Here, she recounts her family’s journey from Cuba to Miami in a series of poems.
How to Make a Raft
You will need the following items:
canvas, tractor tire inner tubes,
twine, wire, sawed off oil barrels,
wooden planks, nails, cut up branches,
a back door, a compass, the end
of a rope, a final straw, to have
had it up to here. Aspirin, some
honey, a shot of cane aguardiente,
an ocean of hope, a cup of grace,
a hand, two arms, a thread, a chance,
sweat, tears, blood, gall, sugar,
no salt, bread, ingenuity, super-
human courage, your dog. Take
plenty of fresh water, a red cross,
a blue sky, a white flag, a sail,
a symbol, a word, a joke, a song,
a line of poetry—preferably Marti.
You'll need a sunny day, a starry
night, a good wind, a statue of
la Virgin de la Caridad del Cobre,
an olive branch, though a palm frond
may do. Take your birth certificate,
passport, marriage license, diplomas—
you'll lose them at sea. A pad with
the telephone numbers of Uncle Tito,
Cousin Juanito, your niece Maria Elena—
you'll lose those too. Don't forget
your most cherished photographs.
Before you leave, give away or sell:
your dresser, bed, clothes, shoes,
appliances, paintings, plates, T.V.
Take only what fits inside. When
you build a raft, everything changes
forever. If you return, you’ll find little
of your former life. You’ll get used
to your new life. While in the water,
stay calm, watch the horizon, don't
bleed, don't think about what lurks
below, only what lurks behind. If
you make it, you're free. Muy bien.
Encased in her great, black girdle of a swimsuit, its panels holding
in the belly that bore ten children, my grandmother would slowly
lift herself from an aluminum folding chair on Miami Beach, amble
down to the shore on her short, surprisingly shapely calves, and enter
the Atlantic to her thighs. Bending into the ocean, she'd scoop up
a palm full of sand and rub the salty cement over her arms, her
shoulders—firm in her belief in the healing power of the sea—
then stand immobile as an anchor, waves breaking on her belly.
Sometimes Mima and I would sit at the water's edge, our legs
outstretched, flat, flowing waves flooding over our knees, then
retreating, and massage sand into our thighs and the soles of our
feet—to soften skin or smooth away scars we couldn't see. She
would gaze out across the ocean as if she could see clear to its other
side, another time—with her handsome, blue-eyed husband, still
thirty-eight, the lost children, the familiar landscape of northern
Spain, the Turkey of her youth, the Cuba of her journey to America.
Unrelenting waves pulled at our legs, stripping away sand, salt,
seaweed, broken bits of shells, dead skin, and our grip on the shore.
We didn't know the first thing about
orientations, parent/teacher conferences,
PTA meetings. My mother dropped me
off at the front steps the first day and I
found classrooms, picked up books,
grabbed a cookie off the welcome table.
Other kids came with their parents,
but all that hand-holding and sticky
back patting... so wimpy. What was
orientation if not the jumping with both
feet into unfamiliar worlds, the loss
and separation lesson one never quite
gets used to? I never knew if my Cuban
immigrant mother's fear of things and
places American was what made me
independent, quintessentially American.
Years later, my teachers said, Not knowing
is good; it leads to discovery. We didn't
know that. We knew one foot in front
of the other. Jump over the puddle
before they slam the airport closed.
We knew pass the test the first time,
don’t question your gut, wear the right
suits, make money, don't explain—
your friends don't need explanations,
your enemies won't believe you anyway.
We knew follow the good rules, break
the bad ones. All else will come.
To Sweeten the Flesh
Amado waters the plants where I live,
rakes up the leaves, fixes fences and paints
the trim. When they’re in season, he sets
overripe mangoes, the flesh nearly liquid,
on my doorstep. I eat them over the sink,
yellow nectar trickling down my chin,
and savor each bit as if Amado (whose
name means beloved) had picked the fruit
from a tree in Cuba or from the tree
of a nearby vendor who sells creamy
milkshakes made from the fruit of seeds
smuggled out forty years ago. Flesh
freezes well. One day Amado lifts the lid
off a yellow plastic pail. A mass of blue
land crabs in a tangle of claws and wide-
set beady eyes scramble to climb out over
each other. Amado beams. It’s mating
season, rainy, hundreds of crabs scurry
across walkways, over shady paths and
beside the small polluted river behind our
homes as if caught in a Garcia Marquez
story, the streets of the surrounding
industrial park flooded, toxins no doubt
seeping into the soaked earth. When young
boys fish in the river, I warn them off
about eating their catch. Crabs creep
under my back patio fence, lightly tap
on sliding glass doors like polite neighbors
come to call. When I approach, they shrink
and sidle off. Can you eat those? I ask
Amado. “Is it safe?” He doesn’t eat
the captured crabs right away, he says.
He puts them in a large pen for a couple
of weeks to race around, feeds them purified
water and (here’s the secret) fresh coconut.
It sweetens the flesh, something he learned
in Cuba as a boy fishing on the coast
of Cojimar. The crabs grow plump, lose their
purple hues, become a tawny, neutral tone,
clean up well. Want some? he asks, as if saying,
it’s a memory you can taste on your tongue.
The author thanks the following publications in which some of these poems appeared, some in earlier versions: Tigertail: A South Florida Annual: “To Sweeten the Flesh” and Crab Orchard Review: “How to Make a Raft.”
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