Transcript of remote talk for the National Hispanic Honor Society Sigma Delta Pi at Florida State University, on March 23, 2016.
Hello. My name is José Ramón Torres, and first and foremost I’d like to thank Sigma Delta Pi, the Spanish Honor Society at Florida State University, for the invitation to speak about my first novel, entitled Waves, which is about sixty-three thousand words long, or two hundred pages. I would also like to thank the students, professors and anybody else who may be listening to this talk.
Given the presentation prepared by the organizers of this activity, along with the information about the book and its author that appears on the cover of the print version, which you have just seen onscreen for a couple of minutes, I don’t think there’s any need for further details about me.
Following the organizers’ recommendations, I’ll speak for the next twenty to thirty minutes about how my book portrays Cuban emigration to the United States over the past fifty years.
Since you already know what the novel is about, we can move on right away to the first chapter, which consists of this quote and its source. The text is from a press release in the Cuban newspaper Granma, which you’ll be able to see better on the slide:
The Press Release
In view of the tragic death of a guard at the Peruvian Embassy and given the tolerant attitude adopted toward such criminals by the Peruvian government, the government of the Republic of Cuba has decided to withdraw protection from said diplomatic mission. The diplomatic staff will, henceforth, be fully responsible for what happens in the embassy. We cannot protect embassies that do not cooperate with their own protection.
(Granma daily newspaper, Havana, Cuba, Friday 4 April, 1980)
This press release will be familiar to those of you who have seen the movie Scarface—not the original version, directed by Howard Hawks and starring Paul Muni, but rather the Brian De Palma version, with Al Pacino as the “Marielito” named Tony Montana. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning.
<EXCERPT FROM FILM SHOWING FOOTAE OF FIDEL CASTRO>
Both the press release in Granma and Fidel Castro’s interventions came after a series of events that can be summarized as follows: in April 1980, six individuals in a bus storm into the Peruvian Embassy in Havana. As a result of the incident, a guard is killed and the Peruvians opt for political asylum. Now, what happens when Cuba withdraws protection from the diplomatic headquarters? Well, about eleven thousand people seek asylum there. The second chapter of the book describes the atmosphere in the mansion in the residential neighborhood of Miramar, which is absolutely overflowing with asylum-seekers.
Cuba then decides to equip the Mariel port, east of Havana, so that anyone who wants to leave can do so, and the result is that over one hundred twenty-five thousand “Marielitos” reach the United States. The following photos, from the archives of the Miami Herald, show you the magnitude of this immigration episode.
<PHOTOGRAPHS OF EXODUS THROUGH PORT OF MARIEL>
What do we see in these photos? Euphoria in southern Florida. Cuban exiles who have traveled all the way down to Key West and are preparing boats, whether rented or their own vessels, to take their families out of Cuba…Others are waiting on the shore…Streets jam-packed with empty boat trailers…You can’t see them in the photos, but hundreds of boats—and of all different sizes: from shrimp boats to little recreational crafts—came and formed an impressive flotilla that covered the ninety miles between Havana and Key West. The book describes the entire commotion through the eyes and ears of Bob Nash, an Englishman living in Key West, who carefully follows these events—and, as the owner of a motorboat, ends up making three trips to and from the Mariel port.
You must be wondering what’s happening back in Cuba in the meantime. Here is a partial description, found in this passage from the life of one of the main characters, Ángel, Emilia and Eduardo’s father:
Just thinking about the story he’s heard gives him the jitters. His son’s school friend was beaten up and lost an ear for wearing the foreign shirt and sneakers his cousin had given him before heading off for the embassy. Thank goodness Eduardo is doing his military service, away from all this madness. That’s the first time Ángel has found anything positive about conscription. As for Emilia, she must be used to it by now.
Little by little, he moves unwittingly toward the tumult and manages to make out two men, backs bent, pummeling someone on the floor. A woman hovers over them, waiting to deliver a blow with a stick.
“Here’s her other half!” Ángel hears a woman shout from behind him.
He suddenly finds himself being pulled by the hair and slapped at the same time. He makes a clumsy attempt to bash the woman clutching his hair with the bag of onions and potatoes. Moments later, he drops the bag to seize the arm of a boy in school uniform, locked around his neck. When he sees a man coming at him from the corner of his right eye, he kicks out to keep the man at bay.
As he battles to free himself, the local police chief arrives and shouts over and over, struggling to make himself heard, ordering the bloodthirsty crowd to release their prey.
“Leave him alone, for God’s sake, he has nothing to do with it!” yells Mireya, her face red and eyes teary.
“Shut up, you lowlife, you’re all the same, the whole bunch of you! Dirty scumbags!” a woman lashes back at her, determined to have the last word.
The mob grudgingly starts to calm down. At the risk of getting knocked over, the police chief hails a taxi, which seems reluctant to slow down, never mind pull up.
The barrage of insults is now directed at Ángel, who manages to break free and jumps out into the road. A truck brakes and skids. Ángel feels a dull blow to his left ear, followed by an uncomfortable ringing. He is still on his feet, crossing the other half of Manglar — which means, he realizes, that it was nothing worse than a well-placed punch that nearly knocked him out. He then opens the back door of the Lada into which the policeman has hurriedly shoved Mireya, and throws himself headfirst onto the seat.
The taxi driver speeds off without waiting for him to close the door.
Later, in another scene in the same chapter, Ángel’s wife Mireya talks with him as she attends to her wounds after the beating.
She hasn’t let the girl leave the house since their return, precisely for fear of an “act of repudiation” or a “lightning rally”. She herself had only gone out on a couple of occasions, mainly to see her friend Ñica in Árbol Seco and get hold of some food. One couldn’t be too careful.
But she wanted to take as many useful documents as possible abroad with them, like Sofía’s grades from her first year of secondary school. That’s why she had decided to risk it and go in person that morning to Antonio Maceo High School, arriving during the second lesson in the hope that she would find someone in the administrative and head teacher’s offices by then — while avoiding uncomfortable meetings in the corridors. She offered her resignation to the deputy head, who refused it, explaining that Mireya had already been dismissed from her job as a cleaning assistant on the grounds that she represented a bad example for the pupils. The woman said she was genuinely sorry for Sofía but understood Mireya’s reasons for not wanting to send her to school, given the circumstances. She told her to go to the administrative office for the termination papers, but there was no one there to attend to her, so Mireya ended up leaving the school two hours later, the same way she came in: empty-handed. Then she decided to throw caution to the wind, go and see Ñica. She reached her friend’s place without any sign of trouble, but a group of teachers and pupils, an advance party and another unit lying in ambush in the park, were waiting for her on the way home. The rest Ángel had seen and suffered in the flesh.
“What’s that noise?” he asks her from his favorite armchair in the living room.
“I don’t know. It sounds like it’s coming from down there,” she answers as she makes her way to the balcony.
“Hey, hey, ho, ho! Scum! Worms! Out you go! Hey, hey, ho, ho! Scum! Worms! Out you go!”
The chant is repeated over and over, like a mantra.
“Down with the worms!”
“Out with them! Out with them! Out with them!”
“Leave the girl here, you shameful mother, the poor child doesn’t know what’s ahead of her!”
The din of the rally resounds in the passageway.
“Oh, dear God, protect us,” begs Mireya, looking out at the hostile mob through the slats of the blinds on one of the storm doors.
At that very moment, an egg breaks against the balustrade and a stone hits the window, cracking the glass.
“Move away from the balcony and take the girl into the back,” says Ángel.
“Carter, loser, take your lowlifes with you! Carter, loser, take your lowlifes with you!”
“Out with them! Out with them! Out with them!”
I don’t think it’s necessary for me to elaborate further on the “Mariel boatlift.” Now I should jump forward fourteen years into the future, but first let’s go back in the opposite direction, to the 1960s, so we don’t omit an important immigration episode that I briefly address in the novel. After the triumph of the Revolution in 1959, Cubans could leave the country freely, and many did so for good—but, during the October Crisis (or the Cuban Missile Crisis) in 1962, the three daily flights that had existed between Cuba and the United States were suspended, and many people remained on the island who had wanted to leave. Until, in ’65, Cuba equipped the Camarioca port so that those with family in Florida could tell their relatives to come get them by sea. Both President Johnson in ’65, and then President Carter in ’80, adopted an “open-armed” policy toward Cubans seeking refuge in the United States, and neither president suspected that the volume of immigrants could become a problem. Johnson was met with about three thousand arrivals in slightly over a month. Carter, around one hundred twenty-five thousand in half a year. A minor character in the novel wonders in 1980 whether the Americans had learned anything from the history of Cuban immigration.
Now that we’ve paid a brief visit to Camarioca in ’65, we can gain momentum and make that forward leap to 1994. Here we find Emilia, who in Cuba was married to a former political prisoner and decided to leave as “scum” via the Mariel port; now in the US, in ’94, she has several jobs, works around the clock, and is finding her way, just like so many other immigrants. In an opinion piece she writes for a Miami newspaper, she develops the theory that Cuban emigration obeys certain cycles that are repeated almost like carbon copies. I think we should let Emilia herself tell us more about this theory:
“…Ten years later, between July and August 1990, around 50 individuals make a surprise entrance into the Spanish, Czech, Belgian, Italian, Canadian and Swiss embassies, in what has come to be known as the “embassy crisis”. This time, the island refuses to negotiate with the aspiring refugees, who must then return home. On September 9, 1993, eleven people burst into the Mexican Embassy. Following the negotiations prompted by the incident, because the other party is “a dear friend who has never turned its back on Cuba”, Castro makes an exception to his migration policy and allows the occupiers to leave the country. Throughout May 1994, similar invasions occur in the Belgian and German embassies, as well as in the Chilean Consulate, and the island maintains its policy of non-negotiation with the occupiers, who number around 150.”
The clock in the lower-right corner of the screen shows 22:50. Emilia sends her draft to the printer, gets to her feet, and wonders what Pepe will think of this third article when it appears in print. She acknowledges to herself that her ex-husband’s opinion interests her as much as that of the newspaper’s own readers, and that she draws much of her inspiration from their countless hours of conversation and life together.
She’s got an hour of work left, tops. She’ll make her last coffee of the night. Once at home, she’ll do a hard-copy correction of this background section and develop the main idea: just a couple of months after the incidents at the European embassies and the Chilean Consulate, another Mariel is about to happen — a carbon copy. It’s a theory, pure speculation, but it’s how she sees and feels it. Her business is to discover truths between left- and right-wing discourses through her own experience, her observations, and her instinct.
Meanwhile, back on the island…
If the United States does not take swift and efficient measures to cease the incitement of illegal departures from Cuba, we will judge it our duty to instruct border troops not to impede any vessel that seeks to leave Cuba.
(Fidel Castro Ruz, Cuban TV, August 5, 1994)
The quote you have just seen constitutes another chapter in itself, as brief as the first and very similar in several ways. What happens after this new decision in the timeline of events related to Cuban emigration? The phenomenon known as Los Balseros, The Rafters: Cubans who go out to sea on precarious makeshift boats in hopes of crossing the Florida Straits. The youngest among you will probably be more familiar with this later exodus than with the Mariel Boatlift, still less with Camarioca. And so I’ll use just a few photos to illustrate it, this time from Getty Images and crediting each photographer.
<PHOTOGRAPHS OF “RAFTERS”>
What we see here happened over twenty years ago, but at the same time it remains completely and absolutely current. Statistics show that over thirty-five thousand rafters left Cuba in 1994; every year since then, the US Coast Guard intercepts a couple of thousand at sea. It is also said that one of every four Cubans dies in the attempt.
At this point, March 2016, the rafters keep trying to reach American shores so they can have recourse to the Cuban Adjustment Act, which offers preferential treatment to Cubans as compared with other immigrants who reach the US under similar conditions. But now they face the additional problem of a race against time: with relations improving between the two countries, this law could eventually be repealed altogether.
We don’t have much time to delve into the Cuban Adjustment Act or the phenomenon of The Rafters, but you can find abundant information online about both topics.
I also don’t want to be a killjoy and cause any spoilers, which is why I haven’t wanted to describe the plot of the book in too much detail, but I should make it clear that it contains much more than cold journalistic facts. As its blurb describes, Waves explores a world of dominoes, rum, Cuban cigars, sex, drugs, and bolero music—not to mention sharks. It’s also sadly relevant at our present time, when we hear almost every day about migratory crises in the Florida Straits, the Strait of Gibraltar, Calais, Lampedusa, Kos, Southeast Asia…
I place the novel in your hands in the hope that you’ll enjoy it first and foremost as a work of fiction. And if, in the process, you gain some additional awareness about the humanitarian catastrophe playing out at this very moment, well, even better for us all. In any case, it’s not the first book ever written about emigrants, and it won’t be the last. Literature has a long way to go before it “exhausts” the subject of human migration.
And now, in thanks for putting up with me for so many consecutive minutes, I’ll also add that Waves has been translated into English, Russian, Greek, Italian, and recently into Brazilian Portuguese. I mention this because I’m sure that one of you, or perhaps someone in your circle of family and friends, would prefer to read the book in your first language.
In addition, the audiobook in Spanish, which is valued at about twenty dollars, is free with a trial period, also free, via Audible. You can find the direct link to the audiobook on my website, www.joseramontorres.com.
I hope I haven’t bored you, and I hope those of you who haven’t yet read the book will enjoy it. Goodbye and thank you again!