If you grew up in Miami, you've probably heard countless stories about exiles leaving Cuba when Fidel Castro took over. But, at least in English, there aren't many published written accounts of the trauma and travails of people who knew Cuba before the Revolution.
As the 20th century recedes further into the rearview mirror, with fewer and fewer people around to remember Cuba before Castro, Song for Olivia, a new novel by local writer Maruchi Mendez, is a touching time capsule of how fleeing the island affected one South Florida family.
The book began as Mendez tried to jot down her older sister's memories.
"I started this book nine years ago with my sister [Olga del Valle] with conversations in which I would take notes of every detail," Mendez tells New Times. "For reasons you will find out when you read the book, she requested that I not publish this book as long as she was alive."
Because of sensitivities to her sister's memory and to add some drama to the story, Song for Olivia was published as "a novel based on a true story" rather than a memoir. Still, the book pays great attention to the details of Miami in 1959, where the family finds themselves. The father goes from a white-collar government worker in Cuba to washing dishes at Pizza Palace, while the titular Olivia has to drop out of high school to work at Eagle Army Navy Clothing Stores. They spend their rare off days at Key Biscayne's Crandon Park, longing for their native beaches.
"Lately, there has been a lot of discussion of the Cuban privilege. Though some characters and events are fiction, this is a firsthand account negating that statement." Mendez says. "In stark contrast to our life of abundance in Cuba, the reality that awaited us here was so despairing that [in the book] I had to embellish life in the U.S. to maintain some normalcy. My sisters and I literally arrived with empty suitcases, ready to work and full of gratitude for this country."
Mendez's proxy, Mari, acts as the narrator. The book starts with Mari talking mainly about her immediate family. Midway through, the story pivots toward the romance between her older sister, Olivia, and her beau, Tony. Tony was based on Manuel "Chi Chi" del Valle, Mendez's brother-in-law, who spent 17 years in a Cuban prison after being accused of spreading dissent in Cuba on CIA-sponsored missions.
Mendez says some of the research conducted for the book included interviews with Manuel's coworkers in the CIA. She also read several books written by local and out-of-state authors that touched on the Cuban diaspora and Pedro Pan exodus. "The book Waiting for Snow in Havana by Carlos Eire is one of many," she adds. "Although the Cuban exodus did not occur all at once over many decades, everyone who lived it has a very different and poignant story to share with the world."
The contemporary depictions of the Cuba she was forced to leave behind doesn't still well Mendez.
"Unfortunately, the world has traditionally romanticized Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and the Cuban revolution," she says. "Some documentaries have left a sour taste in my mouth. Those that have been victims of their atrocities tell a different story. The horrors of the Cuban jails are now starting to emerge through Lilo Villaplana's Plantados and this year's movie Plantadas, which premiered at the Miami International Film Festival. Netflix's new docuseries, Cuba Libre, reframes and weaves Cuba's complicated history attempting to produce an unbiased result. Also, the 2013 film Cubamerican, starring Andy Garcia and Steven Bauer, struck a chord with me. I thought of my father a lot."
She will think fondly of her departed father and the rest of her family who can't make the launch party for her book on April 20 at Books & Books.
"A lot of people that knew my sister and her story will surely be there, so I think there will be a large attendance. I just want to pay homage to her and my parents."
An Evening with Maruchi Mendez. 7 p.m. Thursday, April 20, at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables; 305-442-4408; booksandbooks.com. Admission is free.