In My Opinion

Fabiola Santiago: Fading tradition reflects exile’s long years

Truth is I don’t remember making the ever-hopeful cider toast of Cuban exile lore, “Next year in Cuba.”

But until my father’s last year on this earth, we remembered Cuba the minute the Times Square Ball on television closed in on the old and ushered in the new year.

At the stroke of midnight, we’d turn down the TV volume and the Cuban national anthem would blare from an old record player (years later it was from a cassette, followed by a DVD and an MP-3 recording — it’s been a long exile).

Then, without missing a beat, the incomparable voice of crooner Beny Moré would ring with Cuba’s most famous song: “ Maní-í-í.” And with that peanut vendor cry of yesteryear, the music of their youth, my mother and father would dance.

I didn’t think our tradition was remarkable until one year when we invited recently arrived neighborhood friends from Cuba. They had never seen anything like our celebration. They thought they had come to a party — they were expecting, I suppose, music by Willy Chirino and Gloria Estefan — and they got three generations, including sons and a daughter-in-law who didn’t speak Spanish, standing with our hands on our hearts, evoking Cuba.

Not next year in Cuba, but simply, Cuba as an inextricable part of our story, of our life in Miami.

Since my father died in the spring of 2012, I haven’t been able to bring myself to celebrate New Year’s Eve. It was always his day, his creation to assuage his pain, to mark that he still had Cuba with him, and that we did too, and to celebrate what was abundant in his life: the multiplying family he managed to cajole to his peculiar idea of a party, year after year.

The tradition served us well forty-some years, but I wasn’t surprised to read that I’m not alone in my generation’s quiet distancing of the holiday from Cuba. In its reflective story de rigueur on the 55th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, the Associated Press turned its eyes on Cuban exiles, and reported that most of us no longer ring in the New Year with the “Next year in Cuba” toast of decades past.

It’s a sad but true metaphor.

For the most part, many Cuban-Americans have been looking (glancing may be a better verb these days) at Cuba with some distance since the island failed in the 1990s to follow the Soviet bloc into the era of glasnost and perestroika — and the last real remaining prospect of a return expired.

In the aftermath of Pope John Paul’s visit and his “have no fear” message, a strong dissident movement blossomed — and, along with it, renewed and unrelenting crackdowns and repression by the government to the point that 2013 was a record year for arrests and imprisonment.

Another decade of the same has been wearing — and 2014 was ushered in, not with change and reform, but with more fitting bully behavior to mark the anniversary of the only dictatorship in the Western hemisphere.

A Cold War speech by Raúl Castro thanking his old Soviet ally for its support. The forced closing of small businesses that had begun to sell imported clothing and goods, a small sign of hope within the cosmetic economic reforms of 2013. The police rummaging through dissident homes and confiscating toys sent by a Cuban-American organization for distribution to Cuban children in celebration of Three Kings Day.

Even for the Cuban government, whose military-style indoctrination of children borders on child abuse, the toy caper was a new low.

With that beginning, I wasn’t sure if there was anything new worth writing about, nothing to toast — until I replayed a video of my father’s last New Year’s Eve.

My mother and I were in the last stanza of the Cuban National Anthem, when my brother’s voice rose over ours, belting out lyrics of his own making.

“And may the next year be without Fidel,” he sang, amazingly in tune, to the triumphant battle hymn’s last line.

I laughed and cried.

Now there’s a toast to the sad reality of Cuba’s last sliver of hope.

Read more Fabiola Santiago stories from the Miami Herald

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