“Crucet is endowed with the double vision that helped Richard Wright and Salman Rushdie describe the lives of marginalized people with poignancy, humor, and rich music.”
It’s home to one of the largest populations of Cuban and Cuban-American residents in the United States. An exile’s home away from home, an urbanized version of Cuba with no view of the sea and violence stirring in its innards. A place that longs and sighs and breathes heavily with stories. This is Hialeah, Fla.—a city within the Greater Miami area. Ask anybody in Miami and they’ll tell you exactly how to get there. Ask anyone outside Miami, and they will most likely look at you puzzled? Hialeah-who?
This is Jennine Capó Crucet’s particular gift as a writer: As someone who was born and bred in Miami but moved away, she is both inside and outside, able to lead you into the gut and heart of Hialeah, while promising the secrets of how to get out. How to Leave Hialeah, her debut collection of short stories and the winner of the John Simmons Award in Short Fiction from the University of Iowa Press, is endowed with the same double vision that has helped writers from Richard Wright to Salman Rushdie describe the lives of marginalized people and cultures with poignancy, humor, and rich music. Crucet exposes, full-frontal, the rich history of the Cuban-American community that has been laying bricks and threading tales in America for too long to be ignored. “Oh please,” says the mother of the central character in the title story, “like anyone would want to read about Hialeah.” The great success of this collection is how decisively she is proven wrong.
The book opens with “Resurrection, or: The Story behind the Failure of the 2003 Radio Salsa 98.1 Semi-Annual Cuban and/or Puerto Rican Heritage Festival.” A young woman named Jesenia, still rolling after a night of clubbing, enters a church and finds herself next to a young nun, and before a bowl of holy water. “She cups her hand and says, I’m so totally sorry but I’m freaking gonna die if I don’t. She leans down, drinks from the holy water.” And that’s just the beginning. The voice of Jesenia—a particular kind of born-and-bred-Cuban-American-Miami-girl—rings genuine throughout the story, as she explains to the nun (and, later, to a Santera) that she needs to bring salsa godmother Celia Cruz back from the dead in order to save her internship at a radio station.
From there, Crucet’s stories travel between Miami, Hialeah, and Cuba, tracing their characters’ roots and memories. She has a knack for zooming in on the pull that love has on the characters—a force that draws them and repels them one from the other, a binding, filial, and very human connection that tugs not only at the hearts of the characters but of the reader as well. In “The Next Move,” there is the love of Luis and Nilda, an old Cuban couple living in Miami. Although they have children and grandchildren of their own, Nilda has decided to visit the family she left in Cuba, while Luis remains in Miami. He finds himself unable to cook or to fend for himself, longing for his wife, looking for her in mirrors, even going to the T’ai Chi classes she had forced him to take. Crucet’s characterization is exceptionally concrete, the scenes between the old couple touching. Luis narrates: “I grabbed [Nilda]… and kissed her from behind on her neck. I felt her chest heave, her breath coming in and out of her mouth with no sound. It was just the two of us in that house, the only house we’d ever had in this country… I said Te quiero, mujer.” That “te quiero” is heart-wrenching—it is the map of her in his arms, it is the only country he knows anymore, it is love and exile and marriage and the tender grit of it all wrapped into one.
Oddly, the least successful story is the only one that takes place entirely in Cuba—“And in the Morning, Work,” the story of a woman who reads aloud to the workers in a cigar factory. It begins: “Marielena thought she’d arrived early enough at the cigar factory to prevent such a thing, but again she found Niño sitting on the stool from which she read to the rollers—his legs open wide, feet flat on the floor, trying to take up her space.” Here the voice seems foreign and distant, as if Crucet is struggling to inhabit it, thereby forbidding her reader full entry into the world she presents. Likewise, Marielena has a hard time finding the right material to read to the cigar rollers, as though she doesn’t truly know them or their hearts. Still, it’s easy to see why “And in the Morning” is essential to the collection: set in Cuba, it’s the writer’s fullest attempt to grapple with the meaning of home and exile.
But the bulk of the stories in How to Leave Hialeah are impressive for the ways they find the humor in tragedy and sting when they have to. Crucet offers stories about abandoned children poking, prodding, and protecting a dead body found at a highway underpass; stories about abandoned ferrets; about men who punch women in the face; about cheating; and funerary melodrama—about people trying to find their way in the world. At the same time, these stories give us a writer finding her own way, ironically, back to Miami. Who wants to read about Hialeah? You do.