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This one's for you, Pop

I just realized that yesterday marks the two year anniversary of my dad's death. I miss him so much, now more than ever. I know he's in a better place but I still wish that he was here to make things better. Behind the cut is a paper my niece Sarah wrote about him. She fudged some details. My dad wasn't an orphan he was a throw-away and came from a family with some money. And her mom (my sister) was sent to Cuba for economic reasons, not because my parents were spies. Which they totally were. Mom still carries around the pain of leaving my sister behind in Cuba. She told me once that she's never forgiven herself for doing that.

Anyway, it's a good paper and focuses on my dad's adventure as an FBI informant during the Cold War. While going through my late grandfather’s belongings last spring, a never-opened white shoebox was found on the floor in the back corner of a closet. The box turned out to be full of pictures, all black-and-white, many faded or water damaged, and almost none were dated or labeled in any way. These pictures tell a complicated story of life in Havana and Santiago, Cuba, Miami, and New York City. Some were striking—in one photograph a diapered toddler is holding a large army rifle. Others are soft and formal, like the one of my great-grandparents who I had never heard of or met. The photograph was the only picture of my great-grandmother ever taken. She took her own life when my grandmother was eight years old.
One picture I couldn’t put down. My mother, Betty, is meeting her parents for the first time in New York. Neither my mother nor her mother look happy. They are holding hands but my grandmother’s arm is outstretched as if Betty is pulling away from her. My grandmother later told me that they had to force my mother to pose for the picture. She was sent to Cuba shortly after her birth to be cared for by my great-aunt, Cacha. For twenty years I never even questioned the reasoning behind my grandparents’ decision. My mother was sent away not because of illness or economic reasons (as I had always assumed) but because of the political activities of Reynaldo and Florencia Gulin, newlyweds from Havana. These photographs are of members of my family. My veins are fed with Cuban blood, but my ancestry was never so important or interesting that my family discussed it.
Growing up in the Northeast, it is not abnormal to have immigrant parents or grandparents, or to be “mixed.” My dual heritage never piqued any curiosity from me until recently. My grandparents’ involvement with the government in the early 1960s is something that has sparked my interest for two years now. When I was nineteen I watched Thirteen Days for the first time, called my grandparents, and spent the next hours in slack-jawed awe. They had quite a story to tell.
Papi (I never called him Reynaldo or Abuelo) came to the US in the mid fifties and Abuela joined him in 1957. She was seventeen. They were part of the greatest mass migration the western hemisphere has ever experienced—approximately 560,000 thousand people have left Cuba since 1959. Luckily foreign travel was not restricted until 1961, after the break in friendly political relations between Cuba and the United States (Bender 272). My grandfather was an orphan. Though he had eleven brothers and sisters he never met his parents and had no birth certificate or passport. In those days, America imported the largest share of Cuban sugar cane and travel was relatively easy (Castro). The largest wave of immigrants was after 1965. At least 277,000 Cubans left Cuba, including my great-aunt Ninfa and uncle Roberto, my mother Betty and her cousin Ninfita and Roberto, Jr., Papi’s other sister Lolin (pronounced lo-LEEN but with a Hispanic accent) and her son. It is Gulin legend that Lolin drove through Mexico and all the way to New York posing as a blonde American woman with laryngitis (Lolin spoke no English) and a heavy suitcase in the trunk. My Aunt Maritza abides by this story but my mother claims it is made up. Papi was a great storyteller. Most likely Lolin and her son were part of the 11,266 people who came to America illegally (Bender 272).
In the years before his violent removal from office, Fulgencio Batista pulled many people in to the Capitol for questioning, torturing many innocent civilians including peasants, college students, and Catholic priests. After poor advice from Eisenhower to hold elections which over seventy-five percent of Cubans boycotted, life in Cuba abruptly changed. A year later in 1959 young bearded fighters—barbudos—forced Batista into exile. Intentionally or not, this action forced an entire country into exile. Relations between Cuba and the U.S. became especially tense in 1960. Cuba appealed to the United Nations with evidence that the U.S. was hiring mercenaries to do “…what they could to assist the people in establishing freedom on the island,” repealed then-Secretary of State Dean Rusk. The U.S.’s defense against these accusations (which were true) was that it was a minor-scale operation lead by Americans and Cuban exile volunteers lead by José Cardona (Castro). (I remember seeing streets named after him during my visit to Miami. Only after doing research for this paper did I realize I had him confused with another Cuban José, this statesman named Martí.)
There was a political cartoon published in a 1960s issue of Miami Daily Press that reads: "ELITE ESPIONAGE TEAM INVADES CUBA." The cartoon above caricaturizes a portly, unkempt army guy standing with a beer in one hand and a sign reading "Will spy for food." He is standing on a street corner surrounded by other, equally unattractive men advertising the same services. They all have the traditionally long facial hair of the barbudos whose actions began all this confusion (Cuban Espionage).
It was this attitude that made life for Cuban refugees more complicated. The heritage and intentions of my grandparents and their friends and family more and more often came into question. The young couple, knowing that their families would now have an even harder time getting to America than they, took matters into their own hands. My grandfather wrote a letter to the President, offering his efforts in any way that he could in exchange for the safe return of his family, especially his new daughter. Two weeks later, two darkly dressed gentlemen employed by the Central Intelligence Agency rang the doorbell at the Gulins’ little apartment on 125th and Broadway in Hell's Kitchen, New York.
April 12, 1961, John F. Kennedy held a press conference stating that under no conditions was America planning on intervening with Cuban affairs. Five days later, the infamous invasion of the Bay the Pigs took place. Fifty-eight years later, in March of 2009 Reynaldo Gulin, el espía que adoro, passed away.
My grandfather was a janitor for the apartment complex he lived in and my grandmother stayed at home watching us, although she occasionally had piecework and baby-sitting. My grandfather’s only skill when he came to the U.S. was shoe repair, which he learned at the orphanage he grew up in. Flora did mostly piecework that she took home and factory jobs. Most other Cuban immigrants were more skilled and more educated. Semi-skilled workers like my grandfather made up only 3.6 percent of refugees in the U.S. Most others were children, students, housewives, or professionals, together totaling just over seventy percent (Bender 275).
In 1980 when Alejandro Portes and Rafael Mozo were doing research for their study "The Political Adaptation Process of Cubans...in the United States" Cubans represented the second largest foreign born minority in the country, (number one is Mexico) making them a significant force in politics. Part of the reason they are powerful is that they are concentrated geographically. One geographic hub is New York, where Flora and Reynaldo began their political involvement with the missile crisis (35).
The unusualness of my grandparents’ refugee experience is evident in their attitude about Cuba. Most Cubans in America resisted naturalization at first. In 1979 280,000 Cubans were granted legal American citizenship-less than half the number of Cubans who migrated. Many immigrants who left the country expected to return when the revolution was curtailed and life in Cuba would return to normal. My grandmother has told me that Papi's attitude was quite the opposite of what the statistics suggest. As political refugees, many were reluctant to give up their Cuban citizenship, possibly because of the hope that the revolution would be curtailed and Cuba would return to the way of life they had grown accustomed to. My grandparents, particularly Papi, wanted to be American. He fought for citizenship from his first step off the boat (Portes, Mozo 38).
Perhaps my grandparents’ stubbornness is due in part to ignorance. Most of the people who left Cuba during the Revolution were educated and highly skilled; those with higher-level education and occupations were more likely to resist naturalization in America. Neither one of my grandparents were educated. Reynaldo was the most educated of the couple; he completed eighth grade. Flora left school in second grade to tend to her house and siblings after her mother passed away. Those with higher education and skilled occupations were more likely to adhere to their Cuban citizenship. I imagine it is because for the professional refugee a move to the United States usually meant giving up their credentials.
There was a doctor, my mother has told me, she was a patient of who practiced medicine only at night and only treated other Cuban transplants he knew well. This man, known as a medico clandestino, helped with maintenance at a convenience store during the day. I can understand why he would remain hopeful that his American situation was temporary. However, my grandparents were an orphan and a poor farmer’s daughter. They had little to lose, and my grandfather’s factory jobs paid him the highest wages he had ever earned. Their benefit from immigrating was great and inspired them to help this new country that helped them.
The government officials who knocked on the door after receiving Papi's letter supplied my grandparents false names, fake green cards, passports, and other forms of identification. They were given fictional biographies to memorize and given instructions from the CIA. When I called my grandmother a year ago she said she swore she would never tell anyone about their aliases. Even after the death of her husband sixty years later I still couldn't get them out of her.
What she did tell me, however, is exciting. Almost weekly, Papi would attend underground meetings posing as a Cuban nationalist, committing as much of what he heard to memory as possible. He would call my grandmother from a pay phone and dictate to her everything he remembered from the meetings using additional fake names and a different phone every time. When he got home, Flora would immediately leave, saying "I'm going for a walk," call their CIA agent and tell him everything she wrote down. She told me that one time Papi called her claiming to have heard from a nationalist's mouth that there were indeed missiles trained on the US, waiting for the command. Frightened to leave the house, my twenty year old grandmother walked the streets of New York knowing this information. She spoke almost no English; she was always worried that the conversations she heard around her were about her.
Life as a spy is dealing with an alternate reality. For my grandparents and others like them, life was strife with strained relationships, lying, and false identities. José Quiroga writes about espionage and identity in his book, Cuban Palimpsests. "Interesting things happen in an immigrant city when people think they are being silently watched by agents coming from the county the immigrants have left," he writes (51). In the Cuban situation in America, the usual scenarios that pattern traditional immigrant stories are changed. At the center of many narratives like my grandparents' is imitation. Whether spying for the US or for Cuba, espionage seemed like the only option for refugees to help the efforts of their respective countries. He argues that the dichotomy among Cubans--those for or against the revolution--made enormous espionage activity inevitable. The constant concern among people with the beliefs, actions, and priorities of their neighbors invaded every aspect of life, especially for those like my grandparents who did have something to hide (52).
Papi spent his last week in a hospital bed in Hoboken, New Jersey, two floors below the maternity ward my sisters and I were all born in. He looked shockingly different from the man with dark grey but thick hair, leathery tan skin, and sharp jaw line. In the hospital he looked pale and yellow. His lips were dry and chapped and his arms which were once strong enough to pick me up and swing me around were no thicker around than mine. He complained of being tied up with ropes, being poisoned, spied on by his nurses. He yelled often at my grandmother and mother for allowing people he didn't know to come into the room. He was being kept from work, he said. My mother was adamant he was just experiencing the same delusions that haunt the terminally ill in their final days, but I was desperate to hear those last few musings. Even in his calmer, lucid moments he talked a lot about being stuck or uncomfortable. Of course, he may have been talking about his bed or his IV but as I sat quietly with him in that hospital for hours his dialogue began to creep into a deeper realm for me. His small room in the intensive care unit became a jail cell. The many wires monitoring his health became chains. Papi wanted to become an American, but he didn't want to have become an American.
People are decisively affected by living a whole new life in a different country. Preparation for adult life and roles takes place in a person's country of origin, and when they emigrate to a new country that preparation is often unhelpful if not detrimental. Papi and Abuela are not really Cuban or really American. They are Cuban immigrants-a distinct culture comprised of elements from both countries and from their experience (Pedraza-Bailey).
Gary Hentzi wrote a thoughtful review about a documentary film following the life and music of Israel "Cachao" Lopez, the lead singer of the Buena Vista Social Club. The film is not just a biographical documentary but a political project hoping to increase awareness about the Cuban struggle. In his essay, Hentzi discusses the Cuban's constant quest for identity. Their "Cubanness" is purely memory and at some point probably imagnitive. It is a struggle to really feel patriotism for a country from which you have been absent for decades. Though my grandfather willingly gave up his country before the crisis in 1961, Cachao's story is still quite poignant for me. Between musical portions of the documentary the director follows Cachao through Havana and Santiago de Cuba-the cities Papi and Flora were born in, respectively. The old man walks through poverty stricken areas-there are barefoot children playing in the street, one-room homes that are falling apart, chickens running wild in the street-and tell stories of his past in the country. Henzti commends the film for these non-scripted moments specifically. It is in these scenes, unlike the rest of the movie, where Cachao looks old, tired, and scarred. On stage, the man is vibrant, dancing, and emotional (Hentzi 47-50). This documentary, along with the photographs we found, is the only media I have to see the conditions my grandparents grew up in. Life was harsh and militant. Cachao reminds me a lot of my grandfather. Talking about life in Havana, Papi seemed different. His face and voice changed in a way that I had never noticed as a child. I sense he kept things from me. Abuela grew up in a very rural part of the island but still has stories of having to take cover when military men started firing at each other, leaving civilians to fend for themselves. My grandparents militant upbringing is illustrated in some frightening photographs. There are several of my mother and grandfather, posing happily for a picture flanked on both sides by military men yielding rifles. The element of their personalities and culture taken from Cuba are feelings of control. They left the country to escape the harsh realities in Cuba but the emotional burden never left my grandfather, even in his final days. The idea of control permeated my grandparents' life in America, from their parenting and marriage to their occupations. There is one story my mother loves to tell of the time she decided to play hooky from school. Almost every child would have gotten in some sort of trouble but for my mother it was a memorable experience. She had her glasses snapped off her face but not before a verbal tirade from both my grandparents about sneaking around. Another time Papi accused Flora, in front of my mother, of adultery because he had come home early from work and they were not home. Flora had just taken Betty with her to the doctor. It doesn't take a psychologist to infer Papi was untrusting of the people closest to him because of the lying he did against his country. Paranoia seems to be a natural reaction to life as a spy. Papi couldn't shake it even after his stint of espionage was done. As a new American, Papi's first job was at a bookbinding factory. Everyday, he would make his own lunch and and carpool all the way to the factory in Newark, New Jersey and work all day only to find his lunch stolen. After some civilian spy work, he discovered the culprit. Papi, a thin, dark-skinned man who at his tallest only reached about 5' 9" built himself up as much as he could and approached the giant, bulky white man. (At least in Papi's version of the story, this man was six and half feet tall.) "Eh-coos me, sadamanbeetche, today, you ee-ting my sammich." In his consternation, he gave up on English and continued in Spanish through yellowed, clenched teeth, "Pero manana le voy hechar veneno. Y si ce muere..." (But tomorrow I'm going to put poison in it...) Pleased with himself, he concluded, "I don' care!" Raising his arms by his head and shaking them all in a gesture I've seen him do many times as an old man, he turned and walked away. Leaving, I imagine, a bewildered factory worker chomping down on the pilfered sandwich watching my grandfather strut proudly in the opposite direction. I love imagining my grandfather, who I see as a gentle old man who loved sitting quietly with a grandchild or two on his lap, yelling and cursing at a man who I know intimidated him. Thus, he became Macho. Nearly everyone calls him Macho. In his early years in America he had jet-black hair styled like James Dean, olive skin held tight across his cheekbones and a large mole on the side of his cheek under the outside corner of his left eye. I have a small one in the same place on my own face. I knew him as a small, skinny man in guayaberas and thin slacks on the weekends, or in his tan janitor’s shirt with “Rey” embroidered with yellow stitching above his breast pocket, almost always containing the familiar red and white packaging of Marlboros. He wore brown slacks and black Reeboks with janitor’s keys jangling as he worked at the apartment complex he and my grandmother lived in with my aunt Vanessa, who is only four years older than I am. Family structure in the US has become increasingly diverse, but for Cuban Americans there is a very definable trend towards independence of elders. Iveriz Martinez studied these trends for the Journal of Comparative American Studies. Unlike traditional views, many Cuban parents are actually pushing their children through education and encouraging them to leave. Cuban culture dictates that an unmarried child live with the parents until they pass away or at least take the widow or widower from their home into their own. I see both the traditional practice and this new practice of Cuban Americans in my grandparents. My mother, the oldest in her family, was encouraged to go to school (they even sent her to medical school in Mexico), and spent a lot of time traveling the country in her twenties. After medical school however, she was expected to move back home and live with her parents until she was married, which she did. (Oddly enough, both my parents lived with their parents until marriage, although this isn't generally a wide practice in white families.) So my mother stayed until she was married but my uncle Nin and my aunts Toni and Vanessa all moved out as soon as possible. My aunt Maritza, contrarily, has lived in the apartment directly above my grandparents' for as long as I can remember. Her only furnishing are a bed for herself and her daughter, her clothing, a small craft area and a computer desk. The kitchen is used only for tea. Her eating, television, and other outside-of-work life occur totally in the downstairs apartment. Now that my grandfather has passed, not much has changed. Intergenerational living arrangements in Hispanic Americans are born of necessity and not tradition, Martinez asserts, though my observations say different. At least for Maritza, she lives there because she wants to (361). Cuban women experience a higher emotional burden than men because of their familial duties, Martinez' article reads. Women take care of their parents, spouses, and children for their entire life. My grandmother is a small woman with thinning gray hair, tan skin, and partial dentures. She wears muu-muus around the house with slippers unless she is working. I've never seen her wear a skirt or dress (other than the muu-muu). Cleaning is not her thing, but she cooks amazing meals and loves her dog Tobi as if it were her child. One time late at night Tobi got a hold of her dentures...and managed to put them on the right way! She and Papi chased her around with a broom until she gave them up. Abuela came to the states at seventeen, and gave birth to my mom at 19. When she moved to West New York with Papi she had very thick, dark hair, a lovely hourglass figure, and a sad, scared countenance of a young Hispanic girl. She did not know how to flush a toilet or answer a phone, and the business of the city frightened her. After my mother returned from Cuba and my grandparents' days as spies were done, she gave to birth to three more children. The family moved around a lot as Papi struggled to keep work. Flora worked at factories while the kids were at school and took piece work home that she did with my mother. For a while the only thing she had to cook for her family of six was eggs and rice after Papi was laid off. Mom told me that they were living in the basement of an apartment building. Though I'm sure it was stressful for both my parents I always stop to think of how Abuela felt. She was not used to working at a job outside the home and now she was responsible for everything. Cristina Reca wrote an article for El Centro de estudios Sobre America about social policies and family in Cuba before and after the revolution. Castro's socialist regime regulated conjugal relationships and family roles, but even before Fidel there were principles in place about the division of labor in families. According to Reca, Hispanic-Christian and African influences were the main culprit in promoting patriarchal society in Cuba, citing the "'historic', 'natural,' or 'biological'" roles that men and women are charged with (149). Women in Cuba were viewed as responsible for the transmission of these roles to their children. My grandmother always worked due to economic reasons (my grandparents had five children..all of them unexpectedly) but she did all the cooking and housework. Papi's parenting was largely passive except for disciplinary moments, according to my mother and her siblings (Reca 149). In Cuba, planned marriages like my grandparents' were the norm in the 1950s. Consensual marriage did occur, but not in great numbers except in urban areas (151). My grandfather was a pen-pal with Flora's older sister, and only married Flora when her sister declined. I grew up thinking this was very sad. I assumed they didn't love one another. I now realize that although I don't understand their attitudes they are not uncommon. I hated to hear my grandfather boss my grandmother around, but she was not a weak woman. She willingly adopted her role in the family when she agreed to move and marry Papi. Her low economic status in Cuba was reason enough to acquiesce to a husband and children, but she is a great mother and grandmother and was an important person to my grandfather right until his end.
Immigrants tend to have strong group ties amongst themselves and within their families. I see that in my mother's side of the family on my visits, but unfortunately we aren't as much a part of it. My mother is the only Gulin child who married outside what I like to call the Cuban Faith. She married a white man who whisked her away to Nashville, Tennessee. The rest of my mother's family, however, has remained close. Other than Betty everyone lives within one or two cities from Union City and they all visit often.
Pasting together the edges of these frayed photographs and memories will never stop. In old age my grandparents were chefs, warm hugs, free laps to sit on, and present-givers, but I feel Reynaldo and Florencia Gulin's entire story flow through my veins. My life might not be that of the rifle-toting toddler, and it's not the life of my mother or her mother. I am American by birth but if Abuela and Papi have taught me anything, it's that your birth has nothing to do with who you are. In part, I'm Malta Goya and watching baseball; I'm plastic sheet covers, faded Polaroids and water damaged black and whites, preserved forever in digital format. At the bottom of my own white shoebox you'll find Noche Buenos, Midnight Masses, urban playgrounds and a move to the South. I'm still working on filling it.



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Mar. 14th, 2011 09:18 pm (UTC)
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