Voyage to Neverland: Pedro Pan at Fifty

Fifty years ago in Havana, the last of the 14,000 children fleeing Marxist-Leninist indoctrination bid tearful good-byes to their parents and boarded planes bound for Miami.

courtesy pedropan.org       Distraught parents, panicking over rumors that Fidel Castro’s new government planned to ship their children to Russian (then Soviet) labor camps, made the unbearable choice of sending them away to the land of freedom, not knowing if they would ever reunite.

The clandestine program, dubbed “Pedro Pan,” backed by Washington and coordinated by the Catholic Church, helped Cuban children obtain U.S. visas and, once in America, find a family member or go to foster homes.  Many parents believed the United States would step in and topple Castro’s communist regime.  That was not the case.  As a result, many children languished in American orphanages and foster homes year after year.  Many never saw their parents again.

Few know about this story of anguish.  Carlos Eire, in his book Learning to Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy, describes the heart-rending experiences of a lonely boy abused by his foster parents in Little Havana: “To this day, hardly anyone in the world knows that all of this happened.”

Amazing that, according to Eire, professor of history and religion at Yale University, another 80,000 children were right behind the first group, ready to be scattered to the four winds just before the airlift shut down.

In my book Sylvia, I reconstruct the story of a friend of mine sent to live in a Miami orphanage.

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You can read it here: (download the Kindle app to your computer or phone)

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008NXXOFE

Like Eire, the protagonist grapples with adversity, but survives in a hostile environment, and even flourishes academically.  When her parents arrive in the United States, she faces a new phenomenon.  Eire explains it: “The time I spent there stripped me clean of any attachment I ever had to my parents. Bleached bones in the desert, buried by the drifting sands, that’s all that’s left of whatever I once felt for them.”

In the end, is it possible for anyone to heal the wounds inflicted in childhood?

Author Anais Nin optimistically writes:  “One is not in bondage to the past which has shaped our feelings, to race, inheritance, and background.  All this can be altered if we have the courage to examine how it formed us.  We can alter the chemistry provided we have the courage to dissect the elements.”

If her words are true, how long does the process take?  A lifetime?

One of the Peter Pan refugees, my first husband, was a lonely child who lived with his uncle while he waited for his parents.  I forget whether he slept in a laundry room or a closet tucked underneath a staircase until they arrived years later.

On a sultry summer night, frustrated by his lack of affection, I shouted, “why can’t you tell me you love me?”

“I can’t explain,” he said, “why I can’t say the words.  I just can’t.”

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Prom Night! Do You Remember Yours?

 

Few of us have punched the dean in the face on our prom night.  In my new story,  the protagonist — a gentle, sensitive girl — does just that.

Read it at the Kindle Store, or download the app to your computer or cell phone:

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B0082D78MK

“Prom” was inspired by many surreal events that occurred at a Catholic high school where I taught once upon a time.  Idealistic and young, with a brand-new master’s degree in hand, I joyfully signed a contract for an opportunity to introduce the masters of British Literature to seniors.  My schedule included a plum assignment: AP English and Composition. That meant teaching the brightest students.

It was a rude awakening the first week when I stood in front of the class and stared into blank faces for five periods a day.

“Nobody wants to read any more,” the department chair explained.

Still enthusiastic, I thought video and audio would turn these complaining seniors away from lethargy and into lit connoisseurs.  I brought in the film Brave Heart to illustrate the medieval period. Then I played tapes of Gulliver’s Travels while they read the text at their desks.  Even with the help of technology, I could barely hold anyone’s attention without threatening demerits.  Disgusted with the state of secondary education – my colleagues reported the same inattention, not only in English but in every subject – I marveled how these students managed to get into college.

Then I remembered my own chaotic high school days. Maybe things haven’t changed much, I conceded.

For the most part, I taught students who believed they were special, beyond adhering to academic – and behavior — standards.

As one student told me, “We are all wealthy, Ms. Fernandez.”

They were accustomed to getting their way, including grades they didn’t deserve.  When I awarded a student a C for mediocre work, the department chair questioned why. She had consistently handed him As for the last two years.  When the daughter of the dean’s assistant earned a D, even more acrimony was heaped upon me by a faculty lounge clique who spent their lunch hours trading gossip about students and teachers. They particularly loved to focus on student pranks.

The school boasted an impressive list while I was there, one with a horrifying consequence:

  • Four boys wearing masks over their heads and carrying video tape recorders tucked under their arms smashed open the door to my portable, and in gang vendetta style, sprayed the room recording shocked and terrified faces as if they were using semiautomatic weapons.
  • Five students wrote, edited, published and distributed an underground newsletter demeaning the principal and degrading the school with language beyond the scope of the dictionary.
  • Two boys dragged my desk out of the portable and into the yard in my absence.
  • At least twenty students spent an evening scrawling obscenities on the walls behind the gym.
  • Tragically, at a football game, a group of cheering students piled on top of one of its classmates, breaking his spine and leaving him in a wheelchair for life.

As with many teens, they cannot see the consequences of their actions.

So it was with the students who set out to fire me.  After months of haggling over grades, disgruntled members of my AP class — and their parents —  demanded a conference with the principal to discuss my teaching style.  At the meeting, heart jumping,  I listened to my accusers: too much work and too complex assignments. Outside, another group of students came to my rescue. They asked the secretary to slip a letter to the principal.

The principal read:  “Dear Sister, The students who are complaining have been bragging they are going to get Ms. Fernandez fired. They don’t want to do anything in class but talk and goof off.  They are very disrespectful.  Most of what they are telling you is simply lies. We don’t want Ms. Fernandez to get fired.”  Ten students signed their names to the letter.

The dean coughed, the principal shuffled papers on her desk, and the parents looked with embarrassment at each other and at their children.

So with the help of student allies, I kept my job. That summer, unable to shake off disillusionment, I submitted my resignation.

Years later, I discovered I had touched at least one student:  one of the seniors cracking jokes in class had been nevertheless awakened to the love of literature, had gone on to get a degree in English, and come back to the school as a teacher himself!

From my perspective today, I see the difficulties a private institution faces. If administrators don’t cater to parents and students, enrollment plummets.  If students don’t enroll, funding dries up. Many parents are important donors, contributing with largesse to the building fund.  And the yearly tuition is nothing to sneeze at.  In business, they say the customer is always right.

“Prom” is part of a story collection entitled Through the Branches of the Guava Tree showcasing the lives of Cuban exiles.

Other stories from the collection:

“Summer of My Father’s Gun”

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B007S0QAJK

“The Button Box”

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00731D3PI

“Beyond”

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B006T0Z122

 

 

 

Summer of My Father’s Gun: A Neighborhood Story

New story! Summer of My Father’s Gun is now on Kindle!

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B007S0QAJK

If you don’t have a Kindle, download a free app for PC, MAC, tablet or smartphone by clicking on above link and then on Free Reading Apps.

Or you can click here:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/feature.html/ref=sv_kstore_1?ie=UTF8&docId=1000493771

About the Story

 The narrator, Margarita, moves into a mixed Cuban/Anglo neighborhood that boils not only under the merciless South Florida sun, but also with the raw emotions of ethnic tension, adolescent restlessness, family breakup, paramilitary maneuvers, child beatings and wife stabbings.

While the move is a new beginning for her troubled parents, the twelve year old – deathly afraid of burglars but harboring a heart made for freedom — revels in the open spaces of her back yard and in the privacy of a room of her own. Curious about the neighbors, anxious to make friends, and feeling a tug of womanhood in her loins, she discovers the true meaning of courage when called upon to use her father’s old gun.

Setting

The story takes place in the mid-1960s, a time of radical transformation in South Florida. As more Cuban immigrants surged into the area, Miami went from a sleepy town to a perky metropolis filled with the clanging and scraping of construction: mega highways, waterside condominiums, and strip malls saturated the landscape.

Today, a forest of international banking institutions and skyscrapers line Brickell Avenue next to Biscayne Bay while thousands of tourists from around the world rove the streets of downtown and South Beach in search of the trendiest discos, restaurants and shops.

Outside of these glamorous areas, Dade County consists of solidly ethnic communities. This was not the case in the mid-1960s. The majority of the neighborhoods back then were divided between Anglos and Cubans; the two groups lived together, clashed and made peace. It was this historical moment that I wanted to capture.

Novels of Place

For inspiration, I read Sandra Cisnero’s novel The House on Mango Street about a young Mexican girl, Esperanza, coming of age in a poor ethnic community. I strove to shape my story similarly. While my neighborhood was modestly blue-collar—and mixed in ethnic origin — the residents were as troubled and downtrodden as those in Cisnero’s Chicago.

I also consulted Harper Lee‘s To Kill a Mockingbird, a fascinating novel about race and class in a southern American community, and studied the ways the author shaped her six-year-old protagonist. Scout Finch, despite her young age, is an active, dynamic participant in the plot and causes a lot to happen. I filled my main character with energy and ideas.

Both authors make setting central in their narratives, painting vivid pictures of the communities that are inseparable from the action.

The Familiar and the Exotic

Neighborhood stories are particularly impactful because they revolve around two painful life events: the search for identity and the coming of age. These narratives rely heavily on exotic settings to create texture and layers. Most Americans have no idea what it’s like to live in an ethnic community, usually a microcosm of a nation left behind that houses and protects a group of people marginalized from the rest because of language, income level, politics, religion or all four at once.

The writer Stuart Dybeck, a second generation Polish-American, gives voice to the residents of what he calls “the urban ghetto.” He focuses on the community where he grew up surrounded by Poles, Czechs and Hispanics and chronicles his adventures in two story collections: Childhood and Other Neighborhoods and The Coast of ChicagoThe setting drove me to these books.

There are so many ethnic enclaves whose stories still need to be told.

Challenges 

I wrote Summer of My Father’s Gun for a creative writing class at Florida International University, and it was a disaster. I spent months reworking it, trying to create tension in the plot and feeling as if I were applying just one tiny brushstroke of paint on a vast canvas. I added, deleted and rearranged scenes to increase suspense. I built and tore down the characters. I looked up facts in history books.  Then I stopped. I realized I could go on revising and editing forever.

Publishing to Kindle posed its own problems. I am my own editor and must be particularly careful to make sure formatting, spelling, and grammar are flawless.  Many writers hire editors to perform these tasks, but, at the moment, I am a one-woman shop.

To help with the editing process, I used a program called “autocrit.” You can download it for free on http://www.autocrit.com.It helped me identify redundancies, repetitious words, passive verbs and many other style issues. This exercise sent me back to the writing table for more revisions.

For me, the real learning takes place in the rewriting process.

I hope you like my neighborhood story!

“Summer of My Father’s Gun” is part of a story collection entitled Through the Branches of the Guava Tree showcasing the lives of Cuban exiles.

Other stories from the collection:

“The Button Box”

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00731D3PI

“Beyond”

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B006T0Z122

My story “Beyond” Is Now on Kindle!

My story “Beyond” is now in the Kindle Store! Read it at: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B006T0Z122

It is my first– and humble– attempt at E-publishing fiction that has, hopefully, a semblance of plot.

Don’t have a Kindle? Click link above and download FREE KindleForPC! OR a FREE KindleForMac, Ipad, Iphone, Blackberry and Android phone. Once installed, register with an Amazon account, and search for my name!

Here’s the cover!

Loosely based on the life of an ex-boyfriend’s father, “Beyond” tells the story of the struggle for  economic survival and artisitc fulfillment by the first Cubans to leave the island in the wake of the 1959 revolution.

My tale shows Maximo, a struggling toy store owner and aspiring writer, tormented by desire for   his mistress and a longing to live the creative life.  On the evening of a small business exposition that celebrates the economic success of Cuban exiles, he fabricates a plan to escape from his humdrum life, pregnant wife and three sons. An unexpected catastrophe, however, forces him to place his plans on hold.

As I battled to construct a plot for my story, I realized how much of an impact the seemingly  plot-less early modernist writers had made on my writing style. Virginia Woolf, a member of the literary group that emerged on the heels of plot-driven Victorians such as Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray, had the most influence.

When I encountered Woolf’s work in an undergraduate literature class, I was mesmerized by the stream of consciousness technique she uses in the novel Mrs. Dalloway. James Joyce, another early modernist, employs the same technique in his epic Ulysses. These authors forged a different way of telling a story: they explored emotional and psychological terrains from the inside of a character.

When writing “Beyond,” I decidedly drifted — and stayed – into stream of consciousness mode to tell the story of Maximo. But something wasn’t working: Maximo thought too much.

In Lynne Barrett’s fiction workshop, I encountered the joys—and rigors—of constructing plot.  In her class, I struggled with making my characters do something other than think.

Lynne, a much revered creative writing teacher at Florida International University and author of the story collection Magpies, insisted that plot was the most important literary element.

“Plot drives a story.  Plot means that characters cause things to happen,” she said. “Then there is an effect from those actions.”

James Hall, another FIU writing teacher, agreed with Lynne.

“Read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee,” he said. “You will see that the main character causes all the action.”

Lynn blamed my inability to construct plot on the English lit major’s obsessive focus on language, theme, imagery, symbolism and setting. Nobody teaches plot, she said. She picked up a copy of The Poetics of Aristotle and handed it to me.

“Every drama has a spectacle, character, plot, language, melody and thought,” Aristotle writes, “but the most important is the organization of events, the plot….For tragedy is not an imitation of men but of actions and of life. It is in action that happiness and unhappiness are found, and the end we aim at is a kind of activity, not a quality.”

Finally, a feeble beam of light pierced the fog.

“I get it,” I said to Lynne. “Plot is the trunk and the branches of a story. Language, theme, imagery, and setting are the leaves.”

Lynne’s eyes widened. Who knew what she was thinking? But the image helped me with my plot creation.

“A principal means by which tragedy exerts its fascination,” Aristotle continues, “are parts of the plot, that is to say reversals and recognitions.”

I sped over to the section entitled “Parts of the Plot: Reversal, Recognition, Suffering” and read: “Reversal is a change from one state of affairs to its exact opposite…..Recognition is a change from ignorance to knowledge, leading either to friendship or to hostility…..A third element is Suffering (pathos)… an action of a destructive or painful description.”

I admit that the protagonist in “Beyond” does a lot of thinking. He goes on a stroll ala Mrs. Dalloway and Stephen Daedalus, and, while he walks, he plots.

Does it work? I don’t know. Few writers are ever satisfied with their writing. Henry James never stopped revising, even after publication.

Without a doubt, plot is a challenging piece of the fiction writing puzzle.

Beyond” is part of a story collection I am writing entitled Through the Branches of the Guava Tree, showcasing the lives of Cuban exiles.