Son, I have a confession to make: Whenever I read biographies, I often skip the beginning part of someone’s life. I don’t know why, but I find genealogy and origin stories often boring. Perhaps it’s because I often ready biographies of famous people and I just want to get to the “good parts,” to the part where the Apple computer was founded, or to the part where Elon Musk launches his first rocket.
However, I’m aware that the beginning of someone’s life is fundamental to knowing the person, to really understanding the events that shaped them. I’ll also like to clarify that I don’t skip this section in autobiographies. There’s something raw and honest about a person analyzing and explaining their childhood as biased and as selective as it may be. With all of that said, I’m hoping that you don’t skip this part because not only does it explain so much about me, but you’ll also learn lots about your Cuban family.
To really understand where I come from, we have to go back to a time before I was even born. See, your abuela was really young when she fell in love with your abuelo and became pregnant. She was barely 15 years old when this happened. That pregnancy resulted in the birth of a baby girl who was named Yanelis. By all accounts, she was beautiful with luscious black hair and the prettiest eyes to ever take in the city of Havana. Sadly though, Yanelis only lived a few days.
This of course devastated your grandparents. Your abuela in particular took it the hardest and when she was pregnant with me the following year, she took every precaution in order to ensure a safe pregnancy and delivery. This overprotection extended well beyond my birth and in fact still extends to this day in some ways. If it’s raining, your abuela will still tell me to be careful to not get wet or to make sure to take my medicine if I’m sick. I’m 37 years old and although it’s endearing and she means well, you can see how I sometimes may find it a bit annoying. As I mentioned, I’m 37 at the time of writing this.
Still, knowing what she went through at such a young age, I can understand the nature of her worry. I can’t imagine becoming a parent at such a young age. I was 28 when your older sister was born and I still didn’t feel ready for the monumental task of raising a child.
However, raising a child in Cuba is different. In America, raising a child is the sole responsibility of the two parents with the occasional help from a grandparent who’s afraid to overstep her boundaries. In Cuba, a child is raised by the entire extended family, who often live together, as well as your next door neighbors who are not shy about their opinions. This reminds me of that African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child, because in Havana, it takes a city.
I came into this world on a rainy December 28th in the year 1983. I was a healthy young boy, born en caul, which means that I was born inside of an intact amniotic sac. According to Cuban superstition, a baby born like this is destined to have good luck for the rest of their life. However, apparently one must also keep this sac after the baby is removed from it. My mom wasn’t really aware or exactly paying attention to this lore when she gave birth to me, so my amniotic sac was stolen by a delivery nurse. Is someone out there living my lucky life? Have they won the lotto by now? I was never a superstitious person, not even as a kid, but I must admit that I’ve been lucky oftentimes in my life. Perhaps there is some truth to this after all, even if my delivery nurse parted with half of my luck.
Unfortunately though, I inherited asthma from my father, who in turn inherited from his father. And you inherited this horrible condition from me. I’m sorry about that.
What this meant for me though is that I was sick all the time. Any minor cold would turn into a full blown asthma attack, with my mom rushing me to the hospital in the middle of the night. I have vivid memories of my mom carrying me to the local clinic, which was a good 10 blocks away, while I wheezed and struggled to breathe the warm Havana air. I could see the trees swinging in the gentle breeze and couldn’t understand why this precious air refused to enter and fill my lungs. We would arrive at the intake, say hello to the nurses and doctors who knew me on sight, and soon would sit down next to a huge oxygen tank with a mask that was way too big for my small face. This happened at least twice a month, and often more during the oft warm Havana winters.
I’m sure by now that you noticed that it was your abuela and her alone that took me to the clinic on these long nights. Shortly after their marriage, my parents divorced. My mom found out that my dad’s long and unexpected work meetings were just an excuse to see another woman. She was heartbroken. This was the love of her life. Despite overwhelming evidence to his unfaithfulness, my dad never admitted to anything. He pleaded and begged to get back together, but my mom stood firm in her decision, even as she cried herself to sleep. She lived by the old adage of “once a cheater always a cheater” and never took him back. I was only two years old.
I don’t really have any memories of my parents together. Whatever images I see when I close my eyes are mainly false memories I created from stories I was told over the years. There’s an image of my dad, lean and muscular, inflating a lifesaver on a beach house we rented, back when Cubans were allowed to do such things. For many years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, certain beaches and hotels were reserved for tourists.
I remember looking at my dad, sitting shirtless on a bed and inflating the biggest lifesaver I had ever seen. I thought he was the strongest man in the world. That image still lives in my head, but I’m not sure if it happened before or after my parents were divorced. I know that I was very young. I do remember that my aunt Fefa, my dad’s aunt actually, immediately deflated my lifesaver with her nails two seconds into the vacation. I know it was an accident, but I held a grudge for years as a kid.
That was also the same trip where no one could find me. My parents and grandparents searched the entire house for me and were about to call for help when my mom found me hiding in a closet. Apparently I was too cold because this house had an air conditioner, a rare thing in Havana in those days. I was in the closet, under some blankets and shivering. For some reason that image reminds me of the beginning of One Hundred Years of Solitude when Colonel Aureliano Buendía remembers being a young boy discovering ice for the first time. I hadn’t discovered ice, but I discovered the luxury of an air conditioner, which was usually reserved for tourists or Cubans who worked in the highest echelons of the government.
I would like to point out that despite his shortcomings as a husband, your abuelo was always a good father. I saw him every week and he would always hustle to make sure that I wouldn’t lack anything. However, I must admit that as I got older and learned about this unfaithfulness, which was a constant thing then with his new wife, I resented him. Why did he have to do that? Why had he been so selfish? All of the kids around me had both of their parents together. I was the odd one out in my neighborhood and family. I hated it.
I wanted nothing more than my parents to get back together and frequently wished and prayed for that to happen. The most important thing though was that I was loved and I knew it. That was always clear. And when I was old enough to learn about Yanelis, I did often wonder what it would have been like to go through this with an older sister, with someone to share these thoughts and insecurities with.
This is part two of a series of entries dealing with my childhood in Cuba and my first few years in the United States. See part one here.