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Guest Post with Ruth Behar: The Island that Remains in Us

By September 14, 2020No Comments

Hi everyone,

From time to time, I have the pleasure of hosting guest authors on this site. Today it’s my honor to kick off Hispanic Heritage month with a lovely guest post by 2018 award-winner Ruth Behar. Her latest book, Letters from Cuba, is historical fiction and was published last month (Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin Random House.) It’s set in Cuba during World War II, when the chokehold of anti-semitism could be felt far from Europe, in even the smallest far-flung towns. I admire Ruth’s research and writing, and I think she captures the many ways that a Cuban identity has always been one of intersections. ¡Bienvenida, Ruth! We’re ready for the inside story on this remarkable middle grade novel.

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When I sat down to write Letters from Cuba, I knew I wanted the story to be set in Agramonte, a town in the sugar-growing region of Matanzas. I’ll always remember the first time I visited Agramonte on my own, about twenty-five years ago. I met elders who competed to greet me and bring me to their homes to relax in an old wooden rocking chair. They chuckled as they kept repeating, “Así que eres la nieta de los polacos, no me digas,” delighted the granddaughter of “the Poles” had come to say hello.

Rocking chairs in a home in Agramonte where Ruth stayed while doing research for Letters from Cuba.

Baba, my maternal grandmother, had bravely crossed the ocean alone to help her father, my great-grandfather, bring her mother and siblings from their hometown of Govorovo in Poland to Cuba on the eve of WWII. The United States had imposed strict quotas in the 1920s to keep Jewish refugees out, in the same era that undocumented immigration across the U.S.-Mexico border became a crime. Unable to find refuge in the America to the north, my family turned to Cuba, which opened its doors to Jews. They settled in Agramonte, so Baba told me, because people were friendly there, and they found a house and a store where the whole family could live and work together. That would have been beyond their means in Havana.

An altar for San Lázaro/Babalú Ayé in a home in Agramonte.

No other Jews lived in the town in the 1930s. Everyone called them “los polacos,” still the term for a Jew in Cuba today, where only about a thousand Jewish people remain of a community that once numbered 15,000. Being called “the Poles” was unwittingly ironic. The rise of anti-Semitism and fascism had turned the Jews into exiles in their own country, not “Polish enough,” even though they’d lived in Poland for many generations. But in Cuba they became part of a multicultural society, an “ajiaco” or stew of diverse Spaniards, Africans, and Chinese, among others, who crossed paths on the island. In 1938, a Cuban Nazi Party was briefly formed, but Baba said she never felt hated in Cuba for being a Jew. The majority of Cubans, she felt, had no stereotypes of Jews, except they all seemed to come from Poland. They were so welcoming that from her first breath of the warm tropical air she fell in love with the island and its people.

Over the years, while returning to Cuba to build bridges of literature, art, and memory, I’d travel on the country roads of red earth to visit Agramonte. The region, I learned, is known as Cuba’s Little Africa, and its religion, music, drumming, and dance, with roots in Yoruba and Arará culture, are celebrated by anthropologists, historians, spiritual leaders, and local inhabitants. Agramonte is famed for its yearly bembé, a three-night spiritual holiday for San Lázaro, known as Babalú-Ayé in the Yoruba pantheon, a deity who heals the sick and wounded (If you remember the “I Love Lucy” show, Desi Arnaz popularized “Babalú” as a nightclub song). Every time I was there for the bembé, experiencing the beauty of a culture that outlasted violence and trauma, I was moved deeply. I knew these moments in Agramonte would one day find their way into my writing.

When Letters from Cuba begins, Esther barely gets to admire Havana’s stunning seaside promenade, known as the Malecón, before Papa whisks her away to catch the train. Esther tells her sister, Malka, in one of her early letters, that she will follow Papa to the ends of the earth, and that place is Agramonte. There Esther learns of Cuba’s brutal history of sugar and slavery through her friendship with Manuela, whose grandmother, Ma Felipa, was enslaved on a local plantation. It shocks Esther to discover that slavery, which she associates with the Jewish holiday of Passover and the plight of the ancient Israelites, only ended a few decades earlier on the island. Hearing the batá drums played in rituals, watching Ma Felipa channel the sea goddess Yemayá, and being shown the sacred ceiba tree, Esther is drawn into another culture and religion that Papa fears but she embraces. In the course of writing, I had a revelation—Papa would have a change of heart. He’d attend the bembé for Babalú-Ayé with Esther and their neighbors, and he too would come to admire how an ancient religion of African origin was proudly preserved by those who came after, just as Jews held on to the faith of their ancestors.

Agramonte’s main street today.

Esther also makes friends with Francisco Chang, an immigrant like herself, who has left his family in China to help his widowed uncle run his store. After finding documents about the Chinese presence in Agramonte, I realized that history had to be included in the story. Francisco is a mirror for Esther, and together they come to accept how they have both lost part of their old selves in stepping into a new culture but also gained another way of seeing the world. I grew up aware of the parallels between Jewish Cubans and Chinese Cubans from going to Chinese Cuban restaurants in New York, where we got to eat a mix of delicious foods from both cuisines, such as fried rice with fried plantains. That must be why I so enjoyed writing the tender scenes where Francisco gives Esther gifts of food, like the Polish sour cherry tea and the apple strudel from a New York Jewish bakery.

Through Esther’s friendship with Manuela and Francisco, they become allies of each other’s struggles to be seen and to belong, and she is heartbroken when she has to leave Agramonte with Papa. A life in Havana has become possible after their friend, Rivka Rubenstein, gets her long-awaited visa and can move to the “real America” in the United States. By now Esther is not entranced by the possibility of heading north like Rivka, not even very interested in moving to the elegant city of Havana. She has found a home in the humble countryside in Agramonte. But she knows the family will be happier in Havana, near other Jews. And Agramonte is now indelibly a part of her, for home is “the island that remains in us,” as Richard Blanco puts it.

A historical photograph of Agramonte, circa 1920s.

In telling the fictional story of Esther’s journey, inspired by my grandmother’s real one, I wanted to imagine the world before I came into it, the world that created me. I am Jewish because I am Cuban, I like to say. Cuba allowed me to be born. As a result of U.S. immigration policies, I became Cuban before I became American. And that is why I consider myself Latina. But sometimes others question whether I am “Latina enough.” Years ago, when my university had doubts as to whether I qualified as a Latina, a colleague, also from Cuba, stepped in and said, “If Ruth isn’t Latina because she’s Jewish, then does that mean that Jews in the United States aren’t American?” More than ever, we in the Latinx community recognize we carry many islands inside us, and we can embrace them all, without fear, without shame. I know I belong. Ask in Agramonte about the granddaughter of “the Poles” and see if they don’t agree.

More about Ruth:

Ruth Behar

Ruth Behar, photo credit: Gabriel Frye-Behar

Ruth Behar was born in Havana, grew up in New York, and now lives in Ann Arbor, where she teaches cultural anthropology at the University of Michigan. She won the Pura Belpré Author Award for her debut middle-grade novel, Lucky Broken Girl, which is based on her experience growing up Cuban-American while healing from a leg injury that left her bedridden for a year. Her new middle-grade novel, Letters from Cuba, a work of historical fiction, is inspired by her grandmother’s escape from Poland to Cuba on the eve of WWII. Both books are published by Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

Meg Medina

Author Meg Medina

I'm Meg Medina, author of libros for kids of all ages. I'm the 2019 Newbery medalist for Merci Suárez Changes Gears. I write strong girls, tough circumstances, and the connecting power of culture. Thanks for visiting my blog!

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