The Philadelphia Free Library selected Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy by Carlos Eire to be its One Book, One Philadelphia selection in 2007. It won the National Book Award in 2003. Eire, who knew and loved Cuba before it became Castrolandia, as he puts it, described an island paradise of turquoise waves, perfect clouds and tangerine sunsets. To avoid Castro’s imminent recruitment to the Revolution, young Carlos and eventually 14,000 other children were airlifted to Florida and faced the unknown. Much of Waiting is about Eire’s rough and tumble boyhood, his eccentric complicated but beloved father and the changes Castro brought. In putting their children on a Florida-bound plane, parents sacrificed their most precious possessions hoping that families could re-unite at a later time. Most never did. But waiting to reunite as a family, reclaim property and enjoy life on the green island was like waiting for snow in Havana; it wasn’t going to happen.
I’d always hoped Carlos Eire would write a sequel. He rushed through the story of his arrival and wrote just the highlights. We know he survived just fine to go on to be a T. Lawrason Riggs history and religion professor at Yale. But how was it to live in the United States during those first few years? Besides his parents, what did he miss? When did he start to identify himself as an American and not a Cuban? When did the Cuban in him die?
In 2010 his sequel was published Learning to Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy. There are those special books that are so wonderful that you savor them page by page. You slow down your reading to make it last longer. Learning to Die is one of those books. As they always do, the immigrant experience narrative includes the perfunctory jaw-dropping trip to an American grocery store. Even an eleven year old boy wondered about the disparity between this abundance and the empty store shelves in his Cuban home neighborhood. Right in the aisles of a “rinky-dink” grocery in downtown Florida City, Carlos Eire decided to be an American. What Eire realized as he grew older is that for his American Self to live, his Cuban Self had to die. He changed his name from Carlos to Charles to Chuck to sound American. He later assumed his given name Carlos. He learned English but worked at losing the accent by listening to the speech patterns of Andy Griffith. He figured a well known actor such as Griffith would be a fine model. Truth be told, his foster family in Florida had a television that picked up one channel: Andy Griffith was on that channel. As he reflected later, he taught himself Southern without knowing it. He never lost the Cuban accent entirely. I’ve heard him on the radio and he’s charming.
Contrary to the trend, Eire asserts that providing bilingual signage and services to Hispanics is a way of creating an underclass and he’s angered by the Hispanics who demand it. “Learn English, it’s what you need in order to climb out of the bottom.” He encourages Hispanics to keep their Spanish but learn English to succeed. “Spanish won’t get you anywhere.” Wow. You don’t hear that very often.
This book is going on my Top Ten All Time Favorites.