Remembering a boyhood in exile
After Waiting for Snow in Havana unexpectedly won a National Book Award in 2003, Carlos Eire began hearing from schools asking him to apply for jobs teaching Cuban history. His evocative memoir of growing up in Cuba when Fidel Castro was coming to power had led many people to assume that his academic specialty was the history of his native country.
“I had to tell them, ‘I’m sorry, you have the wrong man,’ ” Eire says with a characteristic warm, wry laugh during a call to his home in Guilford, Connecticut. “People are often extremely surprised to learn that I teach late medieval and early modern European religious history.”
In fact, in his non-memoirist identity—the one where he spent his early career studying John Calvin and Calvinism, where he writes scholarly, footnoted tomes on such matters as the early Reformation and “the art and craft of dying in 16th-century Spain,” and where he currently teaches a two-semester survey course on “all 2,000 years” of Catholic church history—Carlos M.N. Eire is the T. Lawrason Riggs professor of history and religious studies at Yale University.
But for eight weeks in the summer of 2009, writing mostly at night in his office above the family garage, Eire once again put aside his professorial identity and “got back to footnote-less writing.” The resulting memoir, Learning to Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy, is just as vivid and compelling as its predecessor. It, too, flashes with Eire’s jubilant humor and inventive wit. But it also tells a story that is shadowed by sadness.
Learning to Die in Miami opens with the 11-year-old Eire’s arrival in Miami in 1962. Along with his older brother, Tony, he was one of 14,000 children who fled Castro’s Cuba in what became known as the Pedro Pan airlift. “When the flights ceased abruptly in October of 1962,” Eire says, “there were still 80,000 on the island waiting to leave.” Among those was the boys’ mother. So for the next three years the brothers bounced miserably from place to place until they were finally reunited with their mother in Chicago, where things changed without getting all that much better.
Up to a point, Eire says, his story is a representative one. “For all of us, there was the pattern of arriving at the camps and being sent somewhere else. Many of us were sent to institutions or to foster families. Many of us bounced from one place to another. And then there was the even more painful part of the pattern—reuniting with your family. . . . [You] had to care for your mom. You had to go apartment hunting and find an apartment rather than the adult, because the adult was totally clueless and helpless and didn’t speak the language.”
But as common as it might be, Eire’s story also had its own unique miseries. Chief among them is the surprisingly long time he and his brother spent at a place Eire calls with withering irony the Palace Ricardo. An unholy mix of a Dickensian orphanage and Lord of the Flies, it was a quasi-institution whose proprietors resented the privileged backgrounds of Eire and his brother and allowed the older, bigger, more criminally inclined boys to prey upon the younger ones.
“It was a kind of crucible,” Eire says. “I had to decide who I was. Was I going to be like these thugs? Was I going to be intimidated by them or not? It taught me a lot about human nature, too. You come to terms with who you are. Most people come to that gradually through adolescence as they become adults. Being in a place like that, you have to come to terms with it very abruptly and definitively.”
And the impact of those experiences carries forward to this very day. “It has made it very difficult for me to be a good parent,” Eire—the father of a son in high school and another son and a daughter in college—says ruefully. “When they’re having problems—I’ve learned not to do this because it backfires—but my [instinct] is to say, ‘After all I went through? You have it so easy. Why don’t you just get up and go?’ That’s not a good thing to do. I have to put myself in their place, and that’s nearly impossible for me to do.”
As he movingly relates in Learning to Die in Miami, Eire found both solace and direction through his interest in school, an interest his brother did not share, and through a book: The Last Temptation of Christ. “It’s a very funny thing, this book,” Eire says. “You were only allowed to take one book with you from Cuba. I very quickly outgrew the three changes of clothing I had brought with me. So the two things that were left to me that were physical contact with my family were the religious medal my dad gave me and this book. Plus my mother and grandmother had given me instructions that if I ever had a problem I should just open the book at random and I would find an answer. I kept doing that but I wasn’t ready. ”
Eire’s memories of the events he describes so vividly in Learning to Die in Miami came flooding back to him during a 2009 trip to Eastern Europe. The minute he set foot in Prague, he says, “I knew immediately that I was back in the Soviet empire, or former empire, and I felt like a double exile. . . . Here I was in the very place my parents had tried to keep me from back then. It made me feel really weird and it just kept escalating as I traveled farther and farther. The high point was being in Berlin and seeing the remnants of the Wall and being able to move freely, so freely, on a bicycle between East and West. It just blew my mind. It reawakened all sorts of feelings and memories. And a lot of it was kind of painful. There was a lot of pain involved in thinking that for 20 years now these people have been free, and my people are not.”
Then Eire tells a humorous anecdote. While in the Czech Republic, he discovered there was a Museum of Communism. It amazed him and it set him to questioning who he was. “I wondered: Am I an item to be exhibited in the Museum of Communism? Or am I supposed to be a visitor to the Museum of Communism? I asked one of our Czech tour guides—she was about my age—‘Hey, have you been to the Museum of Communism?’ She said [here Eire exaggerates a curt, indignant Eastern European accent], ‘I do not need to see it. I lived in it.’ ”
Eire says he returned from that trip feeling exactly the same intense inspiration he felt when he began writing Waiting for Snow in Havana. He worked nights, writing from memory in a kind of white heat. The result is a book that, like its predecessor, is a deeply affecting portrait of a difficult boyhood, an unusual coming-of-age story that combines laughter with an abiding sense of sorrow.