Carlos Eire's Cuban refugee memoir, reviewed by Jonathan Yardley

By Jonathan Yardley
Wednesday, November 24, 2010; 3:53 PM

Learning to Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy

By Carlos Eire. Free Press. 307 pp. $26.

In April 1962, 11-year-old Carlos Eire and his older brother Tony were put on an airplane in Havana and sent off to Florida, "thrown onto a well-oiled conveyor belt that receives pampered Cuban children every few days, sorts them out, and ships them all over the United States, preferably as far from Florida as possible." Castro was firmly in charge, and the scary dimensions of his regime were beginning to become clear, two-and-a-half years after the revolution that swept away the corrupt despot Fulgencio Batista and replaced it, as it turned out, with corruption and despotism of another sort. Like many other Cuban parents, Eire's mother and father feared for their boys' future and chose to send them into exile, while that was still possible, "for our own protection."

Not until later, after he had landed in Miami and been placed in a resettlement camp, did Carlos come to understand that he and Tony were part of a mass evacuation called Operation Pedro Pan: "Fourteen thousand and sixty-four boys and girls, some as young as three years old, were shipped off to the United States by desperate parents, warehoused out of sight, redistributed at lightning speed, scattered to the four winds. To me, this seemed normal. It's what nearly all of my childhood friends were going through too. It seemed so commonplace that it took me twenty years to come to grips with its monstrous abnormality, the questions I should have asked at the time, and the rage I had to bury deep inside."

Eire, who is now T. Lawrason Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University and the author of several scholarly books, has attempted to come to terms with his past by writing two works of autobiography. The first, "Waiting for Snow in Havana," won the National Book Award in nonfiction in 2003, the year of its publication; it is about his last years in Cuba and the transformation of a country he loved (his family was relatively privileged, his father a respected judge) into a bleak, repressive totalitarian state. Eire is no apologist for Batista, for whom it is just about impossible to make a sympathetic case on any grounds, but he obviously believes that Cubans of all social classes are far worse off under Castro.

Now, in "Learning to Die in Miami," Eire turns his attention to his early years in Miami and his subsequent removal to Illinois, with glimpses into the remarkably successful future that awaited him in his adopted land. It is a heartfelt book, at times a moving one, but one must be willing to bear with Eire's maddening prose style, which lurches back and forth among slang, sarcasm and solemnity, and his equally maddening mixture of self-exaltation and self-pity. That his childhood was often difficult is beyond dispute, but on the evidence he himself presents a number of people were uncommonly kind to him, and he adjusted to his new country with enthusiasm. There was sufficient happiness in his youth for him to look back with satisfaction as well as regret, so the bleating in which from time to time he indulges himself soon becomes unattractive.

Awakening in his refugee camp on his first morning in America, Carlos was hit with "the sudden realization that I was now an orphan, at least for the time being." He "felt totally alone in a dark void, crushed by a great force from all sides, annihilated by something totally impersonal and uncaring: the force of nothing, of nothingness itself." With that, he is off and rolling:

"To be utterly alone, forever, and to be painfully aware of one's eternal loneliness, this is Hell, at least my Hell, the one I entered that morning for the first of many times. Nothing has ever scared me more, not even my kidney stones or the worst, most boring, most pretentious, and longest paper at a scholarly conference. Jean-Paul Sartre had it all wrong, lousy existentialist that he was. Hell is not other people. Hell is being utterly abandoned, forever and ever, per omnia saecula saeculorum. Hell is being by yourself forever, having no one to love and no one to love you back. Hell is eternal unrequited love, eternal absence, eternal unfulfillable longing."

Over and over again in these pages Eire tumbles into and out of "The Void," the feeling "of being stuck with no one but myself for eternity." Never mind that in Miami a married couple named Norma and Louis Chait took him in for many months in their "wonderful house," just as friends of theirs nearby took in Tony, and gave him love and material gifts. Never mind that when he was sent to live with his Uncle Amado in downstate Illinois "I have never, ever been so happy." Never mind that he is happily married to "lovely Jane, my Jane," with whom he has three children and with whom he lives in a leafy, expensive suburb of New Haven. Never mind all that. When it suits the convenience of his narrative to bleat, he bleats.

This is too bad, for his story is strong enough without hyping it up with emotional grandstanding. Most Americans know remarkably little about Operation Pedro Pan and the other mass emigrations from Cuba that followed it, so it is useful to have the testimony of one who was there, undergoing both the highs and lows that inevitably accompany being wrested from a place one loves and put down in a place indescribably different. The Miami to which Eire was sent in 1960 was a deeply bigoted place - a decade later I lived there for five years, and it still was - and "prejudices against Hispanics permeated the entire culture, from top to bottom, in a much more open way than nowadays." Gringo schoolboys were especially cruel to him; his response was to try to ignore them, while Tony fought back.

That memories of this still rankle is entirely understandable, but it seems to me that the kindness of the Chaits is the most important aspect of Eire's time in Miami, not his loneliness at the refugee camp or even the nine-and-a-half months he and Tony spent in a madhouse foster home that he calls the Palacio de las Cucarachas. If his experiences in Florida had brutalized him, I'd be the first to agree that plunging repeatedly into "The Void" was an understandable long-term response, but that didn't happen. Instead he learned English quickly and well - "No bilingual coddling crap. Learn English, it's what you need in order to climb out of the bottom. . . . There's no better way of keeping Hispanics down in the United States than to tell them that they don't have to learn English" - and got good grades in school. He did even better in small-town Illinois, which he loved, and once his mother finally was able to join her sons, he overcame adversity in Chicago to thrive academically and, it seems, personally. Plenty of people would happily change places with him, even if it meant a trip or two into "The Void" along the way.

Finally, a word about his title. In this book, as in "Waiting for Snow in Havana," Eire uses death as a metaphor for rebirth. All of us, he suggests, die in different ways at different times in our lives and, if we are lucky, profit from the experience. Clearly Eire himself has done just that. He doesn't manage to articulate his feelings on the subject, as is made plain by a long and not very coherent paragraph near the book's end that begins, "Learning to die is as necessary as learning to breathe," but cut away all the verbiage and he's probably right.

--Jonathan Yardley

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