I was born on Fidel Castro’s 34th birthday. There is no word in either Spanish or English to describe the ugly mess of emotions that come from sharing a birthday with a stranger who irrevocably altered the pattern of my life.
Irony? Paradox? Absurdity? ¿Mal humor?
Yet today when I heard about Fidel Castro’s death at the age of 90 I felt strangely numb. And immediately I remembered my Papi’s attempt at humor as he tried to seriously describe his feelings about Castro, “I don’t wish Fidel dead, only that he may meet Jesus soon!”
Castro’s death is huge. And yet it changes nothing.
What I mean to say is that it’s difficult for me to describe a simple response to this convoluted reality.
Some events in life shape us to the marrow of our substance, reshaping the fibers of our being. You don’t “get over” being a refugee any more than you get over the death of a loved one. You do have to learn to live within a new reality.
Like strokes of bold, gallant color on an empty canvas, it is not only the actual images that define the picture, but also the empty spaces.
The truth is that being a Cuban refugee defines and identifies my sense of home and of self. It orchestrates my view of life, and also shapes my spiritual journey. I do believe, with my whole heart, that all, and I mean everything, is grace.
Leaving Cuba as a toddler, carrying only the clothes on our backs. Growing up as immigrant nomads, without a true place to call home, ten different cities before the age of 20. Knowing and being reminded over and over that our family would never “go home” again. This is a political truth, an economic truth, a cultural truth, an ethnic truth --and most importantly, a spiritual truth.
I returned to Cuba as a journalist to cover the historic visit of Pope John Paul II. I took that opportunity to visit the place of my birth, the city Pinar del Rio. I will never forget standing across the street from the house that was once home for my parents. Or seeing with my own eyes the cathedral church where I was simultaneously baptized and confirmed on my way home from the hospital as a three-day-old baby.
As my parents explained to me, when I was born, they simply didn’t know what would happen next. the Catholic schools where my parents taught were shut down by the new regime. The churches were closed. And their priest and nun friends continued to be rounded up and shipped out of the country.
That day in Pinar del Río, I was struck by the reality that I could have grown up there, living in Castro’s Cuba. Yet because of my parents courage, I have never known anything but freedom -- or have ever had to face such staggering and terrifying decisions as they did.
Cubans have a way of expressing the most serious thoughts within carefully crafted humor. How I wish I had inherited that fast Cuban wit!
Don’t ask me how I feel about Fidel Castro’s death, the man who has shared my birthday for 56 years.
All I can say today, as a Cuban-born American citizen, that I toast to my parents and to the millions of Cuban exiles who were brave enough to let go of everything, what they owned and what they knew, in order to find a place where they – where I – could worship and live freely as a disciple of Jesus. This is my true home.
It may not be a Cuban, but tonight I’ll smoke a cigar to that!
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"One of the astonishing things about being human... is that you have only to state exactly how you're exiled and you're on the road back home."
~ David Whyte, speaking on the spiritual journey
[ All photos © María Ruiz Scaperlanda, 2016 ]