Artist Statement:

As a native Midwesterner, my husband and my move to southern Florida in the early 1990’s was quite a cultural shock. We had no idea how greatly the Cuban-American community had influenced so many aspects of the city and in addition to the obvious language barriers, we knew immediately that we had a lot to learn about the Cuban culture. Many of my co-workers were second generation Cuban exiles and news of a plane or boat arriving on US shores was always a cause for celebration. After some of my new friends shared with me their own families’ stories about leaving Cuba I noticed one common thread was the desire to one day return. This was my inspiration for “Calle Ocho.”


 

Calle Ocho

Adrienne Ward

 

In the streets the crowds gather as excited children pull their parents to the curb in the hope of seeing the street performers throwing candy. Women, who had spent the previous day in beauty salons having their hair teased and nails manicured, dance the salsa to an old Tito Puente tune in high heels and flowing skirts, their elaborate jewelry glistening in the sunlight. At the home of Ricardo Veda, men congregate on the front porch, sipping café cubano and playing dominoes, seemingly oblivious to the activity on the street. Their caged parrots chatter happily to the sounds of the bands in the distance. Inside, Ricardo’s wife Ana was scrambling in the kitchen, creating a banquet of Cuban cuisine: vaca frita, fried plantains, yuca, black beans and rice, and the mojo, which had been marinated overnight and slow cooked to reach its height of perfection.


“There are times when I could do without Calle Ocho,” Ricardo said, as he played his last domino.


“Aye. You should enter the tournament this week!” Guiermo replied. “What do you have against the festival? It’s a celebration of our heritage and everything you love: musica, dominos, salsa…pretty ladies,” he teased. Guiermo craned his neck to get a glimpse of the street, catching a glance from an aging woman in a tight dress.

 

“I wonder if Fidelito watches us,” Ricardo replied. As so often happened, Calle Ocho reminded him of home. Not this place that had become his home from necessity, but his real home, where he had grown up and married. Where his children were born.

 

“Fidelito has problems of his own. Why do you continue to let him worry you? He is an old man. You are an old man,” Guiermo said.

 

“Because he is there and we are not,” Ricardo sighed. “I never thought we would stay in this country so long..” As Ricardo poured himself a tiny cup of the hot sweet café, he remembered the Nicaraguan street vender he had seen that morning selling café cubano. Even the Cuban district was changing. What once was a refuge for the first wave of Cubans was now rapidly becoming a melting pot of Marielistas, Jamaicans, Haitians, and South Americans. Whenever there was a government upheaval, Miami grew in numbers. Then there were the touristas, who had come just to sample Cuban food and buy t-shirts. He found himself resenting their presence as much as his own.

 

“Castro will die soon. Who knows what will happen then,” Jorge said in Spanish as he turned the dominoes over for another game. “Things may change. They did in Europe.”

 

“By that time we may be dead and gone, Jorge,” Ricardo replied in kind. “Do you not think about your family there?”

 

“Sometimes, Ricardo, but what good does it do? We cannot go back. They cannot come here. Yes, I am still angry, but I have learned to bury my anger and go on with my life. To do otherwise is to let Castro win,” Jorge said.

 

Two little girls passed in front of the porch step eating snow cones and giggling among themselves, their ruffled dresses swaying in the tropical breeze.

 

“I still worry about my sisters. It would be good to at least know…” Ricardo said, as his thoughts wandered to his own childhood and he wondered if he would ever be able to speak with his sisters in again. The last letter he had received had come from Margarita years ago. “Mariella and I share a small house with our families in Tapaste, just outside Havana. It is difficult to find the things we need,” the letter had said. He had sent money, medicines, and clothing for the children but had never heard from them again. He wondered if they were still alive and felt that familiar pang of guilt. He and Ana had escaped but much of his family remained. He had accepted the fact that he would probably never visit the graves of his parents, but the lives of his sisters remained a mystery that haunted him.

 

“I was in the army when Castro took power,” Ricardo said finally, “We should have been able to do more.” He remembered the feel of his military uniform, stiff and starched, his shoes spit polished to shine in the tropical sun. Never would he have believed that life would change so much for so many. “Now I am an old man, living in the shadows of the past, spending my days playing dominoes and drinking café.”

 

“There are worse ways to spend your golden years, Pop. Think about how many people come here to retire.

 

Besides, is it really so different in Florida?” Guiermo asked. “The gringos call Miami the northern capital of Cuba. We do what we want here. We speak Spanish at home. It’s not so bad.”

 

“It is not said with respect. They don’t want us here. I don’t want us here. It’s not Habana,” Ricardo said. Guiermo, just doesn’t understand, Ricardo thought. He’s the youngest and Miami is the only home he has ever known. “You were a baby when we left. All we had was what we could carry,” Ricardo said. He remembered how Ana had so hated having to leave the crib that her father had made for the babies. There were no choices then, just the lesser of two evils and opportunity for their children. So much of the past was lost forever. “I wish we had at least been able to bring some pictures with us,” Ricardo said. “You would have liked growing up with grandparents. Alicia looks a bit like my mother,” Ricardo told Jorge in Spanish. No pictures, no heirlooms--only memories, most of them sad.

 

How do you explain these feelings to a generation that knows nothing of heritage and culture, but believes it does? he wondered. His children were no longer Cuban but Cuban American, raised in a foreign country, taught English in foreign schools, acculturated into this melting pot of a city. Yet, they considered themselves Cuban, even though they couldn’t even write in Spanish and it was only spoken at home. Even though the nuns had made them learn the school work only in English and had made them lose all traces of their Cuban accents.

 

“You don’t remember Habana. You were too young when we left. It was a wonderful city. The ocean is a more beautiful blue than any other place on earth…”

 

“Aye Ricardo, have a pastelito. I make queso y guayaba,” Ana said as she placed the overflowing platter of pastries on the table.

 

Ricardo remembered Ana too and the way she looked in her black cocktail dress serving drinks at her father’s club, her hair in a tight chignon, earrings sparkling in the candlelight.

 

“Don’t you long to go home, Ana? It’s been forty years,” Ricardo said, reaching for a sticky pastry, its cheese and guava filling oozing out one side.

 

Anna stopped and considered for a moment. “I long to live, Ricardo. You know that is not possible in Cuba. Not as long as Castro is in power. Besides, this is home now. We have raised two children here.”
Ricardo’s memory of Ana transformed from the young girl in the cocktail dress to that of a young mother, patting her belly softly at night, feeling the baby within her move. Their first child. A boy.. And following the Cuban tradition he had also been named Ricardo, after his father. That pain still haunted him as well.

It had always puzzled Ricardo how easily Ana had adapted to Miami. Perhaps it had been her wish to leave Cuba, although it didn’t seem apparent at the time. Perhaps it was the desire to provide a better life for her children that drove her. Perhaps there was something within her that allowed her to forget, even little Ricardo.

 

Ana reached across the table to pour the sweet, thick café cubano into the tiny cups as Guiermo opened the humidor of cigars. He motioned it to his father, but the old man merely shook his head.

 

“Dominicano,” he said with a sigh.

 

“Ricardo, please,” Ana scolded. “You should get out and get some air. Guiermo, go with your father. I hear Celia Cruz is playing today. You always liked her.”

 

“Oye, Pop. I have someone I would like you to meet. She should be working down in one of the booths,” Guiermo said with a smile.

 

“Guiermo, a girlfriend? What is her name?” Ana asked.

 

“Erin.”

 

“Erin,” Ricardo repeated, “and she is..”

 

“Irish..”

 

“A gringo,” Ricardo sighed. He wasn’t surprised. Guiermo had dated gringos before, but he was never pleased.

 

“She’s a nice girl. I think you will like her.” He reached into his pocket to hand his father a photograph. Ricardo waved his hand away.

 

“Can’t you find a nice Cubano girl, Guiermo? Jorge’s son Jose seems to find a new one every week”

 

Ricardo said in Spanish and giving a half-hearted grin to Jorge, who smiled widely and helped himself to a pastry.

 

“Joe dates lounge lizards, papa,” Guiermo said in English while smiling to Jorge, knowing he was not fluent enough in English to understand. “Erin is a nice girl. She can’t help it her hair is blond and her eyes are blue.”

 

“And I can’t help it that my son is an Americano,” Ricardo said. “I don’t feel like going to the festival. You go ahead without me.”

 

“Don’t let Papa upset you, Guiermo. I would like to meet this girl. You bring her home to see us anytime,” Ana said.

 

“She’s Catholic, Papa,” Guiermo said.

 

Ricardo made the sign of the cross and rolled his eyes, returning to his domino game and motioned to Guiermo to leave.

 

“I’ll be back for dinner, Mamacita,” Guiermo said kissing her cheek and giving his father a sideways hug on his way down the steps.

 

“I should be going home as well.” Jorge said in Spanish. “I’m sure Fatima has been cooking all day.”

 

Ana waited until Jorge had left before clearing the table.

 

“Ricardo, what’s all this about today. You hate the festival even though you haven’t gone yet this year. You hate Guiermo’s girlfriend even though you haven’t even met her. What is wrong?”

 

Ricardo said nothing and looked away from her.

 

“You have been talking about Cuba a lot today,” she began.

 

“It’s Calle Ocho. How can you not think about Cuba?”

 

“Is it only Cuba that is on your mind?”

 

He rose from the table and went into the living room wishing to be alone with his thoughts. She followed him into the house and walked toward the kitchen.

 

“Alicia will be here soon,” she said over her shoulder. “She is bringing Angelina. Maybe the little one will cheer you up.”

 

Some time later he joined her in the kitchen. He opened the cabinet and brought out a box of seed for the porch birds.”

 

“I’m sorry Ana. Sometimes the memories comeback…”

 

“I know, Ricardo. Are you thinking about the baby again?”

 

“We could have had three children to raise in Miami,” he began.

 

“Yes,” she said softly.

 

“Ricardo, our first son. He still haunts my dreams,” Ricardo said.

 

“It was years ago, Ricardo. Mourning him will not bring him back,” Ana said, turning away to avoid the tears. She reached for a dish towel and began to dry the pots and put them away in the cabinet.

 

“I should have…” Ricardo said.

 

“It wasn’t your fault. The boat was full of people. It was an accident, that’s all. Things like that happened to so many families. Not everyone made it out of Cuba.”

 

“But we don’t have a grave. Nothing to remember him by. Not even the crib.”

 

Ana placed the last pan in the cabinet and inserted the towel into its handle. “Perhaps it is better that way. It was years ago, Ricardo. Put away your guilt. We have two beautiful children who love us. We have a grandchild who can’t wait to see her abuelito. Concentrate on the living. Cuba is dead to us,” she said.

“It’s the festival. It just brings back too many memories.”

 

“We have good memories of Cuba as well. There have been good times in Miami. Those are the things to remember, Ricardo. The sadness will only make you bitter.”

 

As Ana began to wipe off the counter, they heard the clacking of patent leather shoes on the porch step.

 

“Abuelitos!” the child called.

 

“Now don’t you be so gloomy while Angelina is here,” Ana said. “She has been looking forward to the festival for days. Don’t you ruin it for her.”

 

“I won’t,” Ricardo replied.

 

He had to admit if there was anyone who could bring him out of his mood it was Angelina, with her shiny black curls and pretty smile.

 

“Abuelitos! She repeated as she hopped into the kitchen.

 

“We’re here,” Alicia said, following behind her daughter. “This child has been absolutely hyper today. All I have heard is ‘Calle Ocho Calle Ocho’ since we got up this morning. Billy got her worked up the last time we were here. Where is my baby brother anyway?”

 

“He’s already out there. I’m sure we can catch up with him later,” Ricardo said.

 

“He has a new ‘friend’” Ana said with a smile.

 

“Does he?” Alicia said.

 

Ricardo shot a quick glance to Ana which told her that it was best to change the subject. Angelina knew immediately that her father did not approve.

 

“Are you ready to go to the festival, Angelina?” Ana asked hugging the little girl and pointing her toward the table where she had placed the leftover pastries.

 

“Mom, don’t give her those. It’ll ruin her appetite for dinner. Besides she doesn’t need sugar right now,” Alicia said, knowing that it was no use. Angelina was already removing the plastic wrap from the tray.

 

“She’s a little girl. Let her have a pastelito,” Ana said as Alicia shook her head.

 

“That’s right, Alicia. We only have one niña in the family to spoil. We may as well do it right,” Ricardo said determined not to show his sadness.

 

As Ana placed a glass of milk on the table, Ricardo pulled out a chair for the child and placed a booster seat on it.

 

He then pulled out the chair beside it and sat down himself. Instead of using the chair, Angelina crawled on her grandfather’s lap.

 

“I have been trying to explain the real meaning of Calle Ocho to Angelina,” Alicia said. “I still don’t know if she gets it. Can you try?”

 

“Calle ocho!” the little girl said. “I wanna dance!”

 

“See what I mean?” Alicia said. “I want her to know she has roots in Cuba. I want her to be proud.”

 

Angelina snuggled in closer to her grandfather, dribbling bits of milk and pastry on him as she did. As she chewed she flashed an open grin at him.

 

“Angelina, where is your front tooth?” Ricardo said with a laugh.

 

“The tooth fairy took it,” she said. “I got a dollar for it!”

 

“You did? Well good for you!” Ricardo said.

 

“And if Mommy keeps feeding her sweets she will have more for the tooth fairy,” Alicia said.

 

“What is Cuba?” the child asked, staring at her grandfather with big, brown eyes.

 

“Cuba is a place, honey. Remember how I told you that is where your abuelitos came from?” Alicia said. “I can’t seem to make her understand.”

 

Ricardo sat and thought for a moment. Perhaps he could try.

 

“Cuba is an island, Angelina. Do you know what an island is?”

 

“It’s a place with water all around it,” she said. “Like Gilligan!”

“That’s right, Angelina, but Cuba is a special place,” Ana said

 

“It’s where our family comes from. That’s why we celebrate Calle Ocho. To remind us that we come from Cuba,” Ricardo said.

 

“Remember we talked about Cuba?” Alicia said.

 

“Did you like it in Cuba, Abuelito?”

 

“It’s a magical place, baby,” he began with a sigh. He stopped for a moment to collect his thoughts. “I hope you will get to see it one day, Angelina. The ocean is a more beautiful blue there than any other place on earth…” Ricardo said.

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