Stories

. . . baptized in the fuck zone 1934 . . . – Manuel Marrero

(excerpt from the upcoming novel Thousands of Lies)

Interlocutors enter.                                                                                                  “Hello, I’m here,” said Pablo sharpening the blade.                         “Please…”                                                                                                                            “No time for begging now, old man. You don’t want to look stupid, do you? It’s your big date. So much at stake for you and Carolina, no?” Pablo swipes the air in a grand motion.                                                          “Now hold still. We need to send your family a message. Or how else will they know you’re still alive? The tip of your nose will be the ambassador, since you don’t need it to spite your face.”

“Wait, please… I know nothing. I dare not dissemble, my captain. Purely out of noblesse oblige, you could find it in your heart to spare my face. Surely my effronteries be not unimpeachable.”
“You wish to bargain?”
“Whatever I may lack in information, I offer you in service, so far afield of my capacities as shop owner as you wish.”
“Very civic of you, but I’m afraid you don’t have a say in the matter. Your government has sealed the fate of its most endowed citizens. A monetary hub, if you will, in the Balearics is all that stands between our comrades and victory. Unless you care to divulge, in sum and substance, the nuances of this tax shelter, my hands are bound. But because I like you old fool, I am hereby empowered to offer you ‘ludes or barbs for the pain. That noblesse you speak of extends so far as this token of clemency.”
“But, most venerable captain, to the same autumn tune we sway… though it may seem preposterous to you, fearless revolutionary leader, the mass psychology of fascism brindles us all. I wake every morning in a febrile sweat exhausted to submerge my hands in dirt for twelve hours a day. To strip the sugarcane my hands bleed, amongst that civic-minded assembly of mannequins, and on days off from the cane fields I shamefully duck my wife behind the cash register for respite. I know nothing else but the grudging tedium and coca leaves that impel me from her side each morning. One amongst millions of tiny lives under the totalitarian microscope of patriotic duty. I have no use for it. You laugh, but… I do not backpedal.”
“All I ever do is laugh anymore. It hurts buddy. Your wife.. she’s rather dowdy, is she not?”
“I don’t understand… what is dowdy?”                                                           “The mother of your children? A humble housewife, plain jane, frumparoo.”                                                                                                                           “… She is at your beck and call, captain.”                                                      “That’s not why I’m asking. You would pimp your own wife to spare your life?”                                                                                                                                “I only aim to please…”                                                                                              “The problem with Sisyphus is not dread… it’s the monotony, the exposed hollow husk of life. To escape this addiction, one must substitute other drives, rations, if you will… doesn’t matter. No making heads or tails of it anymore. No time for litanies. Your odious chicanery avails you no longer. Sobriety is a commitment to distillation. Our ministrations are foreclosed in advance. You’re trying to outrun yourself, but your struggling is tacky, my friend. The paperwork alone we’d have to firm up, to truly have restitution, for wasted hours, wasted lives, would deter me from sparing your life. I’m not an ogre, but you’re shooting darts from a blind alley amigo. No more syncopated hanky-panky, or puttering in your master’s garden; henceforth you will fuck loud and clear in the abyss. What awaits you is grand but I do not envy you, because I still enjoy it. This is the stadium where Richard Pryor cut his teeth. A sliver of bitter
truth, an entr’acte if you will. Something so horrible that you can’t look away. Livid or cordial, if but provisionally to put up with me, I thank you. Your scars will form a large part of this story, however ill-augured your fate. See this cudgel? It’s not for drubbing. Your veins are but cheap cardboard strips. This mouth is not for censure. It’s for discursion. Love used to fill up my heart, now it blackens it like an idle precept. Hard to see when it went bad. You see?”

Start at the beginning — Where were you born, and what was the community like that you grew up in? Was the town large/small, rural/urban? What did people do for work? 12/26/34 Sancti Spiritus. I worked with my brothers as a mechanic, and they brought me up to be a mechanic. The community was neither small nor big; it was regular. It was a terminal municipal (small town, but part of a larger entity — village w/ shared town hall). It was a town of el campo. (a rural rite of passage, school or sugarcane, see la zafra; sugar for oil was their deal with the Soviets, before that the US subsidized purchases of it.)
What are the clearest images or memories you have of being a young boy in Cuba? I was with my parents a lot; it was a happy town. There was a lot of hope because people were hard-working. We were always going to the park and joy-riding (rico).                                      • Who did you live with as a boy? Tell me about your family. All of my family… I was with my six brothers. Because my father was Chinese, he didn’t have any other family. My mother had three brothers.
I know that your father was born in China. Why did he decide to leave China, and why did he choose to go to Cuba? When was this? I don’t know when. He came from Canton (possibly Chinese civil war of 1927-37). With one brother, who died of leukemia shortly
thereafter. His other two brothers went to the Orient. That was a long time ago and they’re dead. Cuba was a very tempting, wealthy place; the tropical climate was good.                                                                      • What do you know of your father’s immigrant experience? What do you feel were the most difficult things he faced when he came to Cuba? When he got here he immediately started working in hotels and other things, and then he started his own business. He worked and struggled and made something of himself (La Lucha).
Was there a distinct Chinese community in Cuba? In your town? Yes, absolutely. There was a Chinese society — there were many Chinese. Sancti Spiritus had a lot of Chinese, their own society, and there was a Spanish colony as well. There were a lot of Colombians also. There was a lot of Chinese commerce as well as working class. The Chinese were taken care of; they had hotels and private/secret restaurants.
What about your mother? Where was she born, and how did she describe her ethnicity? She was Cuban, but her parents were Spanish. Her last name was Arma. She was first generation Cuban, and had three brothers.                                                                                                   • What factors influence social status in Cuba? Income, profession, race? Where do you feel your family fit in? We were middle class, because we worked. My father worked, and we worked too. We each picked up a discipline; two brothers worked as gardeners, in restaurants… another brother was a mechanic. In every country, there are people who don’t fight to advance themselves. There was no discrimination, because it was a country of immigrants from around the world.                                                                                                                • Having parents of different backgrounds, how did you define yourself ethnically and racially as a young man? I’m very proud of my parents on both sides, but I’m Cuban. I don’t have anything against Spain or China; on the contrary, I’m very proud. I am what I am.
• Are ethnic/racial tensions different in Cuba than in the United States? Is there a racial hierarchy in Cuba? No, the problem was that there was a change in govt. we didn’t like. (started talking about the revolution — “… that’s the problem.” “Some of us stayed, and some of us went.”) (When pressed) No, there were no racial issues.
What was life like under Batista? During that time, it was a country where you could live well because you had liberty. You could travel and you were free. (Problems?) No, well, the problems began with the Revolution and Castro. (In 1959?) Well 1959 was when Batista left and Castro assumed power, but the problems started before that with his revolution, riling and gathering up a bunch of people.                                                                                                                                       • Did you feel a foreign (American) influence in Cuba at the time? There were many big American companies that treated the Habaneros that worked with them well.                                                               • Do you feel as though the colonial legacy of the Spanish and Americans were felt in Cuba? How? I don’t understand the question. (Reiterate) No, the Spanish had businesses and the Americans had large businesses. They had banks and… (indecipherable)                                                                                                                   • How did the Cuban Revolution affect your life initially? What did you think about it and Castro at the time? In the beginning, it went very well; they were going to get rid of this and that (partly indecipherable), but then they started changing and taking the liberty and the things people had worked their whole lives for. They took everything from my father and brothers, up to our liberty. It got worse.                                                                                                                                         • What led up to your decision to leave Cuba? In order to leave I had to work in el campo for two years; La Zafra. I left on April 1st of 1970. There was no progression and liberty and I was no longer owner of my person. For the future of my children. I had nothing to offer my family and daughters.
What were the biggest challenges Cubans faced at the time you left? He separated the families, sent the boys to el campo and the girls one way and tore apart families and started the enmity between fathers and sons and ruined everything there.                            • Was it difficult (logistically & emotionally) to leave Cuba? Castro said that if you didn’t like the revolution, you can leave. So I worked two years in el campo and left my family: my wife and three children in Cuba.
What are the last few images you remember upon leaving Cuba, and what were your first impressions of the United States? My first impression I felt was the commerce and the abundance of food and clothes; there was not even enough clothes in Cuba to dress your kids. And I worked until I could bring them here. And I am very grateful.                                                                                                                                    • What do you feel were the most difficult things you faced when you came to Miami? (Encountered prejudice? Getting wife & kids over here) When I got here I reunited with my sister who arrived two years earlier. I started working and struggling… and struggling until today. (How much time? Process) Was very difficult. I began reclaiming my wife and children in Mexico and they robbed me, took the money that I had saved up to afford their visas. (In Mexico?) They arrived by flight 24 months after me.                                                                     • We spoke about your childhood in Cuba. What about the childhoods of your children; how were those different from your own? (Both in Cuba and after they came to the United States?) They arrived one and a half and almost three years old (my daughters). My mother came. They had everything here; schools, thanks to God.        • Has the way you define your nationality or racial identity changed since coming to the US? With the United States…. it’s the biggest country in the world giving opportunity to the whole world to progress and struggle, and it’s a country where all religions are respected and everything is respected.                                                                  • What is your perception of your home country? Has it changed over time? I am Cuban but I know that my country they have destroyed in total, with the families, everything…but I feel Cuban.
Do you go back to Cuba? Why? How has the country changed? How is your life different than those of family members who did not emigrate to the United States? (Sustained emotional, familial, or economic relationship with that country?) I return to see my brothers, but I can’t see anything because with my age and the conditions of my country that’s destroyed, there’s no commerce, there’s nothing, it’s destroyed. (Families stayed behind) Two brothers older than me, and the poor ones keep struggling and they have their little houses but they’re poor people. They don’t have the liberty that I have here. (Both brothers [older] had the opp. to emigrate and within a month of embarkation missed Cuba and decided to return.)
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, tourism in Cuba has increased. What do you think of Cuba being a tourist destination? Do you think it will influence the attitudes of the Cuban people? Do you feel it will influence Cuba’s cultural identity? Well, it’s that the tourism in Cuba is a very bad tourism because of problems of production. It’s not the tourism of the wealthy, free countries. It’s a tourism of people who go to drink and debauch and indulge in prostitution and all that.
What, if any, are the differences between American values and Cuban values in your opinion? Before Fidel, it was like the same nation, because everyone thought in progress, and what we had in Cuba was the same as in the US, La Lucha, but everything, all the problems came from the Cuban government.
• What do you feel is the biggest challenge facing Cuba now? The only future that there can be is that communism and socialism ends so that people can work and one can send something to their families so they can advance and rebuild because right now it’s destroyed.