First Draft

Her name is Ivonne Lamazares. You've probably never heard of her. Cuban immigrant, good student, dedicated teacher, devoted wife and mother. Oh, and something else. She just might be the world's next big thing in literary fiction.

The themes of the book are abandonment and betrayal, according to the author, and although the story does not exactly parallel Lamazares's own family history, it is suffused with echoes that are both familiar and disturbing. Mercedes, Ivonne's mother, died in 1965 at the age of 25, when her only child was just three years old. After giving birth, Mercedes developed a painful bone cancer that kept her confined to bed in their decaying home in the Old Havana section of the Cuban capital, but Lamazares does not remember that. In fact, she has no memory of her mother at all.

Lamazares's father too is a phantom. He did not live with his wife after Ivonne was born, and left Cuba for the United States when she was six. They later met again, in Spain and in Miami, but the reunions did not take, and Lamazares has not seen her father for years.

Ivonne was raised by her mother's parents. Her grandfather -- now 100 years old and living in Miami Lakes -- had been retired from the grocery business by the revolution, so he had time to spend with Ivonne. When she entered school at age five, she could read and write. Born in 1962, Ivonne is the product of a revolutionary education. In bare-bones classrooms hung with portraits of Che Guevara, she was schooled in math, science, and the evils of American-style capitalism. The United States, she was taught, was both imperialist and rapacious, forever scheming to undermine Cuban sovereignty, and Miami was a cutthroat city filled with traitors. Lamazares says her education was rudimentary, riddled with political sloganeering. Yet she was a reader, and a Spanish translation of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights sparked the imagination of a young girl who often felt isolated and displaced. "I thought if only I could write a book like that," she says, "then I would be happy."

Lamazares recalls beginning to hear talk about leaving Cuba around 1970, when she was eight or nine. Her father's parents, who lived nearby, wanted to join their son. Her maternal grandparents agreed that Ivonne should go too. Although she was not thrilled at the prospect of leaving home and her friends, "I never told them pointblank that I didn't want to come," she says. "That would have made me feel guilty, as if I was saying I didn't want to see my father. And that was a dream of mine -- to have parents, to have a real family."

Lamazares and her paternal grandparents left Havana for Spain in November 1975. Her father flew to Madrid to meet them, and was reunited with his daughter for the first time in more than seven years. "He was retiring, quiet," she remembers. "It was awkward." He visited for about a week.

Three months later, when their U.S. visas came through, Ivonne and her abuelos flew to Florida and settled into a cheap, one-bedroom apartment in Hialeah. She had been a ninth-grader in Cuba, but without any English, she was placed in the seventh grade at Hialeah Junior High and sent to classes in ESOL -- English for Speakers of Other Languages.

"Socially, I felt like a fish out of water," she says. "Even the Spanish the teachers and kids here spoke sounded different. I remember this one teacher explaining the rules or something to me, and he was speaking in Spanish, but after every sentence he kept saying, 'Okay?' And he wanted me to say that, to indicate I understood, but I just couldn't. I just kept saying, 'Esta bien.'

"I remember the first day in the cafeteria, they were serving sloppy joes, which I had never seen before, with the bread and the meat separate, and you put it on your tray and then put it together. And there was this big brown cookie. And I thought this must be the hamburger that I had heard about. So I put that in the bread, with the meat on top.

"I was so self-conscious. I got stomachaches every Sunday night thinking about school the next day. It was culture shock."

After several months in her new home, Lamazares realized how poorly she and her grandparents were living. "I started to see how ugly the apartment was, with used furniture," she says, recoiling at the memory. "Nothing matched. We were on welfare, and got hand-me-down clothes. It took awhile, but I got depressed and felt hopeless."

Instead of staying depressed, however, Ivonne says she got a summer job, took typing lessons, saved her money, and bought a new bedroom set for the room she shared with her elderly and ailing grandparents. She also rediscovered the key to self-esteem: academic achievement. "I was never popular, or socially adept," she says, "but I could do well in school, and that was a source of stability."

As a straight-A student, Lamazares spent just one semester in the eighth grade before being promoted to ninth. Central to her academic success was language, of course, and Lamazares says that by the time she entered Hialeah High she was obsessed with mastering English. "I practiced my accent by doing a lot of singing along with the radio," she says. "Sometimes I didn't understand the song, but I got my mouth going to the English sounds and intonations. I began to talk English to my refugee friends. Some didn't like it. These kids felt comfortable in their culture and their families, so they felt comfortable in Spanish. But I felt like I didn't have anything to hold on to. My grandparents were dying. My position felt unstable, precarious. So I thought I had to do well in school, be a part of the country, fit in, because if not, what was I going to do?"

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