It was the description of the worms that really got me — the thought of the yellowing milk being poured into the metal tray, drowning the small, white, parasitical creatures and floating them up to the top. I never knew about them. In all the years of storytelling, all the snatches of memories in which my mom sat with a faraway look in her eyes, all those times, there was no mention of the worms. But then, she never really spoke easily about her time in the work camp. Just the basics, you know. The separation of teenagers from their families, the scant food, the boots held together with scraps of fabric. She never talked about the worms, though. Or perhaps, justifiably, she pushed out of her memory an under-nourished group of friends, gathered around trays of parasites, contemplating whether or not the protein that the mites offered could possibly outweigh the nauseating thought of eating them. No, I never heard about the worms.
But, of course, it is also completely plausible that such small details about the daily food offering had been neglected in my mother’s memory of the experience of her time in Manacas, Cuba. Certainly there were bigger issues. There was the interminable back pain after twelve hours of work bent down weeding sugar cane fields, and there was the constant fear that your family, hours away back home, had been captured and imprisoned by the police for getting a hold of a couple pounds of unauthorized, black market beef (and more on that later). Perhaps the worms just slipped out of her memory.
They did not slip out of mine. And in my cushy, middle-class life of organic food and Anthropologie dresses and the iPad on which I presently type, I cannot forget the description of those worms. It forces itself on me, often at the most inopportune times, like when I am deciding at which fancy grocery store I want to spend my money that particular week.
Not yet six when Fidel Castro ousted Batista from power, my mother lived for almost 12 years under the Castro regime before leaving for Miami through Varadero Beach. By the time her family filled out papers to leave the country, both her mother’s and father’s businesses had been taken by the government and they no longer had jobs. After finishing high school, my mother became part of what was known as the Johnson Brigades. She was not allowed to attend university or to get a job because she and her family had applied to leave Cuba, and she was not allowed to leave Cuba unless she could show proof of having held a job. It was a nice catch-22 set up by a government that affectionately termed people like my mother gusanos — literally, “worms.”
This left no other option besides working with the Johnson Brigades planting, weeding, fertilizing and harvesting any number of crops — corn, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, sugarcane. To this day she is not sure where that food went, for she doesn’t remember ever getting to eat any of it, aside from the fertilizer — and pesticide-covered tomatoes one could sneak while working between the rows of vegetables. They rubbed off on their shirts as much fertilizer as they could, and what they couldn’t, they ate along with the tomato.
And that is how she came to be holding a tray of parasites, labeled a parasite herself, hours away from her family, a small girl, sharing with friends whatever food she had managed to gather from home. The members of the Brigades lived in “barracks,” and were allowed to leave only on weekends. If you were sick, you had a choice of going to work in the fields, or going to work in the lavatories, scrubbing floors and toilets. The worms were not the only downside to living in a work camp as a child laborer.
And then there is me, born to a Cuban mother and an American father. I have never been to Cuba; my Spanish is painfully inadequate. This, this experience of my mother’s, is not mine. I cannot touch it. I cannot feel it as she felt it. I can only gesture towards it. I can only gather these testimonies from her own incomplete recollections of that life. I do not pretend to have lived these things, but want simply to chronicle them as they have been related to me. I want to create a space here in which you as readers can preserve, and contribute to the preservation of, this cultural and personal history. I want to preserve this, my own history, even though these recollections are not fully mine. Make no mistake, though. Those memories become real even to me — they take on a less-translucent shape — when I see the marks on the skin of my mother’s back from hundreds of hours squatting in a field. She keeps those marks to this day.
This is the story of my mother, and this is the story of me. But not only, for it is also the Story of the thousands of Cubans, each claiming a piece of this collective Story, who have not spoken for themselves. I am speaking these stories with which you are intimately familiar and yet have never read. I write so that we can remember and collect and chronicle, and so that in turn we can forget — so that that sorrow can be released, so that we can share and shoulder the burden of others, and in turn be freed of it ourselves. This is the story of my mother, and this is the story of me. And I speak for her, and I speak for you, and with this Voice together we let out simultaneously a wail of loss and a shout of hope for the agony of exile and the beauty of future reconciliation.
Laura Creel (@Little_Utopia) is the managing editor of Little Utopia.
Previously from Laura Creel:
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Thank you for writingg this