Monday, April 28, 2008

We Have a Father Again!

Destiny came around once again --and changed our lives in the most unusual way, as my father, Justo Rodríguez Santos --who had just returned to Havana after a 4 months trip to Rusia and China (where his books had been translated to the Pekinese and Cantonese and he had been a personal guest of Mao Tse Tung and Chou-en-Lai)- suddenly called us from Cuba screaming and begging us to “get him out of this hellhole”.

Yes….He wanted out!...He could not take it anymore!...

We could not believe what we had heard!...Papi in exile? Yes, that is exactly what he desperately wanted. To leave Cuba behind. And eventually he did.

After sending him a Mexican visa- which was very difficult to obtain, but we finally did- and enough dollars to pay in Havana for his trip to Mexico (people who leave the country for good cannot pay their tickets in Cuban pesos) --in 1968 my father left behind the Revolution that had betrayed all of his dreams.

For a ‘liberal’ poet - in his 40’s when the Revolution took over- the promise of a democratic Cuba without Batista, was the realization of my father’s political hopes. The Robin Hood/Castro image was poetic to many, and more so to him. Thus he really believed the country was going to be just fine. And in my father’s book Fidel Castro could do no wrong!

But many years went by, things changed 180 degrees, his loyalty and talent were never really appreciated nor respected -something he never imagined could happen in this fair and great Revolution!- and he even saw his own very revolutionary brother Raul Rodriguez Santos -unfairly tried and imprisoned for 12 years. So in our absence things had changed dramatically for him --even though we never knew much about it.

After his return from Russia and China -during which we had been visited in our Miami efficiency apartment by a suspicious (to us) FBI agent, who out of the blue told us papi was going to defect - he had planned to ask for political asylum during a stopover of the Cubana plane in Gander, Newfoundand --but for some reason they had abruptly changed his return flight, and had flown him from Moscow to Havana ---via friendly communist Algeria at that time. So, as soon as he arrived in Havana his decision to defect had been made!

And he made us –penniless and totally without any clout- responsible for his survival!

The new obstacle he faced was to get a new passport and a permit to leave Cuba. And this was a huge hurdle, since before leaving he had to beg his good friend Raúl Roa for the passport (though he never helped him!) –and started to "pay" for abandoning the Revolution!...Oh yes, he had to pay dearly, he was told --and he did!

All his books were immediately removed from the Public Libraries, obliterated from the bookstores --and he was unceremoniously booted from the Cuban Union of Writers (the infamous UNEAC!), although he was one of the founding members of Cuba’s “Orígenes” literary magazine, one of the most respected and prestigious in Latin America in the 40’s. As soon as he applied to leave the country he had automatically become an avowed enemy of the Revolution, a horrendous traitor, a coward, a worm ---a non-entity. And to top it all, he was sent to do "forced labor" in a Cooperative Farm in Pinar del Río, until his departure was granted.

About a year later -- the man who arrived in Mexico City was the shadow of the outspoken and rebellious revolutionary that -when we left in 1963- had loved this Revolution more than his own family. This whole experience must have been so painful that during his long years in exile he always refused to talk much about his suffering and -somehow- embarassment. The Revolution was a fraud. Fidel Castro had betrayed him, as well as so many more of Cuba’s intellectuals. Poets like him –who revered freedom and self-determination with every cell of their bodies- were of no use to the Revolution! They did not need people who doubted, or had independent thoughts. Only flunkies were needed!

My poor father never saw this coming, until the day he ‘doubted’ the world he had refused to see as it was.

Upon his arrival in Mexico we wired him some money --and he requested an American visa to enter the United States. He was lucky that as he waited for it, he found a job in the advertising agency owned by one of his friends from Cuba. And as months went by, we planned a trip to go to Mexico –and see him.

We were living in Miami at the time, and now I realize that my mother must have saved and saved …a penny here, a dollar there, a penny here…– and one day she used it all to buy us three airline tickets to go to Mexico. I am in awe of her one more time as I write this blog --because she always did things like this! She always ‘took charge’ --shielding us from everyday things –and many times using her hard earned meager savings ‘para sacarnos de un aprieto’, pay an unexpected expense - or buy us a gift. In this case, the gift was seeing Papi after 5 years of separation. It really was such a sweet thing to do!

So the three of us went back to the city where we first lived after leaving Cuba almost 6 years before! Back to my Aunt Mary’s cheerful apartment, at Rhin 64, where we were housed, once again, in the little boys’s bedroom --while Leon went to sleep in the nearby room my father had rented in a Victorian-looking boarding house ran by a funny Mexican widow called Doña Carmelita.

Deep down, being totally honest, I was not sure at the time if I was happy -or not- that our lives had a ‘Father’ again. Was this going to be too much of a change? How much of an ‘earthquake’ his strong ‘persona’ would cause in our humble and quiet little lives? How was he going to behave? I certainly did not need him as a ‘father’ anymore --and after so many years on our own, I doubted any of us needed him.

But I was wrong! And as soon as he arrived –lucky as he always was- he was offered a great job as Creative Director in a big Advertising agency in New York City -and very soon we all moved there!

And in New York we soon learned that God definitely had other plans for the three of us.

Papi’s arrival was definitely a strong and very positive change in our lives. A strong bond that came to fruition decades after it should have had! A before-and-after benchmark! Mami finally had a man helping her out financially and emotionally. A supportive husband -like she always had wanted!- and in Cuba he never was.

Leon had a much needed father figure once again --and at this point a ‘quieter’ and much more levelheaded one! A father that shared with him his professional experience –and fully supported Leon in all his endeavors, as well as in all his problems! He was a rock-- and the father-and-son bond was established once again with beautiful force.

This man who had been ground to a pulp in Cuba, soon regained his strength, his sense of humor and his wit, his immense ‘joie de vivre’ –and became the ‘ideal’ father to us and a good husband to my mother, who married him one more time -- after we almost forced her to do so!

And I was so very lucky to get an opportunity to learn how to love my father again.
To love this new person deeply. Not to fear his ‘extravagances’, but to laugh at them. To understand him, now that I was an adult. To see what a wonderful grandfather he was to my daughter! And what a good, supportive and sweet father he was to me.

And this way the family became for the first time a strong family unit. A true Miracle on 57St!

And all of us -like in the fairy tales- enjoyed his wise and witty company until the day he died, at age 83 --due to a hospital virus accidentally contracted- while holding my hand and Leon’s ---many, many years later.