Inspiration for Letters from Cuba by Ruth Behar
Though my new middle-grade novel takes place in the Cuban countryside in the late 1930s, Letters from Cuba is my heart’s response to the current news of deportations, immigrant travel bans, and international refugee crises. How, I wondered, could I talk back to the cruel anti-immigrant climate of our era? It occurred to me that by setting my novel in another time and place, I could offer a fresh perspective on how we think about immigrants, especially immigrant children. Because seeing immigrant children in cages hurts us all.
I can’t help but be passionate about this subject. I was once an immigrant child from Cuba, and I won’t ever forget that. We came to the United States at a time when Cuban immigrants were welcomed because we were fleeing the autocratic rule of Fidel Castro. Unlike my parents, I learned English when I was young, so I don’t have any trace of a Cuban accent. But I vividly recall how strange and frightening everything seemed when we first arrived. It took constant effort to get the cues right that allowed you to fit in and not be seen as totally “other.”
Being an immigrant once is hard enough. Imagine, then, being an immigrant twice over. That’s what all four of my grandparents experienced. They left Europe for Cuba in the 1920s and 1930s, as poverty, discrimination, and rising anti-Semitism created an unbearable situation for Jews on the eve of World War II. My grandparents created a new life for themselves on a tropical island, expecting to stay forever, but then, in the 1960s, they had to leave their beloved Cuba after the sudden turn to communism erased everything they’d worked for. They resettled in New York, where they worked again to build a new life. They crossed from América to America.
I knew my four grandparents, all of whom had amazing stories of how they got to Cuba. But the one that stuck with me the most was my maternal grandmother’s story. Esther was from the town of Govorovo (also spelled Goworowo) in Poland, and as the eldest child, she begged her father, my great-grandfather, to let her be the first to go to Cuba and work with him to help get her six siblings, mother, and grandmother out of Poland. My great-grandfather wanted his oldest son to make the voyage to Cuba, but my grandmother convinced him she was a mighty girl, with the strength and courage to meet the challenge. Just as she promised, my grandmother got the family to Cuba in time to escape Hitler’s clutches.
I was driven to tell my grandmother’s story because I think kids need to know there are different immigrant stories, different Americas where desperate immigrants went seeking a new life. Cuba offered a welcoming home for Jewish immigrants at a moment when the United States closed its doors to them. They were grateful to Cuba. After they resettled in the United States, they held on to their Spanish language and memories of the island’s food, music, and Afro-Cuban culture. And they danced a conga at every wedding and bar mitzvah.
In writing Letters from Cuba, I created a protagonist who is twelve years old—a few years younger than my grandmother was when she arrived in Cuba. At first, I wondered if a young person could save her family. Then I thought about child immigrants courageously coming over on their own across the border to help their families. And I thought about young people standing up against the threats of climate change and gun violence. It became clear to me that young people could do things impossible for adults to accomplish.
I’ve been a cultural anthropologist for most of my career as a writer, which means I’ve traveled a lot and written about my journeys. In my novel, I got to go on a fictional journey, imagining my grandmother’s discovery of Cuba. Writing Letters from Cuba, I could imagine a Polish Jewish girl tasting bananas, pineapples, and guavas, pronouncing Spanish words, learning about the bitter history of sugar and slavery in Cuba, and being entranced by the batá drums calling to the spirits. In the letters she writes to her sister, who is waiting to come to Cuba, the girl reveals her feelings, hopes, and fears, and all the ways Cuba is becoming her new home. John Parra’s stunning cover art beautifully shows the light and warmth awaiting Esther as she begins her new life in the tropics.
Esther, in the end, is fortunate. She is a child immigrant who is given the freedom to start over and flourish. As she leaves the past behind, she embraces the unfolding present and sees glimmers of hope for a more just and joyous future.
May Esther’s freedom be granted to more young people today.
Ruth Behar is an acclaimed author of adult fiction and nonfiction, including the middle-grade novel Lucky Broken Girl. She was born in Havana, Cuba, grew up in New York, and has also lived and worked in Spain and Mexico. An anthropology professor at the University of Michigan, she is co-editor of Women Writing Culture, editor of Bridges to Cuba/Puentes a Cuba, and co-editor of The Portable Island: Cubans at Home in the World. Her honors include a MacArthur “Genius” Award, a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, a Fulbright Senior Fellowship, and a Distinguished Alumna Award from Wesleyan University. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.