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Families shattered, memories intact

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By MARY JO MELONE

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 27, 2000


My friend Silvia Curbelo and I, both children in the early '60s, were comparing memories. We were not talking about dollhouses and games, but about preparing for war. I called it the Cuban missile crisis.

"We called it the American missile crisis," Silvia said.

She was not quite 7 then and still living in Cuba with her parents.

I was 10, living in a pink house in a patch of American suburbia.

I recalled being told by my teachers, who spoke as though they honestly believed we would survive a nuclear attack, to crawl under my desk and put my hands over my head. If I got up, I was never to look in the direction of the blast.

Silvia's story was naturally just like mine.

"My father told me to grab a pencil and put it between my teeth and get under my bed," she said. "I don't know why he wanted me to have the pencil, maybe so if I screamed, I wouldn't bite my tongue."

We ended up laughing over cafe con leche at a Latin restaurant in Tampa's Town 'N Country. We were laughing over how, as children, we took the possibility of the end of the world in stride.

Nobody has suggested this about Elian Gonzalez. Every network has some therapist talking about the emotional damage inflicted on this 6-year-old, since he saw his mother die at sea and became the center of a struggle that put America's government for once on the same side as Fidel Castro.

Silvia, a poet and the mother of a 9-year-old girl, is on the same side. She thinks Elian belongs with his father.

Castro has divided so many Cuban families, through ideology and geography, she said. "Of all the damage Fidel has done . . . that's the worst."

She remembers how neighbors in her hometown, Matanzas, disappeared for no reason. She remembers the night the police came for her father, who managed to be out of the house. "If you see soldiers coming to the door," he once told her, "go to the drawer where we keep the passports and put them in your pants."

The passports were the ticket out. Silvia, her mother and maternal grandfather left, quite legally, in 1966, when she was 11. Their exit visas got them only as far as Mexico.

Permission to leave was hard to get. Silvia's father didn't leave Cuba until six months later, and his visa sent him to Spain.

Another six months passed before the family was reunited in Florida.

Silvia still has cousins in Cuba. She hasn't heard their voices in 30 years. They have no phones. They write, and ask Silvia to send clothes, to have eyeglasses made, prescriptions filled. Not long ago, a cousin with severe asthma sent her a prescription for a medicine Silvia couldn't find. She wrote a month ago to tell him, but she hasn't heard back and worries about what has happened to him. One of Silvia's uncles died waiting for her father to send him blood pressure medicine.

This is the world Silvia would return Elian to, even though she knows that he "would be better off here in terms of opportunity and hope." She believes this because she holds fast to the Cuban tradition that family comes first.

Silvia is like a tree with roots on both sides of a property line. She inhabits two worlds. This division may have helped turn her into a poet. She has published two books.

Her beloved father died seven years ago. Her mother, who is 80, lives with her, her husband and daughter. When enough time passes, and she has enough distance on the emotions Elian's story has stirred in her, she will put the poetry of his family's lives on paper. She calls Elian and his mother balseros, raft people. She identifies most with his mother.

"What was her name?" Silvia asked as lunch ended.

Elisabet, I said.

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