By Adriana Sierra
Celia Cruz resonates from the windows. Abuela sits on her rocking chair. Her husband’s poems rest on her lap. He never learned to spell, but his ink was his breath and the air was his paper, and Mother sat next to him to scribble the words down before they disappeared into the yellow wallpaper. Grandfather’s poems belong to another time. They belong to 1959.
The children gather around the pork. They look at its face with awe, fear, and hunger. It stares back. Abuela slices it with expert hands. It has been turning over the coals inside the caja china all morning. Cousins argue over something that happened 20 years ago, the accent passed down from parents more noticeable when they raise their voices. The old men sit around a square table. The plastic chair where Grandfather used to sit is empty and, as they slap the dominos down, they let their eyes wander to other players’ sets through the thick smoke of Cuban cigars. The old women reminisce over whisky and cigarettes. The family lines up, plates already filled with congri, yucca, and guacamole. It is Christmas, and Buena Vista Social Club plays from the stereo.
“Me cago en el mundo,” – I shit on the world. Grandmother is angry. She is always angry, even when she sits on the rocking chair with her husband’s poems on her lap. It is January 6. Grandfather would have been 74. She will not go to church, she does not believe in God. And why should she? Granddaughter asks her about Cuba, asks to hear her story. She has a notebook open on her lap, a pencil ready in her hand. Grandmother’s life should be a book. It is history, it is a story worth telling, and one that many, like her granddaughter, would like to hear. It is extraordinary, extraordinarily sad.
But grandmother gets angrier, or sadder, it is hard to tell. “Stop asking about Cuba. I left nothing there, there is nothing there for me.” Compay Segundo hums through the open door, filling the silence left in the room with yellow wallpaper as Granddaughter walks away. Grandfather would have been 74.
Grandmother’s hands land on the drum, la tumbadora. The children sleep in the guest room. Granddaughter asks Mother who her cousins are, and why everyone in the room says Tia and Tio and Prima and Primo. Mother responds that they are all family, that they are all Cuban. “They may not share your blood, but they have Cuban blood, and that is enough.” Mother and her cousins, who are not really cousins, go back to the party. They sit on the couch, in the porch, crowd the kitchen. Second generation Cubans. Their accents are not completely Cuban, neither are their children’s’, but they have grown up eating matahibaro, reading Marti, hearing the stories, yearning for a nation that was taken from them before they were born. Cubans without a Cuba. Cubans and something else, somewhere else.
In the living room, Grandmother plays la tumbadora to the rhythm of Antonio Machín. The only songs in the world that allow for dancing and crying at the same time. The old men and women dance. It is 1959 as long as Guajira, Guantanamera is playing. Grandfather was always the best dancer, the best dressed, the most handsome, the most lively, the most loved. He never learned to read, but he knew how to listen, and he knew the songs by heart.
Three generations and there is still Cuba, but they will never know Cuba. Grandmother sits in her rocking chair. She is climbing mango trees, she is cycling down roads lined with sugar cane, she is listening to Cuban music in Cuba, dancing in La Havana. Grandfather’s poems sit on her lap – the poems that were said to his family in Cuba, to what he saw when he saw Cuba.
Grandmother belongs to another time. She belongs to 1959. Grandmother belongs to another place. She belongs to Cuba.