On January 1, 1959, President Fulgencio Baptista fled Cuba, ousted by the guerrilla campaign of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Six weeks later, Castro was sworn in as “Prime Minister.” In response to this Communist victory at the height of the Cold War, the United States initiated massive airlifts of Cuban children to Miami, placing them with relatives or sometimes housing them in makeshift camps. Sponsored by the U.S. government and coordinated in part by the Archdiocese of Miami, the airlifts went by the name Operation Pedro Pan. From 1960 to ’62, more than fourteen thousand children left their families for the United States. In theory their parents would join them soon, but as relations between Cuba and the United States deteriorated following the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis, getting visas became difficult or impossible. An estimated two to three thousand of the airlifted children would never see their parents again.
Carlos Eire, now a professor of history at Yale, was flown from Cuba to the United States in 1962 at the age of eleven. His older brother accompanied him. The boys had seen their father for the last time; it would be years before they were reunited with their mother and by then she would seem like a stranger. Eire’s first memoir, Waiting for Snow in Havana, focused on his memories of life in Cuba. Learning to Die in Miami describes his life after Pedro Pan: welcome to America, Carlos. Or is it Charles?
The identity struggle between Carlos, the Cuban boy, and Charles, the American teenager, frames the narrative. For the first couple of years, Charles seemed to have won. The young refugee threw himself into becoming a real American and made every effort to suppress what remained in him of Cuba. Eire begins by recounting his first meal in America:
The sandwich I’ve been served is very white. It’s on that kind of bread that comes in square slices and is all spongy and tasteless, with a rubbery crust. American bread. Pan Americano. The chicken is almost as colorless as the bread, and so is the mayonnaise that oozes out, cautiously. It’s been cut down the middle, diagonally, and the square has been turned into two triangles.
It was a perversely geometrical sandwich and he hated chicken, but he forced himself to eat it anyway: “my very first step toward becoming an American, my first successful attempt at being someone other than myself.”
His initial eagerness to discard his old self was part defense mechanism, part enthrallment with American affluence after the deprivations of Castrolandia. (Marvelous vending machines! Coke and Pepsi!) In part, too, his infatuation with his new home sprang from a mental habit, acquired early, of dividing the world into two regions. There were the sweltering, impoverished tropical places, on the one hand, where revolutions happened out of nowhere and uncles took their fourteen-year-old nephews to brothels; on the other hand, there were the places where it snowed, where the coming of winter endowed men with the near-magical ability to be reasonable and industrious, where law and order reigned. The dichotomy is childish, and the reader knows that the adult Carlos will arrive at a very different understanding of relations between global North and South: “It took me twenty years to come to grips with the monstrous abnormality [of the airlifts], the questions I should have asked at the time, and the rage I had to bury deep inside.” The boy Carlos/Charles, however, had his hands full just keeping up with life: learning a new language, delivering papers, admiring girls. Oh, and avoiding starvation.
Eire relates the events of those years in a series of lively and often darkly hilarious anecdotes. He recounts his horrifying stay at the “Palacio Ricardo,” where cruel and irresponsible foster parents kept him in filthy conditions and nearly starved him. He recounts his gradual rescue from that hell: First he discovered the haven of the local public library, where he acquired his love of history. A kind teacher encouraged him, telling him he had a gift for writing. Then at last the social workers found his brother and him a new home, more than a thousand miles north: Illinois, where their Uncle Amado lived.
Eire tells these stories using a boyish idiom peppered with slangy exclamations, and he switches back and forth from past to present tense with little warning. In many writers these techniques are simply annoying, but Carlos Eire is a fine writer, a first-rate storyteller who manages a colloquial voice with such grace that it soon ceases to seem affected. The end result is a brilliant hodgepodge of fast-forwards and flashbacks, Anglo- and Latin-American storytelling styles, and it is full of quirky descriptions that never lapse into cliché. One gets the impression that the narrative style itself would not be possible were Carlos not also Charles, and vice versa: the book offers a long digression at one point about the different linguistic resources of Spanish and English, and throughout the narrative Eire employs both to full advantage.
During all the adventures of his first years in America, the boy stubbornly insisted he was Charles or even Chuck, anything but Carlos. Yet there were unexpected and painful moments when all he had lost and forgotten resurfaced. Eire describes these moments as experiences of “the Void”—a suffocating sense of total abandonment, of being alone in the universe. Waking up alone in a resettlement camp precipitated the first such moment, but similar ones recurred later without apparent cause: “In the wink of an eye, the world around me loses its boundaries, and all of its details turn sour. All I can see and feel is this vortex of nothingness, emptiness, and utter loneliness. Pure Absence.” It would be easy to label this experience a sort of panic attack and ascribe it to the resurgence of deeply repressed trauma, but Eire avoids words like “panic attack,” “trauma,” or anything else that resembles a diagnostic category, opting instead for an idiosyncratic vocabulary (“the Void,” “the Vault of Oblivion”) that takes nothing for granted. So doing, he avoids imposing adult political narratives or psychoanalyses on the impressions of his youthful self, and the experiences he describes take on greater resonance. The experience of the Void, for instance, certainly has to do with repressed trauma, but it also has a certain kinship with the religious experiences described in the writings of Spanish mystics, and perhaps, Eire invites us to wonder, the kinship is ultimately more interesting than the difference.
It is toward the end of the book, with a slightly jarring change of tone, that Eire recounts the religious conversion he experienced in high school. That experience finally taught him to banish the Void and make peace with the various dead and resurrected versions of himself: Cuban, American, and everything in between. As a teenager he rediscovered the faith he had left behind when he fled Cuba, and found in it a way to make sense of the various deaths and rebirths that had rocked his life. Religious readers will find these chapters beautiful; nonreligious readers may well skip over them as irrelevant to the rest of the story. There is no attempt made to convince the skeptic, and perhaps that is for the best. (Eire mentions that in his last memoir he attempted to offer proofs for the existence of God which now strike him as “contemptible.”) He instead limits himself to telling his story, which is on its own merits an eloquent testimony to the resilience of the human spirit.
Learning to Die in Miami is more than memoir: it’s an intimate personal account of a government program that might have sounded good on paper, but in practice tore apart the lives of thousands, changing them beyond recognition. Eire strikes a final note of ambivalence toward the effects of Operation Pedro Pan on his life. Being in the United States afforded him exhilarating freedoms and opportunities he never would have had in Cuba. It also destroyed his family, effectively rendering him an orphan. In the end, both his gains and his losses seem equally immeasurable. Sónomambíche, though—they sure do make for a killer story.