This post goes in the “It’s a Small World” category.
A few years back, I took a memoir workshop at the Florida Center for the Literary Arts. One of the pieces we critiqued was by a Cuban-American immigration lawyer who got caught on camera kissing Cuban President Fidel Castro on the cheek, and the firestorm that erupted afterwards. It was a memorable story – so much so, in fact, that half a decade later, I recalled that piece when I read one of the entries in our unpublished writers competition.
The entry was entitled “Mommy the Commie and Me,” and it was by the daughter of that immigration lawyer.
So we tracked down Magda Montiel Davis, the lawyer who kissed Fidel, and now present you the first chapter from her unpublished memoir side-by-side with her daughter’s humorous essay on growing up in a red household (an essay, I’m told, that in a slightly different form, helped get Sadie Kurzban into Brown, where she’s a student now).
One other quick note: Sadie makes a cameo in chapter two of her mom’s memoir: “In strutted Sadie, at four-and-a-half the next-to-youngest of our five kids, her tangled blonde curls flying about, her pink, ruffled Little Mermaid nightshirt dusting the floor.” Ah, how they grow up!
A memoir by Magda Montiel Davis
El Palacio de la Revolución, April 24, 1994
I kissed Fidel Castro.
I was in Havana, an immigration lawyer pushing to defrost relations between the country of my birth and the United States at la Conferencia La Nación y La Emigración, an event the Cuban government had organized to bring together hundreds of rights activists, Cuban émigrés. I’d made the trip countless times since 1981, when I had first returned with my future husband, Ira Kurzban, a renowned civil rights lawyer. There was no reason to assume that this trip would be different from the others.
I stood, smiling in a long line that snaked twice amidst golden doors, tropical plants and white lights hanging taut from a black ceiling. My feet hurt.
I stretched my body, took a little jump, and stole a peek above other heads at the famed profile. I waited my turn.
A mustached man in a white guayabera motioned me forward with oddly cautious graciousness. I smiled, clickety-clicked the vast expanse of black-marbled floors, keeping a cool front as Professor Hausler had taught our law school class to do when grappling with a demanding client, a hanging judge, or a stone-faced jury. But this wasn’t a client, a judge, or a jury. This was The Big Leagues. This was Fidel Castro.
Cameras clicked and they whirred. The Cuban government told us the event would be photographed and videotaped “for historical archives only,” so I wasn’t surprised. I stepped to the receiving line.
“Comandante.” A drop microphone dangled in front of my mouth, picking up my voice in one big swoop.
“Comandante,” I said, so banal, innocent, so innocuous here in Havana; so incriminating in Miami. Our palms met– a steady, precise handshake, my left hand cupping the union of the two.
He stood over me, elevated, svelte in green fatigues, a gleaming white star and olive branch embroidered on his epaulet. His sparse grey locks brushed against the wide freckle-dotted forehead, wise amusement in his crinkled brown eyes. I stood in a deep purple Tahari coatdress. My two favorite colors played off each other: the green, the purple.
Then he bent gently.
I rose on my toes, thrust my head forward, lifted my face. My mouth pressed the scraggly whiskers of his beard. His lips lightly stroked my cheek. I stepped back, arched my head, looked up, looked up some more, my arms extended against him, continuing still to grasp his hand as if for support.
He asked me where I was from. I told him my old Havana neighborhood—the one my family had run from in 1961, leaving behind our house and all we knew and loved as we headed for the U.S.
“Ah, Nuevo Vedado,” he said. Then almost immediately, his eyes opened wide. An “O” puckered his mouth. “Magda!”
A sharp, quick recollection. He had seen me on TV, he said.
For a second I was baffled but I smiled, nodded, thinking, He means one of the appearances I have made before the media in the last few days.
“Let me explain it to you.” Each word was enunciated carefully, precisely. “They should have explained it to you.” He looked to his right, to his left, in clear admonition of the compañeros—comrades—about him. His hands, too, were freckled and long, and he used them gracefully, elegantly, as if they were an essential component of his gift of speech. The lower lid of his right eye trembled, then trembled again.
I felt nonplussed still, not exactly sure who they were or what it was, all the while keenly aware of the myriad of other conference participants who stood behind me in the receiving line, patiently waiting to meet El Comandante.
“Yes,” I said. “Someday you will have to explain it to me.”
And then I said to him what I had wanted to say, what I had been waiting to say: “Fidel, I want to tell you something. Thank you for what you have done for my people. You have been a great teacher to me.”
Why would I— a well-known member of the Cuban émigré community, a prosperous lawyer who was by almost any definition living The American Dream—say such a thing? My reasons were complex—more complex than even I appreciated at the time. I said this because when I was five or six, on the hilly slopes of Nuevo Vedado, a beggar woman cradling a baby in her arms had come to our door and all my mother had given her was a dented can of Pet’s Condensed Milk.
I said this because at Miami Central High School, my best friend Sandye Mc Neal and I were jeered at– “Ebony and Ivory,” they called us– because a white girl like me wasn’t supposed to hang around with a black girl like her.
I said this because on the cobblestone streets of Old Havana, a shiny brown man with a wide smile of missing teeth recounted how in the old days before the Revolution, he lived in the mountains in huts made of mud and with roofs covered only by palm leaves, but now his children were universitarios.
I said this because in Miami, just a month before, a woman’s cancerous tumor the size of a grapefruit had burst inside her breast because she couldn’t afford medical care.
I turned to leave. Fidel gripped my arm, pulling me back towards him. The lower lid of his eye trembled once more. “I want you to run again.” He Uncle Sam-pointed his index finger at me. “For U.S. Congress.”
I did an about-face. ¡ay Dios mío! my brain addled now. If my Cuban-American compatriots in Miami were to hear this, their threats, attacks, accusations during my recent bid for Congress– “She’s an envoy, an agent, a spy of that tyrant, that dictator, that assassin Fidel Castro”– would, in their small minds, be validated.
And so the end of my life as I had known it began.
Mommy the Commie and Me
by Sadie Kurzban
Finalist in Under the Sun’s Unpublished Writers Competition
My mother is the only Cuban communist I know. Sometimes I think she’s the only one in the world. My father, a white Jewish man, practically considers himself a Haitian refugee, part of the immigrant struggle. Every time we see a black person around Miami, my dad insists on greeting him with an enthusiastic sac passé, “what’s up” in Creole. My little brother aspires to become the next Che Guevara and was reading the Communist Manifesto at the tender age of twelve. Where does that put me?
My parents fear that they are raising the next Posner, Hooke, or Horowitz, just another right winger betraying her good communist roots. For me, it’s really not like that. I love and respect my parents, I truly do. But over the years, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to fit a square inside a circle. My parents raised me to always question authority and their beliefs are no exception to the rule.
Like starting a car engine or turning on a light switch, my family’s nonconformity is just part of everyday life. Ever Googled your parents? Well, try these: “Magda Montiel Davis” and “Ira Kurzban.” It’s not that I’m annoyed or that I don’t understand their views. Sometimes, though, it’s a little painful watching two groups fight so blindly for their cause, they forget about common sense or consideration.
In Miami, Cubans constantly protest against Castro’s ills and the Venezuelans preach against Chavez’s inhumanity. Everyone, it seembs, awaits Fidel’s death to throw a huge parade. My mother, of course, trusts that this will never happen; her hero, her state, her politics are forever indefatigable. She shrugs off the view of Miami Cubans, branding it right-wing, reactionary propaganda. Every time I bring a new boyfriend home, she insists he come to Cuba with us on our next trip. She tells him of her island of paradise where everyone has health care, a warm meal, and a bed in which to sleep.
I cannot dismiss one form of propaganda and favor another. How can I agree with my mother and ignore the poverty in Cuba? Likewise, I cannot listen to the exile Cubans in Miami without noticing the drastic gap in our own country between rich and poor. I feel an obligation to my parents to defend Communism in heated round-table discussions at school. But at the same time, I see a crumbling state before my eyes, one where my generation begs their Miami relatives for i-pods, failing to see the “greater good for the greatest number.”
Funding for this episode provided by a grant from The Florida Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities.