He has long been a stereotypical Miami character: The elderly exile who never loses hope of going home, who views life as a never-ending quest to topple "El Tirano."Then there's his counterpart: The compañero on the island who refuses to give up the revolutionary dream despite the world crumbling around him.
The later is lovingly fleshed out in Achy Obejas' heart-rending novel "Ruins," set in the Special Period of 1994, when peas were ground to brew coffee and ropa vieja was concocted from threadbare cloth marinated in watery tomato sauce.
It was a time when Castro had flung open the doors, and in the fishing village of Cojimar -- the setting of Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea" -- young men and women formed a "silent parade" to the shore "carrying inner tubes and wooden planks... like rows of giant ants hauling Lifesavers and toothpicks in the moonlight."
But Usnavy Martin Leyva -- named for the giant letters emblazoned on the ships docked at Guantanamo Bay -- refused to go to sea. Although he slept in a cot in a leaky, windowless tenement with his wife and daughter, he remained steadfastly loyal to the Revolution that had made him much more than "some hick from the hills."
Obejas' Gothic-tinged narrative is fueled by the widening chasm between revolutionary ideals and hunger. We see Usnavy struggling at every turn: Should he help his friend leave the island? Should he look the other way when someone cheats at the bodega where he works? Should he try to make a dollar to buy his wife and daughter a gift?
A former prize-winning journalist for the Chicago Tribune, Obejas spent long stretches living on the island she left as a child, getting to know those who chose to stay.
"These were very humble people who never got any special privileges from the revolution," Obejas says from her home in Chicago. "They signed on because they believed this would make a better Cuba only to see it fall apart."
Couch liberals, including a New York Times book reviewer, see metaphors at every turn--the crumbling buildings, the stifling humidity that erases words from the page. But the book is not about fancy word play. It's about facts.
Achy Obejas will appear at the Miami Book Fair Saturday, Nov. 14 at 2 p.m. Miami Dade College 300 NE Second Ave. (Room 7128 (Building 7, 1st Floor). Jorge Casuso has co-authored two Spanish-language plays with Obejas.