents had immigrated from Cuba when he was five, with the help of a Swiss family friend.
He told me what he remembered about being a small boy in Cuba, the kindergarten exercises when the teachers would divide the class into groups, the Communists and the Revolutionaries, and give them wooden rifles, and have them fight. He laughed and said the Communists always won. He said his grandparents had been well-off, and one had a beautiful ranch there, and thankfully, he said, he had died before he could see it seized by the government.
He said it took his parents years to leave, and when they left, they left with nothing except their children and their parents. Everything remained with the government. They came to Miami with very little and started from scratch. At the end, he said, the government came to “audit” the house to be sure that they weren’t taking anything with them that should be left. His mother and father gave their wedding rings to the Swiss friend so they wouldn’t be taken (“if the soldiers didn’t like you, they would just find a reason to take everything,” he said with a shrug) and didn’t get them back for years. We spoke about Elian Gonzalez, which is the only real news story I knew about Cuba, and about his feelings on the new openness in the country, the restoration of diplomatic ties and the subsequent breaking down of some long-standing barriers with the US.
He said it caused debate in his family. Some, he said, saw it as a positive thing, something that could only help. However, older Cuban-Americas, such as his parents, were distressed and concerned, and worried that the new recognition of the still Castro-run government would indicate some sort of tacit acceptance of the regime, what it had done and would continue to do. He asked his father if he would ever go back, and his father stiffly said that he could never, ever return to the country as long as that regime was in power, as long as there were Castros there. He had friends and family who had been jailed, disappeared, or killed. I asked my translator if he himself would ever want to go back and he gave that expressive shrug, and shook his head. “Because of loyalty to your parents, and what they went through?” I asked. He pondered for a moment. “Yes,” he said finally. “I can’t help it. In the end, I agree, and just wouldn’t want to acknowledge that government by giving tourist dollars to it.”
I flew home from the balmy warmth, blue skies and palm trees, into the grey and brown dullness of Detroit. There’s an incoming snowstorm. I think I might do some reading about Cuba.