A different perspective on exile
By Siamak Kiarostami
April 21, 2000
Miami International Airport, 1978. I have only two hours left. The girl
next to me, she is wearing too much perfume and I don't like her cigarette
smoke much either. I tried to make polite conversation with her earlier,
but this one didn't want to talk. Her attention was on the Farah Fawcett
article in this month's Vogue. I have already read my newspaper
twice, and I am restless. What the hell am I doing? All the excitement
I've had for weeks now, all the anticipation as been replaced by a knot
of steel in my stomach, and I think I might actually cry. This is the most
important moment of my life, and I'm scared shitless. No one knows I'm
here, they all think I went back to New York late last night. Papá
would have a heart attack if he know what I was doing. That's how I know
I'm right though; I told no one and have made it this far.
Cono que la vida es tan extrana. Of course it doesn't surprise
me, my whole life has been unexpected, like a balloon bursting. The thing
is, you don't realize how your life is until you stand on top of it and
look down at it. It is then that some things will jump out of your memories
and bite you. When I was little, every Sunday we would go to my grandparents'
house in Southwest for dinner, after the Mass. Papí would be the
last one to finish eating, without fail. I was five years old, and I remember
he would put me on his lap while he ate, and tell me about the years past,
when he was young and a man and the world was his to take. After he finished
eating, Abuelita would bring him his rum and his cigars, and the tales
would continue, as the rum gave Papí his story telling tongue, and
the cigar smoke framed the words that he spoke with their blue tendrils:
"Ay, Tony, how I anticipate the day I can drive you around and show
you your homeland. These Americans call Florida their paradise, and their
old come here to spend their last days. But Tony, it's different here.
Not like Cuba, m'ijo. Let me tell you, in Cuba we have the whitest sand,
the bluest water, and all four winds kiss you as you walk. Every where
you go, music is in the air, and the laughter of women is around you, in
After a while, Papí would get excited, caught in the mystic powers
of his memories. His passion was contagious! He knew how to keep my attention
for hours. It was with my grandfather, in those early days, that I knew
I wanted more than the stories, I wanted to have it for myself. I would
ask him when we were going back, back home to Cuba and smiling, he would
start to speak in a rhythmic tone, clutching his glass of rum and rattling
the ice in it for effect when he was talking. "Soon, Tony, soon. You
will be enchanted, it will be the greatest time of your life. We will go
to the beach, and you can play. Cuban air is the best in the world for
the lungs. And the sun, M'ijo, the sun does not tire a man like it does
here. Your Florida sun makes me weary, and keeps my air conditioning bill
very high, cono! No m'ijo, the sun in Cuba embraces a man the same way
his wife does, with love and a gentle touch. And chico, aunque eres
joven, te voy a decir sobre las yeguas, cuando no esta aqui tu mama."
My grandfather had quite the belly, and he would roar with laughter when
my mother scolded him for telling me stories that "corrupted my innocence."
Ever the poet, Papí would speak for as long as I would listen,
but as the years passed on, those memories enclosed him in their prison.
He got older, and with age came his resignation. He wouldn't finish his
food anymore, he'd stop talking and send me inside, and would sit on the
porch at dusk alone rattling his ice cubes. Sometimes, tears would roll
down his weathered cheeks as he looked on the sunset, my Papí crying
Oh what a difference those ninety miles have made in my life. Those
ninety miles define me, explain everything and nothing to me all at once.
That distance broke my grandfather's heart, and I think it was what really
killed him, not the cancer the doctors said he had. I know though, that
on this trip, the two of us are going. It was he who made me promise to
go, and I think it has been him who has helped me go ahead with this plan.
Papí always knew me better than anyone else, he always told me things
I knew but had not yet thought.
Although I have lived in Miami almost all my life, my body also knows
that this weather is not what it is used to, it isn't right here. Here
it rains too much, the humidity makes walking feel like showering, and
the sun beats you down. New York is another planet, one I enjoy, but I
definitely know my time there is temporary. Papí used to tell me
I was ninety miles away from my destiny, but those ninety miles may as
well be 90,000 miles. And I'm not sure that my destiny is over there at
all. In truth, I don't know what I am, who I am, and where I am from. It
seems like everyone else has an idea or an answer for me though.
The guy at the ticket counter looks almost exactly like Lalín,
whom I still wonder about. My uncle Lalín is a real artsy fartsy
type, a sociology professor in Gainesville, him and my tía Rita
raising some strange kids. Every time they would come over to visit us
for a weekend or we went there, him and my father would drink late at night,
and would talk Castro and America, Cuba and Florida, and "us"
and "the kids." Lalín, my mother's younger brother, had
been in America for 18 years, but sees himself as the utmost authority
on American culture, actually, the authority on everything. Me parece
un actor en la otra vida, ese payaso. He spoke his every word like
he was addressing the damn U.N. General Assemly, with dramatic ceremony.
He would lean in close to my dad, and exhale his J & B tinged knowledge
into his ear. "Cono, 'mano ... The problems facing these kids,
the ABC's, are going to be ones we cannot understand. Nuestros hijos,
they will grow up lost to both fronts, with disdain for the people here,
and ignorance of their world in Cuba. I grieve for their predicament, me
duele la corazon que no pudieron sufrir y tener nuestra Cubawe must do
that for them. We must instill in them what they cannot experience
for themselves. But 'mano, they give me strength. For I can imagine
that they will be our bridge to this world, to understanding it, and to
Bullshit. Lalín talks more with his ass than with his head. He's
very smart, but I never understood him, my uncle, who believes in his articles
and theories more than his life and the examples it gives him. He can talk
about the trials of coming of age in another land, and give you a detailed
dissertation on when Castro will fall, but has no words for his daughter's
actions, and fears to get to know her. Mi prima, Angela, is 17-years old,
was born here, and is the American girl of the family. Her delightfully
choppy Spanish is the subject of great pain to my uncle, but not more so
than her boyfriend Tom the football player. Growing up, that is why it
is best to be a guy, for not only is it okay to date, but it is expected.
It's a big source of pride to my pop when I bring over a date to dinner,
or just to meet my parents. I think he gets fired up to see his seed continue
"the Alvarez tradition", as he calls it, smiling. It isn't the
same for girls, that's for sure. With Angie, it is quite the scandal among
the older family members, but to me, Angela acts more "Cuban"
than all of them, she has "los ganas de joder", experimentar
y vivir su vida. I think it is good for Lalín that she is
his daughter. She's his reality check, and won't be defined by anyone's
terms but her own.
Sometimes I'm very fascinated by this family, our group tied together
by blood and ritual. I think I have a "normal" Cuban family,
whatever that means. I have no idea what it means to be Cuban, really.
I just see that my family is the similar to the over 150,000 Cuban families
in Dade County, so that's what makes them normal. Myself, I'm not so sure
about. I have always been the odd one, the one that my uncle says caused
my father's wrinkles to grow deeper and helped gray my mother's hair. The
fights we had when I told them I was moving to New York, I thought that
they would disown me. I am not like them, and it is very difficult for
me to live the way they want me to. It is not out of spite, like what I
think my devil cousin Angela does to Lalin, it is something I cannot help.
Papá, who leaves Radio Cuba Libre blaring in the kitchen whenever
he is home, reading his newspapers and attending his meetings, his passion
is politics. There is never a benefit concert that he is not attending,
a weekly discussion he is not leading, or a check for an anti-Castro group
he is not writing. When I was younger, he would take me to all his events,
and would go on and on telling me why I should hate Castro and do my part
in restoring freedom to Cuba. Yet from the time I was aware of politics
and the situation back home (as I used to think of Cuba when I was younger),
I couldn't find his level of interest in it. Maybe it is because he never
asked me what I thought, just talked at me.
Mamá, well, she is very different than me, and has been for a
while. Mamá is very involved with Church things, helping the Cuban
community to find jobs and housing. She does a lot of community work. My
mother is very religious, and I'm not. There are too many unanswered questions
and too many contradictions for me to believe. I do like going to Mass
though, cause it's always a lot of fun to run into people that you don't
get to see that often, and being in Church has a very calming effect on
me; it's truly the best place in the world to just Think.
For as close to my parents are to me, there are definitely things we
cannot talk about, just because everyone in the family is very strong willed
and has different opinions. It's not that I don't care about their wishes
and dreams for me, it's not that at all. It is more that I know that my
battle in life is understanding my own reality, not my parents'. Cuba for
me is borrowed memories, music, food, and my true language; it is a mythical
place that does not exist, yet defines me. My passion is bridging the chasm
that separates my worlds, is finding my missing piece and peace. Inspired
by my dear tio Lalin's way with words, I would say when I am around Americans,
I am intensely aware of my "otherness", mi otradad. Yet
when I'm with my family, I don't laugh at the jokes a "Cuban"
is supposed to; I don't like to play dominoes (I prefer card games), and
to top it off, at parties I don't dance right.
That is probably my biggest fault, where I am clearly not Cuban. My
mother makes fun of me, but I don't care. Angela, however, is more direct.
At weddings when we dance the guaracha, she tells me I need to stop dancing
with my head and start dancing with my ass. The girl has the subtlety of
a baseball bat. For me, it is the best when my mother finally chases my
father out of his chair, him muttering excuses but with smiling eyes, and
my mother with the ambition of 19-year-old girl teasing him about being
too old to move. Watching my parents dance is like a time warp, I cannot
describe it as any other way as being in Cuba. It thrills me. They dance
like they are young and free, and nothing pleases me more than the fact
that my parents still have their passion for each other in their autumn.
I wonder what they were like, before they came here, when they were
in Cuba and the four winds kissed you as you walked, the water was the
bluest in the world, and the sand so blindingly white it hurt your eyes
to look at it. That is the Cuba I was raised with, and the one that holds
me captive. I know that place no longer exists, sometimes I wonder if it
ever did. I now know that I was raised with the idealized Cuba by my diaspora,
who fitted me with a mental silicon implant. I need more than that now.
The pieces aren't fitting for me anymore; the shape is changing, and the
gap growing. I have only been in New York for nine months, and though I
love it, I was seized by a desire to come home. Here in Miami, my little
Havana, it is very easy to pretend that Cuba does not exist outside the
Cuba is all my favorite greasy sandwich shops, the clubs, my parents'
neighborhood, Calle Ocho mamí y papí groceries. That has
been my experience with it. Is this not Cuba? I wonder if I can even think
of Cuba as one place, for we try our damnedest to live and continue it
here. Which one is real, I do not know. Ninety miles away, there are millions
more, who stayed, for whatever reason. Unlike my father, I am not angry
at them. I long to reconcile something I had no part in creating. What
do they do? Who are they? Are they happy? I'm scared that the only thing
I have in common with the Cubans back home is our language, of which I
speak a time-capsule version of, with none of the embellishments of the
past twenty years. What music do they listen to? I cannot explain it, but
I don't feel I'll be hated there, I won't be looked at accusingly. I cannot
be lumped into the same group as my parents, who continue here; I was born
here in the States, I began here. Where we will go from here, is also a
battle of the generations. My family and relatives do not think of themselves
as immigrants, but as exiles. To be born in exile then, is the most difficult
thing in the world to understand.
I make myself crazy with my thoughts; they consume me. I'm exhausted,
for the more I think, the bigger all of this gets. I need some coffee,
the snack bar is at the other end of the terminal, and I don't want to
give up my seat. Still forty-five minutes left until my flight and the
terminal is already crowded. I have my Cuban detector on, and I see that
there are many of us here today. Cono, where are all of you going? How
many of you dare to do what I am doing today? I think all of you should
come with me. The girl sitting next to me, I saw that she is also on my
flight to Mexico. Big, thick, black hair, tight pants, a tank top, and
six bracelets on each arm. She has my lips, dark and full, and arresting
dark eyes. Despite her cigarettes, perfume, and her attitude, I see her
as a silent co-conspirator.
I've been here since 7:30 in the morning, and I haven't said more than
10 words since I was at the ticket counter. It is better this way, I don't
want to say anything to anyone right now, because I am scared and do not
want anything to change my mind. I'm going out of my mind, my thoughts
travel in circles, and I think I will die soon if I don't eat. I should
have grabbed a donut from the motel lobby, but they looked pretty old,
and I really didn't want to eat at the time. Last night I had the best
dinner I have had in a long time: platanos, moros y cristianos, y un poco
carne asada. It was quite the last supper, mamá made everything
I like, including her famous flán con caramel. She says I am too
skinny, and it's true that I didn't eat much, but right now I wish I had.
Mamá used to cook almost everyday, but ever since I left. I think
my parents eat out more. "I don't have the time or the energy, m'ijo.
These days, it is much easier to go out, you don't have to worry about
washing the dishes, if you don't like your food they take it back, it is
so much less trouble. Besides, with you gone, there is no one left who
likes my cooking. Your father thinks I use too much salt, but I think he
is just worried about his blood pressure." She has a great sense of
humor, mi madre. Although we don't talk about art and music and anything
political, she is a very good mother. A very good person, she cares and
loves almost everyone. For all our differences, I very much enjoy being
her son; she and Lalín always say there are unmistakable signs that
I am more García que Alvarez. I don't know if that's true, I am
definitely the child of both. I have my father's body, his Spaniard nose
and small teeth. We both talk too loudly, and laugh easily. From my mother,
I have her curly black hair, big lips, and dark skin. The rest I think
is mine though, and that pleases me.
I'm debating whether or not to send them a postcard when I get there,
should I send it the last day when I will leave, or should I send one at
all? I don't think that I will. This trip is for me, and I just feel better
if it was something I kept for myself.
They just announced boarding for senior citizens and children traveling
alone. I feel less nervous, but I'm still hungry. The girl sitting next
to me has gotten up and left, she looks determined to get on the plane
before the general boarding line starts. "TWA flight 603 to Cancún
now boarding at Gate 35, flight 603 now boarding rows 8-18." I have
my ticket out, I am in row 21, seat A. The window seat. When we arrive
in Cancún, I have a half hour layover before I have to board my
flight to Havana. I know of two cousins there. They live with my mother's
sister Marta, whom my mother has not spoken to in six years. I still do
not know if I will stop to meet them, or if I will avoid doing that as
well. I don't have any money or gift's to bring them. I have only packed
for a week. Other than my one maleta, I have my camera, and eight rolls
of film. I have Papí's old address in Santa Teresa del Mar in my
back pocket, and his ring on my finger.
It's time to go now, and I stand. Am I a tourist? Am I going home? I
am going to Cuba to find my destiny, and all I might find is that I'm ninety
miles from home, for the second time in my life. What a great laugh that
would be, what a horrible curse too. I don't know what to expect, certainly
not a sudden and complete understanding of my existence. No, I feel that
life is now just starting, today.
This long line is impatient. My partner in crime, the one with too much
perfume, keeps pushing me forward towards the entrance of the plane. I
am almost certain she will be in the seat next to me, she dislikes me too
muchfor it to be any other way. One more time I scan the terminal before
I step in. Vogue waiting just a bit longer; I have to say goodbye
to Miami. I don't know why everybody is in such a hurry. All of a sudden
I feel I have all the time in the world.