S omos cubanos y punto.” We, those in exile and on the island, are all Cubans — period.
With those reconciliatory words and many more that acknowledged the worth, strength and dignity — yes, dignity, the quality most stripped from us by our enemies and detractors, and regretfully sometimes, by our own hand — Yoani Sánchez soothed our cherished exile wound, the loss of our native country.
The celebrated 37-year-old writer read heartfelt words and answered questions with a calibrated mix of candor and (perhaps necessary) evasiveness at the Freedom Tower — for so many in my generation “El Refugio.” For me, it was the place where on the bright autumn day in 1969 when I arrived from Cuba, a bewildered 10-year-old sad to leave loved ones behind, I was shown kindness in a gift from American volunteers, a sweet homemade ragdoll.
The tower where Cuban refugees were once processed and, earlier, The Miami News published set the tone for a day that measured not only our own but Miami’s maturity as Sánchez addressed a joyous and multigenerational crowd, mostly Cuban but with notable local non-Cubans in attendance.
Her audience included historic figures like Huber Matos, a commander in the early days of the Cuban Revolution who was sent to prison when he voiced disagreement with Fidel Castro’s totalitarian turn, and a group of Brigade 2506 veterans of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, one of the first efforts to oust Castro.
In times when skepticism would have been the safer route, the respect and encouragement with which Matos and Brigade veterans treated Sánchez, who holds policy views opposite to theirs, elevated the gathering. I was moved by their presence and applause — and later, during a press conference, by the sight of the elder Matos walking up to the stage to meet Sánchez, who broke from protocol to greet him.
In the packed, stately hall also was the new Cuban Miami, personified in Sánchez’s pharmacist sister and historian brother-in-law, who emigrated two years ago, as well as a mosaic of other recent arrivals, some of them so emotion-filled with Sánchez’s sharp criticism of the Cuban government that they shouted, “ ¡Yoani, la presidenta!”
It’s not that there was on this Monday afternoon that elusive so-called unity — a concept that sounds idyllic on paper, but in practical terms requires some people to conform to the opinions of others. It’s that what reigned was pluralism — a variety of experiences and beliefs embodied in people of different generations not only in age, but journeys — and despite some grumblings of displeasure (we still haven’t learned that journalists in a free society ask hard questions and we’re the better for it), there was respect for different points of view.
We, those in exile and on the island, are all Cubans — period.
Words and thoughts that the agile blogger and Twitter maven said she had pondered for most of her life, but hadn’t put on paper until her Miami presentation loomed near.
Words that flowed with ease after a visit to La Ermita de la Caridad, the shrine to Cuba’s patron saint built with exile donations and flanked by an oceanfront seawall reminiscent of Havana’s, and after encounters such as her meeting with singer/composer Willy Chirino, who has chronicled the aches and glories of exile in festive salsa tunes.