Living

A Cuban love story

Imagine this:

Your husband, a young psychiatrist, is imprisoned by Fidel Castro as a resistance leader. Your three children -- all under 3 -- hold the promise of freedom in the United States.

What do you do? Abandon your husband on the island and raise your kids in Miami? Or stay in Cuba to help your husband survive and send your children away with your parents?

This heart-wrenching choice is at the crux of a new book about a real-life couple, Emy and Lino Fernandez. Published this year, Fighting Castro: A Love Story (WingSpan, $18) tells the harrowing tale of how one man survived 17 years as a political prisoner in Cuba and how one woman lived with the difficult decision she made when she was only 23.

"It is their love story, " says author Kay Abella, a former journalist who lives in Connecticut, "but it's also a story of their love for their country" and their willingness to sacrifice to oppose the Castro government.

And the story has a happy ending.

Emy, 69, and Lino, 76, live in Coral Gables. He still practices, with his younger daughter, while Emy tends to the house and the parade of relatives who visit for coffee and hugs. Their children are grown now, with children of their own. A great-grandchild is due in the fall. One would expect that all is well that ends well.

But when the Fernandezes talk about those years, about the cruelty of prison and the anguish of separation, the emotion -- and tension -- remain palpable. Emy's eyes water. She escapes to the kitchen for a drink of water. When she returns, Lino reaches out to pat her hand.

Emy's decision to stay in Cuba to tend to her husband is best described in one paragraph after she sees her parents and three kids off at the airport: "She had to let go. They were with people who loved them -- safe and free. They were in her heart; they could not be in her life. Her life would center on Lino, on his survival."

Until they began collaborating with Abella on the book in 2000, the past was . . . well, past. The Fernandezes rarely spoke about the decision Emy had made and the suffering Lino had endured. When the couple arrived in Miami in 1979 as part of a general amnesty granted by the Cuban government, Lino wanted to make up for lost time and rushed through his medical license revalidation. Emy took a job as a secretary to make ends meet.

"When we came, we had to remake our lives, " Emy explains. "We were busy reacquainting ourselves with the children."

PAINFUL MEMORIES

But interviews for the book forced the painful memories out. "A lot of things came out that we had never talked about, " Emy says. "It was like reliving what we had left behind."

During the seven years of research and interviews, Lino worried that "the real story" would be lost in the telling. "This is not just an emotional story, " he explains. "I am part of a larger story."

And he is right. Abella skillfully manages to weave the tale of a young family with a panoramic view of the last 45 years of Cuban history. She recognized that sometimes the best way to recreate the past is through the eyes of an individual.

"You can take this story and put it in East Germany, and it would still be a great story about a couple determined to survive, " Abella says. "This is about the Cuban revolution and what it has done to families, but it's also about endurance and steadfastness."

Lino and Emy met when she was 16 and he was in medical school. They married in 1958, when he was 27 and she 20. Children arrived soon after.

But so did politics. Fed up with the increasingly totalitarian government, Lino became second in command to the anti-Castro Movement to Recuperate the Revolution, or the MRR. Emy helped him in the underground. Captured in February 1961, he was sentenced to 30 years.

While her husband was in the Isla de Pinos prison, Emy had to make a decision that would forever alter not only her life, but also the lives of her children and her parents, who were already raising Emy's three younger brothers. "She was really the one who suffered most, " Lino now says. "I was in prison, living a reduced life. She made that tough decision alone."

WHEN LOVE COUNTS

But, he admits, "knowing that she loved me in this way" helped him endure isolation, meager food rations, scarce medical care, swarms of bedbugs, dirty drinking water and psychological torture that included, among other things, sporadic family visits. He was luckier than others, however, because as a doctor he was not forced into the work gangs and instead helped in a clinic for a while.

In one May 1967 letter smuggled from La Cabana prison, where he was moved after Isla de Pinos prison closed, he wrote in minuscule letters: 'I told you I was reasonably well, but after reading your letter it is so different. I cannot live without you. I have had you every instant inside me, very deeply inside me. I am not worried, but I am dying to see you. The only thing that hurts is not being able to embrace you."

Now, in the comfort of his Coral Gables home, he laughingly points to the stack of mail, particularly those he received in prison, signed "Siempre, Emy" -- "Always, Emy."

"Over the years, I realized it was a real expression, not just something to sign a letter with, " he says.

During those 17 long years, Emy lived with different friends. Her experience was not uncommon; many Cuban families were separated because the government would allow some members to leave and would force others to stay. Some wives sent their children to relatives and waited for their imprisoned husbands. Others had fled the island with their kids.

For Emy, any news from the children -- in letters or through friends and the rare phone call -- was savored for months. One time a diplomat's daughter was able to bring Emy a construction paper drawing of three cats: "De tus tres gatitos. Te amamos." From your three little kittens. We love you." A friend who lived in Colombia would also send her information after visiting Miami.

Knowing her children were growing up without her was "very painful, " but she said she also knew that "they were having a normal childhood, not afraid or hidden away."

In Miami, Emilia Maria, Lino Jr. and Lucia skinned knees, graduated school, discovered love. The letters from Cuba were treasured, but "we always wondered why they weren't here, why my mother couldn't come with us, " says Emilia Maria, now 48. "It was a hard way to grow up."

They had no memories of Cuba, nor of their young parents, because Emilia Maria, the eldest, was 2½ when she left Cuba. But their grandparents, extended family and friends kept their parents alive through stories.

'LIKE HEROES'

"They were like heroes to us, " says Lucia Fernandez-Silveira, who was only 6 months old when she left Cuba. "Everybody spoke of them so highly."

What's more, the children knew others who were in the same situation. But, admits Fernandez-Silveira, every day she would ask herself why her mother had chosen as she had. She says she doesn't know if she could have done the same.

"Their absence was like a presence in our childhood, " she adds. 'It's a pain you carry with you because of all the things you missed out on."

When they returned, it took many months for the family to bond again. "We would automatically go to my grandparents to ask for something because that's what we had always done, " recalls Emilia Maria. "But my grandparents were very smart. They would tell us, 'Go ask your mother.' "

Lucia remembers a few clashes. Her parents, she said, were still living in the 1950s. They were aghast at "the liberties we had, especially the girls." But they acclimated quickly. "They worked real hard at it and were always there. It was like they were making up for lost time, " Lucia adds.

Now the book has provided the Fernandez children with details of their parents' lives that supplemented the stories their grandparents told them. Emilia Maria says. "Theirs is a great love story."

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