Miami Stories

Broward College professor writes poetry about her family’s journey from Cuba

Poet Elisa Albo at 1 year old with her parents, Jacob and Maria D. Albo, on Varadero Beach in Cuba.
Poet Elisa Albo at 1 year old with her parents, Jacob and Maria D. Albo, on Varadero Beach in Cuba. Photo provided to the Miami Herald

Elisa Albo, a poet and professor at Broward College, will read 1 p.m. Nov. 19 at Miami Book Fair, Room 6100 (Building 6, First Floor), 300 NE Second Ave., Miami.

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.

Healing Waters

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.

Not Knowing

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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