Monday, August 07, 2006

Cuba Libre

Fidel Castro transferring control of Cuba to his brother Raul may be the end of an era for Cubans. It is also a time for reflection for me because I was in Cuba when he came to power.

Rebels had been training in the mountains of Oriente Province for years to overthrow the dictator, Juan Batista. They finally effected their coup, and Cubans were delirious with joy that years of horrors against their people had ended. Cuba was free! Everyone danced in the streets until dawn, and fence posts in front of every house were painted with the words, "Gracias, Fidel."

It was into this carnival for the senses that my parents and I flew for a Havana vacation.

Cuba was truly an island paradise then, swaying palm trees and gardenia-scented air soft as velvet. We visited Tropicana, the night cub where Desi Arnaz became famous. It had a long, mirrored walkway and no roof, so people danced under the stars. Most people, that is. Men asked my father for permission to dance with me and he said "NO" to every one of them. I sipped tropical drinks with tiny umbrellas and sulked.

It wasn't lost on my parents that proper Latin girls were relentlessly chaperoned. Ever vigilant for new ways to curtail my social life, they couldn't have been happier. Suddenly we were The Three Musketeers, two smiling tourists flanking their scowling daughter.

They must have been sick of me, too, because one day they took a boat ride to Moro Castle in Havana Harbor. I was released on my own recognizance to explore Havana in a sundress and high school Spanish.

As I returned to the hotel, the desk clerk announced that there were flowers for me. Since I didn't know anyone in Cuba, I told him there must be a mistake.

"Oh, no, meess. No mistake. You should know who send you flowerss," he smirked.

He winked over my shoulder at someone in the lobby, and as I turned to look, Che Guevara raised his newspaper in front of his face. We had heard that he was staying in our hotel, but my father didn't place much stock in rumors. There were four dozen red roses in the florist box with a note that said, "From one who admire you muchly and your dancing eyes."

That night, Castro gave the first of his 7-hour speeches on Radio Havana in which he proclaimed himself a Communist and denounced the United States. My father, who spoke perfect Spanish, decided we should leave Cuba immediately.

The next morning, my mother and I packed the last of our souvenirs while my father checked us out of the hotel. I had to leave my roses in the bathtub. As we descended in the elevator, the door opened and Che got in.

He tipped his cap to my mother, then said to me, "You like my flowerss?"

"I LOVE your flowers," I said. We gazed at each other as we reached the lobby, our entire relationship compressed into a single smile.

My father was waiting. We stuffed ourselves into a taxi and headed for the airport, normally a 40-minute ride from Old Havana. Our driver got us there in 11 minutes flat, just time enough for me to systematically chew off all my fingernails.

There were no traffic signals in Cuba. Everyone converged on an intersection, blasting horns, and whoever got there first won. Perhaps it's different now.

A few years later, Che was murdered and his coffin photo was displayed on the front page of the New York Times. He was a beautiful man. I cried for days.

The Cuban people have been crying for a great many years. I hope that somehow they can return to their homeland and reclaim the lives that were horribly interrupted so very long ago.


Christina_the_wench said...

What a great story. That's all I can say. Great story. ~sighs~

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Thanks, Christina. After all these years, I'm still sighing, too.

Jennifer said...

Wow. What an AMAZING story. Che was a beautiful man, in ways that can never be seen in a simple photograph. That's just an incredible memory to have and to hold.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Yes, a few connections in life are extremely brief but somehow complete. The world in a grain of sand...

Cuba was so incredibly luscious that I can still evoke the sights and smells of it all - tropical flowers and seawater, beautiful, friendly people and bright sunwashed colors. I would love to see it again.

Nobody who hasn't been there can begin to imagine the great loss suffered by the Cubans who had to leave and start over in the U.S.

Anonymous said...

I KNEW you had dancing eyes.

jali said...

I love your love story...told in a simple smile. Very moving.

I imagined you sitting there scowling between your parents and cracked up.

kim said...

wow that was fantatic !
what an amazing memory for you...
I would have loved to see the Tropicana ...

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Anon, oh-h, you're sweet. I probably should have called that post Part II of my Things I Miss About Being Young series.

Jali, unfortunately, I was into freedom while my parents, bless their hearts, were into repression.

Kim, it was beautiful, the perfect place to fall in love, or at least to fall on the dance floor. Of course, overly chaperoned as I was, that didn't happen. My dress was silky seafoam green. What a waste!!

Anonymous said...

The nice thing about dancing eyes is that they outlive unlined skin, sleek hair, firm muscle tone and all the other characteristics of youth. I feel sure if you had cancing eyes then, you have them now. :)

Anonymous said...

Oh dear, not "cancing". Dancing. (Cancing eyes last only until you get eyedrops for them.)

heartinsanfrancisco said...


I love your laundry list of forgotten (but not misbegotten) virtues.

Cancing eyes. Hmmmm. Well, I AM a cancerian. Does that count?

Lex said...

What a story!

It's really hard for me to reconcile the softer side of people like Che with my other opinions of them.

I see the teens now donning his image on T-shirts all over the place and wonder if they have any idea who he was.

I knew your dad was cool. I speak fluent Spanish too. And, I'm dying to visit Cuba.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

I would love to go back again, too. So much.

Famous people always seem one-dimensional because the focus is on the thing for which they're famous. Che was a medical doctor as well as a revolutionary, and was truly dedicated to improving life for the masses. He was later betrayed by Castro, who had him murdered.

And he gave great flower!! :<)