Sunday, October 03, 2004
Looking for my Classmates in the US
There comes a time when, after raising a family and having done something with one´s life, people like to return to childhood friends and, in most occasions, turns out they will never get in touch with them again. In my case, I would love to find some of those who I remember the most among my classmates in the United States. I lived in the US from June, 1953 to May, 1958, one year in New York and four in Miami. From New York I don´t remember the names of my friends, just that of the school, The Good Shepherd, in a neighborhood called Washington Heights, I believe. My address was Vermilyea Avenue, near 200 St. and Broadway, that is all I recall. When I arrived at New York in the summer of ´53, to live with my aunt and uncle, I had recently lost my father from a heart attack, at the peak of his vitality, for he was 37. My mother had to get used to the idea of having me and my two sisters living with different relatives so that she could work. I was the eldest, 8, the middle one was 6 and the youngest a year and a half, so they were very difficult times for my mother, a widow at 36. Brave and foolish, she never married again because she couldn´t bare the thought of leaving her three girls alone with a stranger, even if he was her husband. Our status in Cuba at the time of my father´s death, 1952, was that of a low middle-class family. He owned a small retail store for selling animal feed and farming implements, near the town of San Francisco de Paula, made famous for having Ernest Hemingway, the Literature Nobel Prize winner, as one of its neighbors. Though I never got to meet him, I did go to his villa, La Vigía, during the early 50´s and, luckily, it remains today much the same as I remember it, very visited as a museum. In a New York State of Mind I am sorry now to have lived in New York for only one year, but the environment of the Vermilyea Avenue apartment, near 200 St. and Broadway, was beginning to get violent. I went to the Good Shepherd School and already when the school year started, I had learned enough English to make myself understood, thanks to watching TV programs, in particular cartoons and reading comic strips. Aside from English and Catechism, I learned very little that year. School programs had nothing new to teach me in third grade, because I had already finished fourth in Havana. My most exciting activities were the Saturday shopping trip downtown with my aunt and some picnics on Sundays to the Cloisters and Catskill mountains. About three years earlier, when I was six, I had been in New York to visit the relatives with whom I later lived for five years. On that occasion I went with my grandmother and had a great time, I visited the Zoo and the Museum of Natural History. I went to Radio City Hall and the Empire State building, Central Park and Fifth Avenue, the usual round of tourists. But most of all, I remembered passing the United Nations building and saying that someday I would work there. The prophecy has not come true, although I have been around a lot. Comparing my recollection with London, where I also lived for a year, working as correspondent for Prensa Latina, I still prefer New York. Today, still some of my cousin Jose Antonio Quintana´s children (already with families of their own) live in New York. I sent them a letter about nine years ago which they never answered. I invited them to come down and visit me in Havana. Beach and Biking in Miami Miami was a completely different experience. At the beginning of my stay there, 1955 and 1956, it was like living in a beach town, full of retired people, mostly Jewish. I often saw kids barefooted and thought: if I saw children like that in Havana they would surely belong to the poorest families or were probably orphans, street kids. Maybe that is why whenever I came to Cuba on vacations, I would walk the house barefooted and my mother would get angry and say I looked like a homeless kid, not a well educated girl like I was supposed to be. It was a time when movies and music encouraged the otherwise natural rebellious spirit in the young generation. James Dean and Sal Mineo were my heroes for a long time, not to say the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley. Enough of “I Love Lucy” and other “family” series. I loved Dragnet and Sargent Friday and the westerns, more Alan Ladd than Roy Rogers. In 1957 and 1958, movies like the French “And God made Woman”, “The Karamazov Brothers”, forbidden by the Catholic Movie Guide, were a must-see for all the girls in my class. From the Gesu School, I remember Emil Tracy, Tommy Cheehan, Kino Sakamura and Kathleen Ostuni in 5th and 6th grade. I moved to St. Peter and Paul´s School in the South West area and passed 7th and 8th grade there. The latter belonged to the Order of St. Joseph. Priests and nuns were so natural there, they participated in school repairs, baseball and football games with the students and even joked with us girls about our boyfriends. In Cuba, I had been baptized and took my First Communion, but my family was not church-going. However, in Miami I made it a habit of going to mass on Sundays and even took my Confirmation vows. From that time I remember Carol Lundeen and my Cuban friends, Caridad Carballosa and Acacia Carreras. Their parents had fleed Cuba during the Batista dictatorship. In 1956, my mother sold our retail store in San Francisco de Paula and joined me in Miami together with my middle sister, Elina. My aunt found her a job in the same clothing workshop where she worked and rented a small apartment in the back of my aunt´s house. I became very money-conscious then, because we had to manage with a low salary of about $40 a week, $15 of which went to pay the rent. And if I told those were the most happy years of my childhood after my father´s death, nobody would believe it. Our main entertainment on weekends would be going to the beach with our aunt and uncle and on Sundays, walking all the way to downtown looking at the shop windows and dreaming of what we were going to buy when we saved enough money. Our family broke up again in October, 1957, when my mother had a gallbladder crisis and had to leave with my sister to Havana to have surgery, all in one hectic day. In the morning, she went to the doctor in Miami, who told her she needed to be hospitalized immediately and by nightfall, she was already being operated on in Havana, at a clinic to which we had continued paying our monthly fees. It took her over a month to recover and, as she had lost her job and my sister had to continue her school year, they both stayed in Havana and never went back to Miami. For that reason and already feeling homesick for Cuba, I decided to stay definitely at home that summer of 1958. One thing I still remember today when I pondered whether to go or to stay were the discrimination blacks were subjected to in the States, not even in Cuba did one see such actions as to segregate public transport, toilets and water fountains. While I was on the winning side, I felt ashamed of such behavior. Also, because American culture was so overpowering I felt it threw away all of our Latino living habits, customs and traditions. If anyone reading this piece in my blog happens to know or finds out about my friends, I would appreciate you tell them to get in touch with me.