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By Heart/De Memoria
Cuban Women's Journeys In and Out of Exile

edited by María de los Angeles Torres

Memories of Cuba inspire book by DePaul professor

By Nancy Traver for the Chicago Tribune
4 June 2003

Author María de los Angeles Torres left Cuba in 1961. A child of 6, she thought she was embarking on a trip to Miami.

Instead, the U.S.-led Bay of Pigs invasion was launched against Fidel Castro's nascent Communist revolution. Then the United States fell into a nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union and U.S.-Cuban relations slid into a deep freeze. Torres didn't return to Cuba for more than 15 years.

Like many Cubans, she found herself in exile, a painful condition of longing, wondering and dislocation. Torres chronicles her journey, along with 10 other Cuban women essayists, in her new book, By Heart/De Memoria: Cuban Women's Journeys In and Out of Exile (Temple University Press).

"There were missing parts of me that did not make sense," Torres said recently in the living room of her Lincoln Park home.

An associate professor in political science at DePaul University, Torres, now 47, moved to Chicago in 1981 to teach political science at what was then Mundelein College. She has spent four decades watching her native country alternate between paroxysms of repression and democracy. The most recent crackdown took place in April when Cuba sentenced 75 dissidents to long prison terms; three men who tried to flee to the United States were executed.

Torres has found herself once again in the peculiar position of loving a country, culture and its people, but abhorring Cuba's government—a love-hate feeling she discusses in her book. She invited 10 other women to write about their memories of their homeland.

"I wanted both Cuban men and women to write about their experiences, but women tended to be more open about their ambivalences and less emphatic about protecting their positions than men," she says.

One essayist, Nereida Garcia-Ferraz, a photographer who left Cuba as a child, writes of looking at faded black and white photos of her relatives.

"These photographs... have helped me to rebuild myself, to place pieces of the puzzle, searching always for that bigger image that will help me understand what paths everyone took to get to the places they are today."

Another writer, Josefina de Diego, tells about the pain of exile from another vantage point: that of being left behind by those who departed.

"At the age of 10, I said a tearful goodbye, without understanding very well just why, to my two best friends, Lucia and Miriam. I have never heard from them again. I still feel ill when I go to the airport, even if it is to pick up someone very dear. It brings me bad memories."

Torres herself was among those who left. Along with hundreds of Cuban children, she left under Operation Pedro Pan, a rescue program set up by the U.S. government to bring out children of the underground before the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Although Torres' parents supported Castro when he came to power, they were disappointed that he didn't allow democracy to flourish and criticized him for that.

The oldest of four daughters, Torres was sent by her parents to live with friends in Miami.

"It was a very traumatic experience," she recalls. "I had never been away from my mom before that."

She was reunited with her parents after they were allowed to leave Cuba four months later. Her father, a doctor, began a residency program at a Cleveland hospital.

"We started feeling like the odd kids out," she says. "We were refugee kids. We all had one nice dress, one nice pair of shoes."

Two years later, they moved to Dallas and then Midland, Texas, where she lived for seven years.

"We didn't fit in," she recalls. "People didn't want us there. They shot out the windows of our home and told our parents, 'We'll kill your kids.'"

The experience taught Torres about racism. She became active in the civil rights movement and opposed the Vietnam War.

Around American college campuses, Torres saw posters of cigar-smoking revolutionary martyr Che Guevara, then a darling of the left.

"I began wondering, 'Why is he a hero?' I began to confront everything my parents had taught me about the revolution," she recalls.

When she finally returned to Cuba in 1978, Torres found a nation struggling to liberalize.

"I went back with a feeling of recovering my sense of smell and place, and recalling the intensity of feelings in Cuba that we don't have here," she says.

But the sense of rediscovery and exhilaration dissipated, she recalls, as she made repeated trips to Cuba and moved outside the ring of minders and gatekeepers who watched over visiting foreigners.

"Once I broke out of the cordon, I saw another Cuba—one I would have trouble living in. People couldn't publish what was on their minds and they couldn't say what was on their minds," she says.

She felt increasingly alienated from visiting American leftists, who accepted the curtailment of civil liberties in Cuba, but enjoyed such freedoms for themselves at home in the U.S. Torres began publicly criticizing the Castro regime, jeopardizing her ability to secure a reentry permit.

Gradually, Torres began to realize she alone could not change Cuba. Travel by U.S. citizens to Cuba is on the increase, she notes.

"People come home and say what a lovely place Cuba is and the people there are so nice and warm," she says. "I have to respond, 'Yes, but...'"

Torres says she is not optimistic about Cuba's future. She notes that the large sugar mills have been shut down and very few independent businesses have been allowed to sprout. Most Cubans are well-educated, yet they have few opportunities to work. Remittances from émigrés in the United States make up the largest portion of the gross national product.

Torres travels regularly to Cuba and teaches her two teenage daughters about their heritage. Following by Heart/De Memoria, Torres has written another book about Cuba, this time focusing on the Pedro Pan program that first brought her to the United States.

"I want to keep looking at the relationships and complexities of Cubans here and there," she says. "My life is very much ere, but I can't forget where I came from."


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