No one should think that this title refers to the twelve grapes* gulped down with the countdown signaling the end of a year (yet another one!) that is slipping away without any hint of daybreak in this dark early morning that has lasted almost 50 years. Nor is it about those apples–”from California” as my grandparents used to say—that sweetened the first Christmases of my childhood, the like of which I have never tasted again, not even in my few exits from the Island. The flavors of childhood are always the best. I don’t pine for the gatherings of the very large family I was born into, many of whose members started missing from the group photographs from the very beginning of the seventies; I wasn’t old enough then to understand why they couldn’t be spoken of except in hushed tones, or why my father said that “they had left because they wanted to eat ham,” most of all, because since this was one of my favorite foods, I believed that we too should go there, where there was some.
Looking at them retrospectively, I can say today that in reality the arguments my father gave me for his devotion to the revolution were never very convincing. But I believed in him (and he really deserved it) and by transference believed in the revolution (which proved never to deserve it), and I count myself among those who practiced that credo until the arrival of the year 1980, and with it the events at the Peruvian embassy,* the repudiation meetings* and the Mariel* exodus. As it was for so many young people of my generation, that was the coup de grace that completed my disenchantment. This had begun the year before, when unexpectedly and by decree those gusanos [worms] that we were supposed to repudiate as unpatriotic traitors started being our brothers in “the community.” I felt defrauded and I broke with the revolution, with the Comandante [Fidel Castro], with the UJC [Young Communist League]–which expelled me from its ranks that same year–and with everything that represented the lie I had grown up with.
I think that from that time my father understood that he had lost me for his cause and that–although to me he was still the best man in the world–his credulity and naïveté about Castro and his macabre experiment subtracted considerably from the admiration I always felt for him. And finally, it’s about this: The huge event in my life represented by the Peruvian Embassy and Mariel. Because around that time many of my friends left—the friends with whom I had shared the happiest times (although we didn’t know then that they were), when it was all about getting together to go out dancing, going to Santa Maria beach*, going to the Pre* in Havana, smoking behind our parents’ backs, drinking our first mojitos in the clubs that enlivened the intense night life of the city. I think that the most convincing proof of the falseness of the communist regime that I saw in the year 1980 was how they labeled the emigrants “scum.” Obviously, my friends–as well I knew–did not deserve to be called such a weird word.
While I was collecting some things from a closet at my parents’ house at the end of this year, purely by chance I found a photograph of Hector, the favorite among my friends then-in whose house we had a casual party celebrating our high school graduation and Bachilleratos*–and who left from Mariel with his mother and sister. Looking at the image of the young man he was, suddenly the memories came to me of all of the rest who left–then and afterwards—in this permanent split that divides Cubans into “those inside” and “those outside.” At the same time I remembered Toño and Pancho, the fat, dancing, foul-mouthed twins, Luis, Martica, Roberto, Amado, Margarita, Jorge, Francisquito, who died in Spain only a little past 30… and so many others! I also remembered those of us who stayed here and never got together again to dance with each other, to laugh out loud at everything and everyone and at life. Already, nothing was the same. And as strange as it might seem, at the end of this year I discovered that the nostalgia of those of us who never left is the same as that of the exiles. An important piece of our lives left with them, a past full of hopes for the future, the ingenuity of the ’70s, the charm of our shared spaces, the impertinent insolence of our first youth. In a way, we are also a kind of exile within our own selves.
So this December 31 at midnight, while I toasted with my beautiful family, to our health and better times, I secretly raised my glass for my friends and me to meet again in any of those corners of Havana that were ours, and for good fortune to smile on absolutely all of them, wherever they may be.
Twelve grapes: In Spain and Latin America it is traditional to eat a grape for each of the twelve seconds counting down to the New Year.
Peruvian Embassy: In 1980, thousands of Cubans wanting to leave the island occupied the Peruvian Embassy in Havana, seeking asylum.
Mariel: Mariel is a port on the north coast of Cuba. In the Mariel boatlift, about 125,000 Cubans crossed the Florida Straits to Miami.
Repudiation Meetings: Organized by the local Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, targeted to those who wanted to leave Cuba via Mariel.
Santa Maria beach: A popular beach about an hour east of Havana.
Pre: Pre-universitario, similar to high school.
Bachillerato: The degree awarded for the two final years of secondary study before university or professional programs.
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