Saturday, April 19, 2008

Homeless in Mexico and a Yo-Yo Contest

Not having a 'home' was such a strange feeling. We were not on vacation . We were not 'visiting relatives' for a few days. We just did not have any place to go back to. We were totally dispossessed. Without a place of our own. Homeless!

The feeling was so scary and so 'final', that I spent my entire first year in exile fighting it. Even after we finally had our first tiny 'efficiency apartment' -in Miami, much later- I felt this horrible pain of having lost my roots, my daily routine, my home. And I cried a lot. All the time. I would curl up in bed in fetal position and cry for hours at a time.

Nonetheless, in Mexico everybody was good to us; and aunts and cousins tried their best to make us feel welcomed. They were all 'refugees' like us, had lots of expenses, small children and meager salaries, but somehow we ate everyday, and they even managed to get us some used clothes from friends who gave us all kinds of things.

I always attribute the compulsion I have to buy ‘things’ to those first 2 years in exile, when I never wore a pair of shoes of my exact size and dressed with "hand me downs" of all different sizes and styles. But those first months in Mexico every shopping bag that arrived for us was a thrilling surprise!. Sometimes I really liked the clothes they sent us; and one day we were bewildered when an old acquaintance of my mother sent her a huge leather trunk filled with what seemed to be vintage 1940's dresses and a very old silver fox jacket... complete with its two ugly fox heads!

Since we could not stay in Mexico, because it was impossible to find work permits, we had applied for our USA Resident Visa at the American Embassy in Mexico City. Each visa cost $50.00 which relatives managed to find for us, and it would take from 2 to 3 months to get them. In the meantime our days were aimless, like living in a new and very different state of 'limbo'.

Sometimes we would take a rickety bus to the center of Cuernavaca, crossing neighborhoods of such poverty that we were really shocked- and visited the markets, marveling at the fresh fruit and pretty crafts. I remember asking one day for the price of an apple. It was hardly a few pennies, but we only had enough money to get the bus back to the house ---and we could not buy it! ..My mother and my brother would stare at the windows of Mexico's fabulous bakeries (the "panificadoras") and practically drool looking at the donuts or turnovers they could not buy. But -somehow- we believed this was only a ‘temporary thing’, and we had to accept this poverty until we could start over our lives in the USA. And I believe it was this positive thought that kept us sane!

After we had been in Cuernavaca for a month we moved!...The 'house-sitting' in Cuernavaca was over --and my cousins had to rent an apartment in Mexico City, at Campos Eliseos St. in a very nice neighborhood called Polanco, not far from my other relatives. The new place had an extra bedroom and -again- we slept on the floor, over blankets and cushions, but being in the D.F. improved our 'eating', since we were able to eat more often at my Aunt Mary's, where there was always lots of good food. We started 'discovering' Mexico City as well, getting to know all the main tourist attractions and visiting my Aunt Mary's house every day. Unfortunately -maybe from sleeping on the humid floor- my mother caught pneumonia and it was discovered she also had acute anemia. She had been giving my always hungry and growing brother most of her food and her health was very run-down.

I remember the visits from Dr. Marín, the wonderfully caring Mexican doctor who had taken care of my Uncle Paco Ichaso. He came to see her every day, not charging a penny and giving us free medicines and lots of support. And under "doctor's orders" she was moved from the floor to one of the small beds of my cousin's little girls ---where her feet comically stuck out as she laid there! Since pneumonia leaves some sort of 'scar' in your lungs, and this would have prevented the granting of her Resident Visa --when the appointment for the Medical Tests from the American Embassy came up my Aunt Pura took my mother's place and passed them with flying colors!..."One more anecdote for the future"- I thought- "One more tragic-comic experience to remember".

Our third month in Mexico found us yet in another 'address'! My cousins Purita and Julio Carrillo had accepted a better work offer in the city of Monterrey, and left in a hurry in mid-May. We then moved to my Aunt Mary's, where 'mami' and I were given the little boy's room -with 2 single beds!- and my brother slept in the living room sofa. It was heaven!..Their house was also very lively, with many Cuban and Mexican neighbors constantly visiting, coming in and out of the apartment, which had a sort of ‘open door' policy. Since my Cousin Marilyn Ichaso was a theatre reviewer I went to many plays with them. Also to some restaurants, where being able to choose from a "menu" was still very confusing and a new source of anguish. And we even saw then- singing- sensation, the Italian crooner Emilio Pericoli!

One day something unforgettable happened: As we were sitting in the living room with some of the neighbors, Leon came in and mentioned that he wanted to enter a "Yo-Yo Contest" at a nearby F.W. Woolworth. The prize was a motorcycle -very much like the one he had left behind in Cuba- and right away 'wealthier' and very generous Beba Toledo pulled out and handed him 1 dollar to buy the Duncan Yo-Yo and enter the contest. A couple of hours later we were surprised to see a sad-faced Leon enter the house.

"What happened?"- we all asked - "Did you win or not?".

His answer was so poignant, it makes me feel sorry for him even to this day:

"Win?...I did not even dare to enter the contest!"- he explained totally disillusioned- "Those Mexicans were even pulling Yo-Yos out of their mouths!..I was embarrassed even to compete...And they would not give me a refund for the purchase of the Yo-Yo!"

Something similar happened to me when -armed with 2 dollars somebody had given me- I went to the store Sanborns and asked the girl at the cosmetic department if she carried "L'Orange Magnifique" by Max Factor. It had been my favorite lipstick in Cuba before the scarcity brought on by the revolution, and for years I had dreamed of having it again. To my surprise the girl pulled out a tube, with a swift movement opened it and showed me the beautiful lipstick of my dreams. The price was exactly 2 dollars (then 25 pesos) ---but I just could not buy it! ..Something 'froze' me --and after looking at the pretty color and thanking the surprised sales clerk, I almost ran out of the store. It seemed so frivolous to spend the only money I owned fulfilling a dream!

One Sunday -while visiting the Chapultepec Castle- Leon and I met this Mexican young man called Armando, who apparently liked me very much and invited us to his home. His family was somehow wealthy --and they took us out to dinner and to some other outings. My tale of being "recently arrived Cuban refugees" always brought the best in people. They felt sorry for us and it also helped us feel better and less embararassed about being penniless 99% of the time. It seems now unbelievable, but we were really 'destitute' and living on other people's good will and charity.

Before leaving Cuba - as many Cubans did- my mother had exchanged in the "black market" 3,000 pesos for 300 dollars from my French teacher -Monsieur Jean Charles Vayssié- who worked for the French Government, and had his salary deposited, in dollars, in a New York City bank. He had written a $300 check in our name, sent it through the diplomatic pouch and the money was waiting for us in New York!... The Cuban peso, since 1950, long before the Revolution, had had the same value of the American dollar, now was exchanged by diplomats and opportunists at whatever rate they felt like trading it. Another $200 were ilegally exchanged and deposited in Miami. So $500 was our entire fortune, waiting for us to start a new life in the United States!

In Mexico we had gathered about $100 to last us indefinitely. They were a gift from my then- boyfriend X who had send it from New York. Oh, yes -I forgot to tell you- but as I left Cuba I was "engaged to be married" to this very handsome young man I had met while singing "counterrevolutionary hymns" at church ---and whom I had not seen since he had left Cuba almost 2 years before our departure!

X -tall, with great dark looks and the only surviving son of a very nice family ( his younger revolutionary brother had been killed by Batista's forces) had exiled in 1961 and was waiting for me in New York City, where we would eventually settle ---and get married. Of course, the marriage never happened, since I broke with me as soon as I saw him again in New York months later and realized I was not in love with him and hardly even ‘knew’ him! But I will always appreciate his genuine generosity to us –even though he was such a young man of only 21 or 22, making a small salary- during those surreal “new beginnings” of our life.