Cecilia M. Fernandez — college instructor, independent journalist and self-proclaimed lover of literature — did not set out to write a memoir. In fact, the book that chronicles her early years as an exile in Miami began as an essay for a nonfiction creative-writing class at Florida International University.
That first essay led to others as she completed her master’s degree, and before she knew it she had weaved the true tale of a scared 6-year-old facing a new world with parents who acted as lost as she was.
The result: Leaving Little Havana: A Memoir of Miami’s Cuban Ghetto, (Beating Windward Press, $19.95), a poignant recounting that is sure to resonate with her generation as well as the newer immigrants who call South Florida home. The debut was selected as a finalist in the 2011 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Book Contest.
“After I started, I became obsessive about telling my story,” recalls Fernandez, 60, who now lives in Weston and teaches at Broward College and Miami International University of Art and Design. “I began to recognize how my story intersected with recent U.S. and Cuban history.”
Fernandez, who will appear Nov. 23 on a Miami Book Fair International panel, tracks the ups and downs of her early childhood, adolescence and eventual escape west, when she leaves Miami to study journalism and social science at the University of California, Berkeley. And there are quite a few downs — and hairpin turns and unexpected twists. Though Fernandez’s story of adaptation and immersion in a new culture may be familiar, some of her life events surely are not.
Like many of her Cuban American peers, Fernandez is uprooted from her comfortable Cuban home after the Castro revolution and unceremoniously deposited in what one day would be known as Little Havana. In one chapter, she describes the surreal scene at the Havana airport as she and her mother flee the island to reunite with her father, who was already in Miami. In the process, she leaves behind her caregivers, her classmates, her paternal grandparents and a beloved step-grandmother who, upon declaring herself a communist, had become a family outcast.
“No one explained why we were leaving,” Fernandez writes. “No one shed tears. No mention was made of when we were going to see each other again. We waved goodbye, walked out into the tarmac, up the rickety steel steps and into the plane.”
Once in Miami, however, life doesn’t improve much, at least not immediately. Her self-absorbed father pretty much abandons his family to focus on his mistress and his medical career, and little Carmen sees less and less of him. Fernandez does not always write lovingly of the man. And why should she? When he died in 2010, “I hadn’t spoken to him in 10 years,” she explains. “I wouldn’t have cared what he thought about the book.”
While writing about him, however, she recalls, “I kept saying, ‘You bastard! You bastard!’”
Her mother fares better, though mental illness haunts her troubled life.
“In writing the book I found I had been real tough on my mother for a long time, and it wasn’t until later that I recognized the mental illness,” Fernandez says now. “That put things in perspective.”
Initially Fernandez thought remembering enough details to write a memoir would be difficult. It wasn’t. She had kept a journal since she was 9 years old and referred to those entries frequently. What’s more, “Once I started writing, it all came back. It was so darn clear that I felt I was living through it again.”
Throughout the memoir, Fernandez weaves in the tumultuous events of the 1960s. She writes in unvarnished prose about the familiar places of old-time Cuban Miami. At 14, she gets a job at a bakery counter in Zayre, a store that anchored the strip shopping center that still exists at Northwest Seventh Street and 37th Avenue. “But I lasted only two weeks. I hated the baker’s son, who watched every move I made with narrow beady eyes.”
Fernandez is working on a sequel to her memoir, continuing her story from her college years onward. Writing about her life, she explains, has allowed her “to put all the pieces of my scattered self into one.”
And reliving the past has taught her a valuable lesson: “When you’re young, you’re dying to leave. Then when you’re gone, you start missing this, and you start missing that, and you realize you just want to come home.”
Cecilia M. Fernandez will appear at 11 a.m. Nov. 23 in Room 7106 at Miami Dade College.