Death is the only connection I have to Cuba. My skin tells a different story than my mouth. Whenever someone asks me where I’m from, Canada is not an acceptable answer.
“No. Really, where are you from?”
I remember being young—maybe four—and my mother was desperately crying over the death of an aunt, whom I’d vaguely heard of. It is my first memory of fear and uncertainty, unsure how Mom could be suffering over someone I barely knew. I was born in Canada, played with Canadian kids my whole life, sang “O Canada” at movie theaters; I wear touques; I like to skate on outdoor rinks; French is my second language; I use the washroom, not the bathroom. And I appreciate bad haircuts. But my mother was forced to leave an island in the Caribbean at nineteen and became Canadian slowly, over time, and never fully. Stuck in the dead December winter, weeks before Christmas, my mother couldn’t afford to go to her aunt’s funeral.
Over the years, my mother’s hurt over Cuba became more apparent, but its loss never existed for me until a close family friend died. The death of Martha Martinez—my mother’s best friend and my godmother—felt closer to home. Though she lived in Ottawa, she was like a second mother to me in Toronto. Her influence on my early years was great. She loved music, dance, and, in particular, food. Martha was the most incredible cook. I still dream of the mango mousse she made for my confirmation party when I was twelve. The luscious mango mousse was not distinctly Cuban food. She had perfected French cuisine but never cooked Cuban in Canada due to a painful history. In the ’50s Martha had gained some notoriety for writing a bestselling cookbook in Cuba. But after emigrating to Canada in the ’60s, when copyright was no longer recognized by the new regime in Cuba, her manuscript was stolen by some opportunist who filed for copyright in the US and republished Martha’s book as her own in Florida.
After Martha’s death, my mother and her friend discovered she had been under investigation by the RCMP for being a spy. She had lied about her past but not about the cookbook. They found her old galleys from the Cuban publisher in a shoebox. I bought the English translation of the forgery from a Miami bookstore years later. The recipes are not how my mother remembers them, not how my mother made them, how her mother taught her to make them. My mother used to cook Cuban cuisine at least once a week growing up but slowly made it less and less. These days, I have to beg her to make moros y cristianos: the name for black beans cooked with fatback and mixed with white rice that translates to “moors and Christians.” This reminds me of the old Havana joke that no two Cubans can agree on anything, not even how to make their national dish.
My grandmother passed away when I was a junior in high school. Hers was my first “true” Cuban funeral. Many people came. Many of my grandfather’s friends were still alive then and many of their church friends and their children, too. Most of the attendees were Cubans in exile, Miamians who had created a new Cuba. I learned most of what I know about the culture from that night, as Cubans stay with the body for twenty-four hours, open casket. They also tell stories, particularly funny ones, and happy memories of ancestors making fools of themselves, fighting with one another, being petty—hilarious tales about the deceased, no matter how tragic the death. They punctuate each story with cup after cup of cortaditos, a black, sweet, and creamy Cuban coffee, and pastelitos, a guava or meat-filled pastry made with lard.
I remember walking out of the washroom that night to find a couple dozen family members in tears surrounding my great aunt Cora, who stood before them like a conductor. As I got closer, I realized they weren’t crying but laughing to tears. She was telling them a story about rescuing my grandmother from nuns, and that’s about all I understood. They laughed so loud that the funeral director closed the doors so we would not disturb mourners at other wakes.
Cora, my mother’s last remaining aunt, was the family orator, especially after my grandmother had gone. She knew all the family history. Just a year later, Cora would preside over her husband’s wake, but that night—the night of her sister’s funeral—her eyes glistened as she spoke of a poor colony in the Caribbean. She spoke about a people who built their homes with their own hands, who met every Friday night at the dance hall, who made music so loud the world heard them fall.
That night I stood up in front of a hundred Cubans and ordered a small religious contingent to leave. They had not honored my grandmother’s memory, and I told them—in broken Spanish—that they were using the opportunity of her death to recruit more zealots. Perhaps it was the foreign quality of the event, or the fact that they exuded a moral superiority that triggered my teen angst, or maybe it was the culmination of rage over the month that I’d already missed from my junior year in Toronto, spent watching my grandmother wither away in Miami. Whatever the reason, I kicked a bunch of exiled Cubans out of my grandmother’s wake.
She passed away slowly over time to Alzheimer’s. I remember her in a hospice bed, wizened to a frail wisp with big owl eyes. She died in my arms. I still think of her whenever I see owls, or eat bistec empanizado, the breaded steak she made so delicious it persuaded my grandfather to marry her.
We buried her on a sunny but cold Miami morning in January. She was gently lowered down in the ground, next to her daughter, who had passed away nearly forty years before, just months after their emigration to Miami. My grandfather hadn’t participated in the funny storytelling. He had hardened from a charming Havana dance hall singer into a stone, a white defiance of everyone, stumbling on his way to her gravesite. He almost fell in the hole.
When my grandfather died a decade later, the cemetery had dumped an unknown body in his plot adjacent to my grandmother’s. The only reason my grandparents had bought plots almost three decades before was to be next to their eldest daughter. My mother’s sister had died from lupus so early in their political asylum that they couldn’t afford her funeral. Their church raised funds for a service, and a family-owned cemetery donated a plot south of southern Kendall, a suburban Miami swamp so far south of the city it was considered the Keys. In the half-century that followed, several large corporations bought and sold the property, losing track of who was in each plot. When the new owners discovered that some unknown corpse was buried next to my grandmother and her daughter, they offered to move them to accommodate my grandfather but could not. My mother’s sister had been buried in a cheap pine box that—if unearthed and exposed to the elements—would disintegrate. So one day, my mother and I watched as an excavator exhumed my grandmother to make room for my grandfather. A hole was dug more than thirty feet deep, my grandmother was returned to her tomb, my grandfather’s tomb piled on top of hers, then they were all closed in. It would have been more than gruesome had the excavator not looked so orange against the always-blue Floridian sky, or had the sea of plastic flowers not blown like salsa dancers in the exhaust from the blaring freeways encircling us. The three of them rest between Miami and Cuba, between a country that offered asylum—but not redemption—and a land that never existed for me.
And I couldn’t help but notice that at my grandfather’s funeral, only his sister-in-law, my aunt Cora, remained a storyteller. She told jokes to the few people that still spoke Spanish, reminiscing of the faded hope that Cuba would one day be restored, hope that El Cabron would finally die, stories about people that didn’t exist anymore except in the failing memory of a woman who’d never had children. The cortaditos were made with instant coffee and artificial sweetener. Everything I would ever know about my family was slipping into the ground slowly, over time. I was partly at fault. I, who barely know Spanish, decided that we needn’t uphold the tacky Cuban tradition of carnation crosses nor the ridiculous floral wreaths made by Cuban illegals in flower-shops that resembled sweatshops. Instead, I filled my grandfather’s wake room with sunflowers, an homage to a sun that I would never see, a sun that set before I was born, a place that I could never know except by piecing together the scraps of recipes stolen from a distant relative not related by blood.
Cora was born on that tiny island in the Caribbean in nineteen hundred and eleven, and she died at one hundred and one years old. She was my favorite family member, our mascot for hope, for the undying and hardworking spirit of her generation and their exile. I was on a tiny island when I heard about her death. I was in England, speaking English, studying how the English fought, died, and made art in WWI while Cora died in Miami. I will always remember how, on the phone in my room at Oxford, after a supper of fish and chips, my mother told me that the cemetery did their best to move Cora’s husband’s coffin closer to her new plot. Evidently, it’s challenging for cemeteries in South Miami to keep track of the corpses in their gardens—they’re always on the move.
Or maybe it’s just their stubborn longing for another place, another time, to cross those ninety short and impossible miles.
Stuck in the dead heat of summer in England, a week before classes started up again, I couldn’t afford to go to my mother’s aunt’s funeral. Toward the end, Cora could barely remember our names, let alone the family histories or how to cook Cuban food—she was always a terrible cook, anyway. But, while I cursed those four thousand eight hundred and thirty-seven miles over the phone to my mother, I learned that Cora had perked up in her last days. She told her caretakers to keep quiet, that she was hiding from Death.
When people ask me where I’m from, I tell them, “Canada.”
And then I say more.
My skin is toasted like sand, but my mother is white as snow. And when someone in her family dies, her eyes get pink and puffy.
When she tastes my versions of moros y cristianos or bistec empanizado, it reminds her of a place she once longed for more than love, a memory that hurts to feel, a faint sun slipping like yolk. A taste of something slowly, over time.
Photographs provided courtesy of author.