When a Close Relative Dies in Cuba

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You can’t grieve with the rest of the family, you can’t call and sometimes you don’t find out for days. If you live here, you can’t really travel there overnight.

Last week my uncle on my mother’s side died in Cuba. Last night it was my aunt on my father’s. The older generation is dying off.

Justo and Maria Teresa. I had not seen either one of them in over thirty years. I remember their sweetness and their apolitical nature. These two belonged to the family faction that continued talking to us, even after my parents announced their plans to apply for an exit visa to go North. On my Dad’s side, Maria Teresa was the exception. Even though she was married to a military man, my aunt kept coming around and we continued visiting her.

My Mom’s side of the family was less involved in the Castro government. They were less “political,” so not much changed between us, even after our status was degraded from typical citizens to counter-revolutionary worms on account of our political preferences and our travel plans.

Whenever I hear that someone in my family has died, I always picture the reunion on the other side with those that left before. These must be happy reunions, I imagine, because before the Castro brothers decided to impose their brand of paradise on our little paradise, our family got along just fine. The split in the family started showing in the early Sixties, right around the time that the Cuban Revolution was hijacked by a bunch of hoodlums.

Right around that time, the effects of the new socio-political order tore up the work that previous generations had done to keep us together.

Each time a relative dies over there, I’m reminded of the first time it happened after we had settled here in 1970. I was when my grandfather died.  It was in 1976. We heard about it from a cousin in Florida. It was a very painful experience for my father who adored Grandpa Baldomero. Somehow he managed to find out the name of the funeral home in Havana where the service was being held. He called, desperate to connect to his mother, older brother and three sisters. He asked for his older brother by name, when the funeral director answered the phone. He waited for any member of the family to come to the phone.

A few minutes the director was back on the phone. There was no one there by that name, he informed my father — even after he agreed originally to go get one of his relatives.

I remember Dad’s cries filling our railroad apartment in Union City after he hung up the phone. The sight of a crying father really impresses a teenager. I never forgot it.

We didn’t talk about it afterward but we all knew what had happened. My uncle was the national director of some Communist ministry. He didn’t want to appear to have a relationship with anyone who had renounced the Revolution that he so valued. A call from the United States, even if from a grieving brother, could compromise your revolutionary standing. My Dad eventually, if not instantly, forgave my uncle. He understood his blind, political fanaticism. Me, I’m not so sure.

Families members on different sides of a political — and physical — gulf. The reality of life in exile.

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