Excerpt from Radio Big Mouth

By ANA HEBRA FLASTER 

An excerpt from Radio Big Mouth. 

 

Juanelo, Cuba, November 1967

In our barrio, any kid worth her café con leche knew what the rumble of a motorcycle meant. Another family was about to disappear.

Until that night, I ran fast and free over Juanelo’s crumbling streets, hunting crinkly brown lizards in the dusty yards, gossiping with the omnipresent abuelas. The old women took care of us while our parents worked at places like the school on the corner or the canning factory down by the river. Four generations of my family lived all around me. No one shut her windows or doors. Everybody knew everything about everyone.

On that last normal afternoon in the barrio, I was where I always was after school, chasing skinny hens in my Abuela Cuca’s yard, the smell of hot rubber wafting from my grandfather’s stamping machine in the shed. I played at Abuela Cuca’s house every afternoon until dinnertime, when the sky started to whisper about night, and she or one of the other viejos scooted me out of the yard, stood at the corner, and watched me zigzag down Castillo to our lemon-yellow house on the corner.

The struggles the adults endured during those early years after the 1959 Revolution barely registered in my six-year-old brain. I only knew what I knew. But one thing stumped me. Sometimes, friends disappeared overnight. After dinner, Florecita and I would play los caballitos on the sidewalk, like we always did. We searched for the biggest palm fronds we could find, straddled them—our “horses”—and raced at full speed slapping our thighs with our free hands. Sometimes she cheated. Sometimes I cheated, too. Above us on their porches, the viejos rocked away in their chairs, talking, talking—always talking. Later, in my bed, I’d hear the clunk of a motorcycle as it snuck into the barrio and wonder. By morning the sound of the moto the night before felt like a wispy thing that I’d only imagined. But the day I stood on the corner of Blumer Ramos in my school uniform, waiting for Florecita, and she never appeared, I knew the moto had been real. My friend’s shimmering green house was empty. A gray banner spread itself across the front door, sealing it shut. Forty long and distant years later, I learned what it said: Property of the Revolution.

Now the moto was back, chugging slowly down Blumer Ramos. I flew out of Abuela Cuca’s gate, leaving the hens and lizards behind, took a left onto Serafina, and a right onto Castillo—our street. I saw a crowd forming in front of our house and more people rushing toward it from different directions. Those bodies sent out an energy I’ll never forget, a current that ran up the street, buzzed through my feet, and landed, vibrating, in my chest. I fought the urge to cry, to run back to Abuela Cuca’s. I wanted to be brave. My mother had shown me how to make myself brave on this very same rise on Castillo, where she taught me to ride a bike. She had let me go too soon and I picked up too much speed. I crashed where the road dipped, tangled up in the pedals and spokes, bloody and bawling. Ya pasó, ya pasó, Mami said, over and over. And she was right. It was over and, somehow, that bit of distance eased the pain. Then, with her eyes so close to mine I could see the thin blue ring around her black irises, she said, Ponte guapa—make yourself brave.

I ran straight through the dip in the road and into the bodies swarming in front of our house. I knew them all from the neighborhood. Some people were crying, even though they were smiling. Others were sobbing, hard. What were we feeling? What were we doing? People shouted, ¡Se van, Se van! But who was leaving? They pushed me along and I bumped into the familiar belts and elbows of my waist-high world until I was on the sidewalk, next to the enormous moto at the curb. Through our open door, I saw a guardia. He wore an olive-green uniform and was sitting at our kitchen table, his back to me. I stared at the gun holstered on his belt as I brushed past him. My father sat across from the guardia, his hands jammed under his chin, his gaze pinned to the top of the table.

The look on my father’s face told me everything and nothing at the same time. It was someone else’s face, someone else’s father. Papi’s frozen expression terrified me. I was too scared to talk, let alone ask questions. And no one seemed to notice me, anyway. I couldn’t have understood, then, the horrible truth Papi was telling me without uttering a word. Sometimes when our dreams come true, they break our hearts at the same time.

***

My parents had been waiting since 1964 for this moment, the delivery of their permiso. They didn’t know when—or if—the exit papers would arrive. The new government had created the permiso edict to slow the outflow of hundreds of thousands who were heading for higher, freer ground. The revolution had promised Cubans an end to Batista’s dictatorship and the restoration of democracy. Instead, my parents watched as, within months of the takeover, the economy, personal freedoms, and society itself shattered around them. They’d never thought of leaving the barrio where they were born and raised, but now they began to search for a way out of Cuba, even if it meant leaving their extended families behind. That concept—abandoning your family, especially your viejos—was Cuban taboo. My parents, like all gusanos—worms, the government’s term for people who were “abandoning” the country—knew they’d have to turn over everything they owned to the government when they left Cuba. But these material losses couldn’t compare to the pain of leaving their extended family behind, probably forever. That was the cost of their dream coming true.

My mother had felt the crush of that truth earlier, when she heard the moto turn down Castillo and pull up to our house. How many times had she heard the moto pass our house as the guard brought another family their permiso? Finally, it was our turn. She ran to the bedroom—her heart pounding, bogobóng, bogobóng—grabbed the box with our photos and baby albums, and rushed to the window that faced the alley, where Neri was already waiting to take it. Mami passed her most cherished possessions to her friend, for safekeeping, so that one day, maybe, we could get them back.

Neri was the kind of next-door neighbor you wanted after a Communist revolution. She was always tuned in to Radio Big Mouth. Radio BembaCuban slang for “the word on the street”—was the best source of information after the revolution, given the new government’s complete control of the media. State TV wasn’t going to tell you who was selling cooking oil on the black market, which bodega just got a shipment of black beans, or how to cheat on your ration book to get extra soap. Life-saving information like that was passed like pearls from mouth to mouth on Radio Bemba. The nosy widow told the new mother on the corner, who mentioned it to the old man at the park, who whispered it to the chatterbox standing next to you in line. Neri spent a lot of time on Radio Bemba. She’d call out to my mother with breaking news, “Consuelo, run! The potatoes are here!” and the two of them would grab us kids and run to Antonio’s bodega to wait in line, ration books in hand. Neri was just as bound to her husband, a revolutionary colonel who would fight in Algiers and Angola, and in a few other countries where Castro sent Cubans to fight imperialism. Orestes would return from one of those stints unrecognizable, his son eyeing him from their porch as he got out of a taxi on the corner. His uniform floated over him as he walked, barely rustling as his bony legs carried him home. Neri would stay with her husband in Cuba, but she kept her promise and Mami’s box under her bed for two decades.

I didn’t know about the box of photos, the plan to meet at the window, or anything else, but a quick look at the chaos in our house told me that someone had picked up my world and flipped it the hell over. One end of the table was half-set for a dinner we’d never eat. Papers were spread at the other end, where the guardia and my transformed father radiated a tension so menacing it colored them both gray. My mother ran from room to room collecting a change of clothes and a second pair of shoes for each of us—the only items permitted in our suitcase. Juana, the president of our block’s comité, and her daughter Dulce counted chairs and opened cupboards. They needed to verify that everything we’d had in the house when we first applied to leave the country was still there. Gusanos couldn’t give away or sell their belongings; those were destined for revolutionary hands. Juana was a decent woman, so Mami hoped she’d understand that the few missing glasses and plates hadn’t been sold for profit, only broken by accident. As Juana counted cutlery, Papi sat still but worked hard not to react to the guardia’s insults. The only tranquil creature was Blanquita, our perpetually pregnant white mutt. Her tight belly kept her in her favorite spot by our kerosene stove.

Somehow, I saw Abuela Fina, my maternal grandmother—the one who lived with us—last. She stood in a corner holding my little brother, Sergito, who was banging his head against her chest in an attempt to get back on solid ground. Abuela Fina pulled me to her side and in no time all three of us were wailing in comforting solidarity. The guardia noticed me for the first time. He crooked his finger and called me over.

“Niña, is it true that you want to leave your house, and friends, and school, and never see them again?”

Knowing they had a chatterbox on their hands and exactly how I’d answer this question, Abuela Fina, Mami, and Papi jumped to answer for me, “¡Sí, claro que sí!”

Abuela swept Sergito and me into our bedroom where we could disintegrate in peace while the guardia continued questioning Papi.

“Why do you want to leave the country?”

“My wife wants to leave.”

The guardia rolled his eyes. He smirked and started to say something.

“I don’t like Communism,” Mami said, trying to draw the guard’s attention away from my father.

The guardia looked at her for a long moment before turning back to my father. “I see who wears the pants here.”

My mother reached for her chain, held the medallion of the Virgen between her index finger and thumb, and prayed Papi would stay in his chair.

The guardia continued flipping through his forms, asking questions, and not looking at my parents when they answered.

“What about bank accounts? Any withdrawals in the past five years?”

Mami sorted through an envelope and handed him a stash of deposit slips and a ledger. “We have this one savings account. We did take money out, but we returned it, like they told us at the Ministry.” She opened the ledger. “That’s when we returned the money. The balance is the same as when we applied for the permiso. $75.”

“What about jewelry? Where is it?”

“We don’t have any,” my father said.

The guardia looked at Papi. “So a pelotero who played baseball in the United States doesn’t have any jewelry. Come on.”

“I sold what I had to pay for our wedding,” Papi said.

The guardia laughed. “Well . . . she screwed you then and she’s screwing you now. Your flight leaves in two days. Finish packing.”

Mami’s legs started trembling uncontrollably. She looked at the stacked plates on the table, the pots drying on the counter. She wanted to put everything back where it belonged.

“Can I shower before we leave?” She didn’t realize she’d actually spoken.

“Where are you sleeping tonight?”

Mami hadn’t thought about that yet. “I suppose . . . at my brother-in-law’s, upstairs.”

“Then you can shower there.” The guardia got up and collected the papers off the table. “Keys?”

He swept us out to the porch—even Blanquita—and locked our door. We watched as he unfolded a long banner—the same one I’d noticed pasted on other houses. He stretched it across the door, over the jamb, pressing the glued backing into the surfaces. I remember the clap of his hand against the door and the stucco, making sure—very sure—no one would get back in without permission.

With the slapping and sealing over, the guard handed the last of the documents to my father. “Your flight leaves the day after tomorrow. Be at the Camarioca airstrip by eight that night.” He jumped on his moto and roared up Castillo toward the calzada. The family and neighbors who had gathered out on the street finally joined us on the porch and the hugging and smiling and crying began. The muffled sobs and the laughter—the women wiping their hands on their skirts—tore the last bit of brave I had out of me. I began to cry, to my mortification, like a baby. This was the scene that would spur my questions over the years. My cousins and brother would rarely ask about Cuba, but for the rest of my life I’d beg the viejos for their stories, hungry to understand what pushed each of them to the brink, how they survived as gusanos while they waited, exposed, with no guarantee of ever getting out.

But in that moment of upside-down happiness, all I wanted was Blanquita. I found her lying down in front of our door, low to the ground, like me. I stroked her pregnant belly gently, so her puppies wouldn’t wake up. I looked up at the banner stretched across our door, so crisp and powerful, and it wrecked me. Our house wanted to breathe, but that thin strip of paper was suffocating it.

 

Ana Hebra Flaster was five years old when her working-class family fled post-revolutionary Cuba in 1967. The sudden loss of her Cuban life and the creation of a new one in New Hampshire inspire much of her work. Her writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Boston Globe. Her commentaries and storytelling have been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered and in PBS’s Stories from the Stage. Ana’s degree from Smith College in economics and Spanish literature included a year of liberal arts studies at la Universidad de Córdoba, Spain. In 2022, the Cintas Foundation selected her as one of five finalists for its 2022 Fellowship in Creative Writing. She lives in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Read more excerpts by the finalists for the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing. 

Excerpt from Radio Big Mouth

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