Illumination Tropical: My Abuelos' Story

Left: Jorge Concepción, pre-WWII Havana. Right: Elsa Concepción, in her home in Florida.

Left: Jorge Concepción, pre-WWII Havana. Right: Elsa Concepción, in her home in Florida.

Additionally published on my Facebook page

 

Note: This was written—interspersing my technical and art historical research, and accompanying my thesis project—for my Masters of Fine Arts thesis paper in 2011, and feels especially pertinent now with recent changes in U.S.-Cuba relations.

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The preamble to Carlos Eire’s autobiography Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy* says:

Still, all of us are responsible for our own actions.

Not even Fidel is exempt from all this.

Nor Che, nor his chauffeurs, nor his mansion.

Nor the many Cubans who soiled their pants before they were shot to death.

My family has come a very long way, and their reality is not synonymous with that of the hipsters wearing Che shirts, who don’t seem to know that the great Marxist had chauffeurs and a mansion. Our reality isn’t shared by the academics praising Castro’s regime regardless of the thousands of Cubans murdered point-blank, lined up as a Caribbean slaughterhouse, simply for not believing in his cause.

Our reality might be harder to swallow, but it makes up the conventional knowledge that runs in my family. In war, drums sound the beat of marching; in my education, I took my rhythm from the myriad ways small beams of light drape the contours of my abuela’s, or grandmother’s, face. Drums are huge for Cubans: they are the beat in their beloved music, salsa, son, marimba. I cannot dance to save my life but I grew up with my eyes, instead, opened wide to their rhythms.

My abuela’s face is of a woman widowed with three children by the time she was thirty, arriving in Miami, not knowing any English, a Cuban peasant with a seventh-grade education. She was very unlike her husband, who had studied accounting in Boston, the son of a Havana attorney whose family came from Spain.

But her husband had died, and rather than cower I can imagine the knot of her eyebrows and the wrinkles in her forehead as she gathered her children, came here, and dedicated the next forty years of her life to cleaning houses.

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I am proud to tell people that I grew up playing in the gargantuan homes my abuela cleaned. All and any of my triumphs are only a testament to her sacrifices. And gargantuan sacrifices they have been.

Siblings drowned for not being Communist.

Internment camps for not being Communist.

The loss of a husband and the threatening of children for not being Communist.

I am blessed to be the granddaughter of a Cuban immigrant maid.

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It is such a chic thing, that socialist paradise that is Cuba. At least that’s how most Americans speak to me about it. Can you believe Castro has been in power for so long? What a tough son of a gun, they nearly smirk. Must be doing something right.

Such a lovely paradise, where you have to sterilize yourself before surgery and photos of your American-born family are intercepted when mailed to their intended recipients on the island.

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Estudia, estudia, estudia.

My abuela’s voice always rose on the last estudia, not just emphasizing her dogged desire to have her slogan of sorts burned into my head but also to emphasize what luck I have.

I called her one day during my senior year of undergrad. I called her complaining about my on-campus job. A tough life, of course.

She was quite exasperated. The leg up I had—including what I realize now was a pretty lenient work-study position—was more than my grandmother ever bargained on having someone in her family attain. She really let me have it.

When Elsa, my abuela, was twenty-two, she had three kids and a husband eleven years older than she was. My mom was five, my Tío Jorge was three, and my Tío Carlos only one. Castro had been in power two years.

Cubans were scrambling to Florida. Doctors now worked cleaning hospitals. Sugar cane plantation owners now cut the cane with machetes.

Elsa grew up wearing burlap sacks for dresses. Her father was a mechanic and they lived in straw-roofed huts because he earned so little money. Under Castro she would soon be living in one again, that despicable wife of a worm.

Worms, as my mother vividly remembers being called, were those who didn’t support the Revolution.

What my abuela should have told me was:

Estudia, hija de gusanos. ¡Estudia, estudia, estudia, gusanita!

Study, you daughter of worms. Study, study, study, little worm!

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I like to think that through me, my abuela has also lived in Chicago and now lives in New York. I think that makes the most gorgeous circuit from Cuba to the tiny home she’s inhabited for forty years in Florida—and then the wide boulevards of Chicago drenched in orange light as it rains on a warm October evening—and now to the crackling pavement of New York in July, crackling from Hudson River humidity and the concentric buzz of this most electric metropolis of all.

She visited us in Chicago, saw the broad shine of our Midwestern Mecca. She visited me in New York, saw the whirring energy of this awe-inspiring place where my life has unfolded.

As it does, it is some dizzy patchwork flower opening up only because of her hands cupping it. Her labor planted it and so I have to make sure, as I grow older, that I remember its cost.

Now, and so proudly, she tells me:

Trabaja, trabaja, trabaja. 

Trabaja, trabaja, trabaja, querida gusana.

Work, work, work, dear worm.

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Estudia, trabaja, gusana

Estudia, trabaja, gusana

Drums, drums, drums.

The word for “drums” in Spanish is batería. Sounds like battering. How unfortunately fitting.

I wish I could sway my hips and kick up my calves and spin and dance the way you should with salsa. But my Anglo-American genes kick in full force here and though my desire is strong I can’t shake it for anything.

A couple drinks and I improve drastically but I think full Cubans can just tap into it any time.

Abuela still dances. Apparently she won salsa competitions when she was young, too.

In art, the beat carries on into infinity, this singular peal of thunder that never ends, a peal so great that you feel it opening its mouth under your feet. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that she won.

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Jorge Concepción was the son of a Havana attorney who, with his half-American wife, broke off from the Catholic Church and joined a Methodist one instead. Jorge had studied accounting in Boston. He spoke English, he was athletic, and the women in his family were well-educated.

Elsa Blanco was fifteen when they met while he was vacationing on the small island south of Cuba where she’d grown up. She had no education beyond middle school and her family was despondently poor. But she sang and acted in local theatrical productions and parades. She entered local beauty pageants. And she won salsa competitions.

Jorge was eleven years her senior but Elsa knew everyone, rich and poor alike, and so it was inevitable that they met. Elsa’s real name is Iluminada, but she hates the formality of it, so she uses her middle name instead. Iluminada means “Illuminated one” in Spanish. I think, for a shy elite like Jorge to have met a lively, young woman such as Elsa was like some sort of illumination into his life, too.

A year later they were married and that’s where everything begins. And sort of where it all ended, in a way. In Cuba, everything is circular, and everything is ironic.

See, the Isle of Pines, the tiny island Elsa is from and where Jorge met her, also houses one of the largest penitentiaries and torture facilities for Cuban dissidents. Years later, Jorge would return to the Isle of Pines, as an inmate.

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Elsa is almost seventy-six now and will still talk about Jorge’s time there. They needed to leave Cuba. At first, like almost everyone else, Jorge was excited about Castro overthrowing Batista. But then Castro hadn’t been open about being a Marxist and began executing, began imprisoning, and, in short, began to ensure that his power would be absolute.

Then certain things became apparent, such as Jorge’s lack of support for the new regime. It was no easy matter to leave Cuba during that time, though. They would have to leave for Spain, instead of the United States, and Jorge would have to work three years in a labor internment camp run out of the Isle of Pines penitentiary for their exit visas.

Abuela tells me how for three years he came home every fifteen days, telling her stories about the Auschwitz-derived labor the inmates did, or how the men running the camp would shoot the laborers at will. She said he was always tired. She never used the word depressed, or crazed; just tired.

She still beams faintly but proudly when she says how she stole food to feed him on those weekends, and then sneaked food back with him. She remembers exactly how she cooked everything for him. She remembers every moment in her effort to take care of him, and how she observed the terrible way he sank onto chairs when he returned.

Cansado, she said. Tired.

Mi gusano cansado.

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After myriad other threats and tortures, the Concepcións finally made it to Spain.

My mother tells the story about how they went to the market to buy meat. There was no meat for regular people in Cuba due to the rationing. Jorge looked at the beef at the market and asked the salesman where it came from in disbelief, because the sign said it was Cuban.

The salesman confirmed that it was from Cuba.

Jorge spluttered; he tried to tell the man, but they didn't have meat in Cuba! The man laughed. That had to be tonterías, foolishness, he said. There must be tons of it in Cuba, if you’re shipping so much of the good stuff to us.

My grandfather was quiet and pensive. But my mother said that afternoon, she saw him lose his temper in public in an explosive way.

And this, besides illustrating what my grandparents endured together, illustrates the hypocrisy of that damn Sacred Lenin government. In Cuba, you will starve those to whom you promised the most while you covertly sell your goods to other, foreign markets.

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All this turned my grandfather into an alcoholic. My abuela and mother tell me that he understood all too thoroughly what was happening; and worse, comprehended more fully the devastation of being so helpless.

He died of a heart attack due to liver failure at the age of forty-one. Elsa, at thirty, then came to the United States, and maybe that’s when things started new again. I don’t know. I don’t know what it’s like to come to a place to be told you’re a Spic, and that your Spic kids, no matter how intelligent, shouldn’t go to college. I don’t know what it’s like to clean houses until the early hours of the morning for years and years on end, doggedly, relentlessly.

Elsa didn’t date after moving to the United States. She focused on her kids. The queen ruled her court alone.

When she remarried around the time I was born, it was only for six months. Me repugnaba, she told me. It disgusted me. Her kids were all for it--the support of a husband after so long--but precisely because of the independence she’d attained, a man definitely did not fit into the picture. Especially one who could never come close to my grandfather.

Jorge bought Elsa Dior perfume. They honeymooned in Mexico. He didn’t expect of her the things other Cuban husbands did. Maybe this was because of his half-American Spanish grammar teacher of a mother, or his bizarrely anti-Catholic Cuban family. But as Elsa says, Jorge adored her: la adoraba.

Abuela is so triumphant when she tells anyone about how she sat her second husband down to breakfast one day and told him she was going to get a divorce after only six months of marriage. They had no fights, nothing. She just wanted nothing to do with him or any companion anymore.

Jorge adored Elsa and that was all I think she needed, and needs, for the rest of her life. The memory of them is the only companion she wants. I think the well-educated young accountant would be floored by the perseverance of the vivacious peasant, would be speechless at the success of their children, would be astonished at the educations of their grandchildren.

I don’t know when Jorge married Elsa if he ever fully grasped what she was capable of, and what she could do. I don’t know if he sensed that incredible abyss of nerve that she would use to hold him up, and then use to hold up her family. I don’t know if he knew that she’d do it, as my mother said, so stoically. I don’t know if he knew the magnitude of the queen he held, or the ferocity of the battles she would wage, always, always on the defensive.

But he loved her. And I don’t think he ever underestimated her.

Jorge was blessed to be the husband of a Cuban immigrant maid.

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To me, the story of her life is directly intertwined with the story of her marriage to my grandfather. Beginnings and endings and circles, convoluted ironies, tropical bloodshed, fervent adoration that endures after death.

I have only seen two pictures of Jorge and Elsa together, two visual testimonies to what I think is a love story more poignant than any other, not because of its rosier moments but rather because of its darker ones. Queens with dark eyes, love stories with dark holes. Remember? Everything in Cuba is circular, is ironic.

His pain was her pain, his life her life, and after he died, the queen left his throne vacant, and still insists that she rule alone.

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It seems to work just right that I can easily insert the portrait of my grandmother into the canon of art.

Drums were also sounded in battle--apparently they scared the early Christians to death, not knowing what they were. Can you imagine that? A battle of swords such as the courage my grandmother wields. The sound of drums that propel her dancing feet. The drums that endlessly sound the peal of art.

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She told me once that, at her funeral, I have to play good music. I won’t let her down. It’ll all have a beat to kill, incessant and vibrant and drunk in its own conscious yet untapped exuberance.

Nace, baila, crece, trabaja, ama, sufre, trabaja, ama, trabaja, baila, trabaja, baila, baila, muere, baila.

One is born, one dances, one grows, works, loves, suffers, works, loves, works, dances, works, dances, dances, dies, dances.

I guess one of her life lessons is this: even if heard by eyes, it’s all drums. Great reserves of illuminated drums and dancing from Day One to Judgment Day.

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* Eire, Carlos. Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003. Print.