Books That Feature Cuba
by Gail Pritchard, PhD and Deborah Dimmett, PhD, The University of Arizona
After tossing around a few ideas, Deborah and I decided to explore two particular authors, Alma Flor Ada and Margarita Engle. Alma was born in Cuba and spent her early years there, while Margarita is of Cuban heritage. We begin this first week by discussing Alma’s memoir Under the Royal Palms (1998).
Under the Royal Palms, by Alma Flor Ada
Gail’s Take: I connected with Under the Royal Palms in very deep ways. In the Epilogue, Alma says, “Today, many years later, from a great distance in both time and space, I find that much of what I learned back then is still fresh in my memory and continues to inform my understanding of life and its mysteries” (p. 85). I would have to agree, the stories of my life have shaped me into who I am today….
I appreciate Alma’s affinity for animals—they enrich our lives and help us develop positive relationships with others. One of the stories Alma tells is about her grandmother’s milk cow who was expecting. A rainstorm came along with thunder and lightning. While Alma and her mother anxiously wait on the porch, her father goes to look for the cow. He finds her and her new-born calf and brings them back to safety. “I stayed outside, soaking wet, watching Matilde lick her newborn calf as thought the rain, which had become softer and softer, were not enough to clean him” (p. 84). This reminded me of a similar experience in my own childhood. I was probably about 9 years old and we were living on a small farm with horses, cows, pigs, chickens, rabbits, dogs, and cats. It was a particularly cold winter evening. The snow was several feet deep and still coming down. I remember feeling like something was not quite right and told my dad. He knew how sensitive I was to the animals, so he pulled on all of his winter gear and went to check on them. Shortly before his return, I felt at ease again. When he came back in, shaking off the snow, he said he had found that several of the new-born puppies had fallen out of the doghouse and into the snow. He dusted them off, returned them to their mother, and put on a heat lamp to keep out the chill.
In this memoir, a key theme is family—the role they play in shaping our lives—for good or bad. It is clear from these stories that Alma’s grandmother played a large role in her life. “Before I was fully awake, my grandmother would often scoop me in her arms to take me to where they were milking the cows she still kept. Her neck smelled of fresh talcum, and her dress, invariably white, of lavender and sage” (p. 9). Every afternoon, she and her grandmother would place flowers on the piano, make garlands, then walk to the porch where they would sit in a rocking chair, and her grandmother would sing. At night they would count the bats as they left their roost and flew out into the night. I never knew my maternal grandmother, but I spent a lot of time with my paternal grandmother and step-grandmother—two very different women. I used to spend Saturday nights with my dad’s mother. She was a card-playing maniac with a sharp, critical tongue. I would join her friends as they played Pennies from Heaven till late in the night. The next morning, she would put on her fox stole (I hated it), and we would walk to church. While I knew she would always find fault with me, I so enjoyed those Friday night card games and still do today. On holidays, I would go to my paternal grandfather’s and step-grandmother’s in rural Oklahoma. I was totally devoted to Grandma Corrine. She was one of the kindest women I’ve ever known. She was from a small town near New Orleans, spoke Cajun French, and was known county-wide for her amazing cooking—especially her jambalaya. She told me stories about her childhood, meeting my grandfather, and leaving her family behind to move to Oklahoma. In her arms, I felt safe from all harm, and with her encouragement—I knew I could do anything I set out to accomplish.
Alma writes of her aunts and uncles and tells a poignant story about her Uncle Medardo and his passion for flying. “Medardo loved adventures and wanted to explore any new frontier. Yet there was so little excitement in Camagüey! When he was twenty-four years old, he decided to learn to fly an airplane” (p. 29). She writes about his “primitive two-person plane” and how he and friend would spend their weekends flying. Tragically, Uncle Medardo is killed flying his friend’s plane when it malfunctioned. Alma describes her unbearable grief and the guilt she feels because she “had secretly rejoiced in seeing him so determined, overruling everyone in order to go out to his plane” (p. 37). Telling his story helps her move through the guilt and “come out on the other side with courage, compassion, and connection (Brown, 2012, p. 79). Alma says,” I am telling it now because sharing one’s hidden sorrows, those thoughts that we sometimes believe to be shameful, is a way to begin to heal our wounds. I am sharing this because as we hear each other’s stories, we often begin to understand ourselves better and to feel less alone” (p. 38). I can truly relate to this story. I lost my son five years ago and telling his story to others has helped me overcome the guilt I have experienced with his loss and to make my own journey to courage, compassion, and connection.
Alma tells several stories about herself—two spoke to me. The first is about transitioning from one school to another. She describes the angst she feels when her beloved 4th grade teacher moves part-way through the year. School becomes a miserable experience, so her parents transfer her to a new school. This was not without its own set of problems, mainly joining a class where the kids have gone to school together since first grade and a vastly different curriculum from her previous schools. “To make it worse, at the new school, Colegio El Porvenir, the students were seated according to their academic performance. Those with the best grades sat in the front; those with bad grades sat in back. Since I had no grades yet, they sat me at the very back.” Then there were the grammar lessons, “What is this for? How is it possible that everyone else understands it and I don’t?” (p. 53). My own lesson in understanding a new school took place in 8th grade. My mother and I moved from Kansas to Missouri—for me this meant leaving behind the lab school on the university’s campus where I had attended since 2nd grade to now attend a public school. The very first day, I was sent home for breaking the dress code. My brand new skirt was too short—in my new school, dresses/skirts could be no more than 4 inches above the knees. Since my previous school did not have a dress code, it had never dawned on us to check the length of my new school clothes. On the second day, the teachers were ready for me—I walked in, they sent me to the girl’s dean, I was sent home. This happened every day of that first week—no mercy, no reprieve until the weekend, just abject humiliation. Eventually, one of my mother’s friends made me a new wardrobe, and in exchange, she got all my new clothes we had purchased in San Francisco that past summer, but the damage was done—I was labeled a “troublesome rule breaker.”
The second personal story I connected to is about Alma’s ballet teacher, Gilda. On her way to school one day, Alma hears music, and following the sound, discovers a ballet studio in an old colonial house. Each day after school, Alma “run[s] and cling[s] to the window of the ballet school, imagining myself in soft slippers, changing positions, second, third, fourth, performing a jeté or a plié” (p. 54). Gilda sees Alma watching and invites her to join the class and their friendship is sealed. At the end-of-the- year recital, Gilda takes to the stage to dance Firebird. Alma is mesmerized by this performance, but partway through, Gilda collapses and is carried away. Gilda has terminal cancer and Alma never sees her again; however, shortly after she passes away, Gilda’s husband delivers “a photograph of Gilda, dressed as the Firebird” (p. 58). My ballet teacher, Karen, and I were also close. I began taking lessons from her when I was in 10th grade. Over the next 35 years, we forged a strong friendship. When she was in a terrible car wreck, I ran errands for her during the many months of her recovery. When I married and moved 60 miles away, I would drive back once a week for my lessons. After I moved to another state, I came back for recitals to help back stage. And several years later, when I decided to teach ballet and tap in my small community, Karen helped me by providing music albums, dance notes, and advice. In January of 2011, I was stunned when my best friend called to tell me Karen had passed away from cancer. I had visited her only a few months earlier when I was back in town—we had gone to lunch and caught up on family stories, but she never even hinted at her illness. Perhaps it was because I was still suffering from the loss of my son and she did not want to inflict more pain—that would be like her. I think she knew the impact she had on my life, but I wish I could have told her one more time. After her funeral, I was given a pair of her earrings; I can’t tell you how much they mean to me.
Ultimately, Alma’s memoirs are about relationships and how the interconnectedness shapes each of us. She shares simple pleasures with her grandmother; she learns about courage through her Uncle Medardo, she marvels at her Uncle Manolo and Aunt Isabel’s open, caring hearts; she witnesses her mother’s determination in becoming the first female CPA in Cuba and then a business owner; she develops her father’s compassion; and she learns about deep friendship through her ballet teacher, Gilda. These lessons are learned against the backdrop of Cuba in the late 30’s and 40’s, and 50’s with the poetry of José Martí, the songs of her grandmother, the stories of her family–under the royal palms.
Deborah’s Take: Ada’s memoir is rich with remembrances of growing up in Cuba, and the themes in her memoir are captivating and exemplify the importance of recollecting our own personal histories. However, missing from her memoir are her connections to place. Having visited Cuba for a span of more than a decade, I was hopeful that Ada’s memoirs would also include the historical, cultural, and geographical landscape of Camagüey, Cuba. Including this backdrop would have provided the reader with a context that could have reached out to readers in a way that would have made the stories appear richer, more vibrant, and three-dimensional. Instead, the stories fell flat. For example, in the Introduction, Ada attempts to describe the people who live in Camagüey. She describes the have’s and have-not’s:
The most striking contrasts for me were not the differences in education and beliefs. The largest, most significant contrast was that some had so much and others had very little. While for some life was easy, almost a paradise on this beautiful island, for others the struggle to stay alive was extremely demanding. Many, especially young children, did not survive. (p. 3)
Ada does not take the opportunities her remembrances offer to describe these striking contrasts in greater detail nor to explore her thoughts and feelings about the young children who did not survive and the reasons why this was the case.
Ada was born in Cuba in 1938 and permanently left with her family in 1970, so she would have a lot to say about the discrepancies among those of means versus those who lived in grinding poverty. Although she was too young to remember President Fulgencio Batista (1940-1944), she would certainly have had remembrances of Batista as the dictator (1952-1959) as well as the Cuban Revolution (1952-1958) that overthrew his dictatorship. How did she and her family fare during this particular period? How did her family manage under two dictatorships (Bautista and Castro)? The victory of the Cuban Revolution on January 1, 1959 might have been an opportunity to reflect on her childhood prior to that moment and possibly through a lens that might have provided a richer context for the reader. Was her family allowed to continue ownership of their home and livestock? Or, did they feel a need to flee the country because of the terms of the new dictator, Fidel Castro, who would change the political, economic, and cultural landscape for decades thereafter?
Other contrasts that Ada mentions but never develops are the ethnic, cultural, and religious differences that would likely have shaped some of her thoughts, attitudes, and experiences. She tells the reader:
[Camagüey] was a city of contrasts. Contrasts in the way people behaved, in their beliefs and in their practices. Although most people would have called Cuba a Catholic country, in reality there were people from many religious traditions. The African people who had been held in slavery used many Catholic symbols and images to continue practicing their own beliefs under the cover of Catholicism. A few people had become Protestants, following the preaching of various American missionaries. . . (p. 2)
This is another instance where Ada never elaborates on the Afro-Cuban people and their life in Cuba. She hints at the fact that they have religious traditions that are syncretized with Catholicism through symbols. She says nothing more about them and the impact these cultural and religious traditions had on the Cuban culture. They, in fact, played a very important role in defining the Cuban culture as distinctive from the European cultures that became less articulated after the Cuban Revolution. Among the many Afro-Cuban contributions were the emergence of new music genres (rumba, son, salsa, cha-cha-cha, etc.) and dances spawned by these musical forms. This would have been a good opportunity to contrast the “small, economically powerful circle of landowners, cattle ranchers, or professionals who observed European customs and considered them refined” (p. 3)—that is, those holding on to European traditions.
Ada mentions that the majority of homes in her town were colonial houses that “were spacious, usually built around a central courtyard, with large doors and windows that went from ceiling to floor and were protected by carved wooden railings” (p. 3). This is the type of dwelling that Ada says she lived in as a young girl. She briefly describes the contrast between those who live in the city compared to those who lived in far less humble conditions in the countryside (p. 4) where under the Royal Palms, her observations lead her to conclude that there is too much poverty and pain and that “dreams of justice and equality were still far away” (p. 4). No further comparison is made to those who live in the colonial homes in the city. However, she is very quick to state in the next paragraph that her own family “was not among the more affluent, but the hard work of many family members who shared the same house,” keeping them “from suffering the needs of those who had so little” (p. 4). This is an odd comparison since her family’s socio-economic position is likely to be better than most. There would be little chance that her family would be subject to living in a one- or two-room home and depending on subsistence farming. The fact that her uncle was well off enough to have a plane and her mother educated enough to be Cuba’s first female accountant tells us that their economic circumstance was far superior than she wants to let on.
Ada’s remembrances reveal a lot through her omissions—and, possibly a lot about her. The question I would have Ada is why has she chosen to write her stories devoid of context that would help the reader learn about her life in Cuba. The description and rich details of this very unique country is sorely missing. Yes, Ada’s stories are charming and they inspire the reader to reflect on his or her own remembrances. However, this reader, who so very much wanted to revisit Cuba through this memoir, has decided to write her own.
As we continue our looking at books reflecting aspects of Cuba, we decided to look at folktales this week. The common threads across the three picture books are these tales have been handed down through the generations and they transmit cultural values. Both Gail and Deborah make personal connections to the books they discuss. Gail writes about The Rooster Who Went to His Uncle’s Wedding and The Bossy Gallito and Deborah writes about Baila, Nana, Baila: Cuban Folktales in English and Spanish. Together, these three picture books give us insight into the stories these authors heard as children and offer us a chance to share them with younger generations.
Ada, A.F. (1993). The Rooster Who Went to His Uncle’s Wedding. Illustrated by Kathleen Kuchera. NY, NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 32 pp. ISBN: 0-399022412-2.
In the opening note of this cumulative tale, Tomie dePaola gives us some information on the telling and illustrating of this tale, describing its roots “in many Spanish-speaking countries around the world…”. He goes on to say this is a tale Alma’s grandmother told her when she was a little girl in Cuba. Depending on where they were, her grandmother would change aspects of the story. He also explains, Kathleen’s illustrations are influenced by “costume and architectural references to other Spanish-speaking countries” to reflect versions of this story.
In the vein of cumulative tales, this telling invites listeners to join in with the reader as rooster tries to find help in cleaning his beak—grass, lamb, dog, stick, fire, water—all refuse to help until rooster asks sun. Sun acknowledges that rooster brightens his day, so he will gladly help. Water, fire, stick, dog, lamb, and then grass agree to help and rooster gets his beak cleaned and heads off to his uncle’s wedding.
Upon reading this version, I thought of
The Bossy Gallito: A Traditional Cuban Folk Tale/El Gallo de Bodas retold by Lucía M. González and Illustrated by Lulu Delacre (1994, Scholastic).
Lucía, like Alma, grew up in Cuba. She listened to tales her great aunt told her, including this version of the gallito’s tale. In researching for the illustrations, Lulu “took hundreds of photographs” in Little Havana—a part of Miami, Florida, to “bring authenticity to the art.”
The biggest difference in the written text between Alma’s tale and Lucía’s, is that Lucía ‘s version is dual language. Even imbedded in the English are Spanish words, such as gallito, pico, and tío. Lucía includes information at the end of the tale that explains the origins of the story, provides information about bossy roosters and parakeets, lists the cast of characters, and describes the setting, while Lulu explains the artwork. The most noticeable difference between these two versions is in the visual text. Kathleen’s illustrations of The Rooster Who Went to His Uncle’s Wedding are highly stylized with bright, bold colors; Lula’s illustrations in The Bossy Gallito are water color, colored pencil, and gouche, reflecting aspects of the photos she took. Both are interesting takes on the written text and because they are so different, invite discussion about what each reveals about cultural setting.
In reading dePaola’s comments about Alma’s grandmother changing up the characters depending on where they were when the story was told, reminded me of a particular song my dad and I used to sing together, Sweet Betsy from Pike. In the first stanza, Betsy crosses the mountains “with two yoke of oxen, a big yeller dog, a tall Shanghai rooster, and one spotted hog.” As we sang, we would change up the words—one time it might be two yoke of dachshund, another time it might be a spotted dog, and yet another time it might be a fat green frog or a big fat log. It was always a hoot to hear what the other would sing, especially if we happened to substitute the same words—those were good times. Also, in reading how both of these authors heard this tale from an older generation reminded me of the stories my mother told me at bedtime—she was an amazing storyteller with an endless supply of tales. She told me the same stories she heard from her mother when she was growing up in rural Virginia and Tennessee, and later she told these to my two sons. My mother, Alma’s grandmother, and Lucía’s great aunt honor us with their stories, gifting us with one of the most powerful aspects of storytelling—the telling and retelling across time and place so we may understand ourselves and those from other cultures.
Hayes, J. (2008). Baila, Nana, Baila: Cuban Folktales in English and Spanish. Illustrated by Mauricio Trenard Sayago. El Paso, TX: Cinco Puntos Press. 127 pp. ISBN: 978-1933693177.
Given all of the recent attention on the thawing of relations between Cuba and the United States, it seemed appropriate to not only focus on stories with Cuban themes, but also the folk tales that have been shared between peoples in Cuba of European and African descent. Cuban folktales are vital to an oral tradition still very present for many Cubans. Many of the stories included in this collection are referenced in nearly all of the Afro-Cuban religions. Baila, Nana, Baila (2010) retold by Joe Hayes and illustrated by Mauricio Trenard Sayago is a wonderful collection of folktales originating both from Europe and Africa. Hayes shares one of the more interesting aspects to Cuban folktales: They typically include at least one song—a tradition most common for tales of African origin. Although the music for the songs might be lost, their lyrics are written in Spanish or a dialect, lucumí, which is used in ceremonies.
The Afro-Cuban folk tales were among my favorite because they gave me the opportunity to recall my experiences in Cuba (1993-2003) when I studied Afro-Cuban folkloric traditions of music and dance as well as the religions from which they emerged. I fondly recall the chats I had in Havana with a number of santeros (Santería initiates) who shared stories of importance to their religion. These stories are referred to as patakís, which teach about the history of the orishas (deities in the religion) and their particular traits, powers, and vulnerabilities.
The first story in Baila, Nana, Baila is titled “Yams Don’t Talk”, a story about King Osain (the orisha who is the owner of the woods and master of healing plants and herbs) and Jicotea (Turtle) who take advantage of the naiveté of a young couple who seek Osain’s help to quiet the yams under their house. In the end, after Osain has been paid an offering to shut the yams up, we find Osain and Jicotea laughing about the yams, when it was Jicotea under the yams that “cursed” at the couple each time one of them tried to approach them. Hayes explains this story is similar to many African tales about harmless animals that frighten people with their loud, threatening voices (p. 121).
The Gift/El Regalo is a patakís about the humblest and least-regarded having the greatest worth. This story explains how Obbara, the poorest of the orisha, won his aché. While the other orisha lived in beautiful homes and had servants to help them, Obbara was always the one they looked down upon because of his humble living conditions. Olofi, the highest orisha in the pantheon and equivalent to God, invites all of the orisha to his home for a meeting. He gives each one a pumpkin as a gift. They were all displeased and threw their pumpkins on the side of the road and talked smack about Olofi. Obbara was the only one who graciously accepted his gift and in so doing he found his aché.
Among the odder stories in the collection is the one titled “You Can’t Dance/No Baila”. This one is not a patakí. It is another trickster tale about evil characters—el papa Diablo, la mama Diablo, and el niñito diablito chiquito (the baby Diablo). As the story goes,
(t)he devils drove everyone crazy. They didn’t let any animal family live in peace. They managed to turn every dinnertime conversation into an argument. They found a way to make every animal dance or party end up in a fight. The only time those devils weren’t tormenting the animals was when they were dancing—because as mean and mischievous as they were, they did love to dance. (p.111)
They are invited to a “headless dance,” which ends tragically for el papa and la mama who are tricked into getting their head chopped off while the el niñito, who didn’t fall for the trick, still lives on. Things are better now for the forest—but not perfect. The story provides many opportunities for audience participation in the song:
You can’t dance. You can’t dance. If you had a head, you can’t dance. Fortunately, I can’t dance
While we did not follow the traditional route of a dialogue in this week’s My Take Your Take, our hope is that you will create your own dialogue with your students, peers, friends, and family. What are the stories you heard growing up? Have you shared them with others? Have you created your own stories and songs with family? What folklore have you heard in your own travels? We invite you to share your story about those tales in the comment section.
Engle, M. (2013). The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. 192 pp. ISBN: 10: 0547807430.
The Lightning Dreamer is a fascinating piece of historical fiction written in verse. The Newbery Honor-winning author tells the story of Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda (1814-1873), known in the story as Tula, who describes the real-life attempts to overcome attitudes that reading and writing are unladylike and that Tula will never be marriageable to someone of means unless she gives up this “nonsense,” according to her mother. The characters in the story are based on Avellaneda’s groundbreaking abolitionist novel, Sab. Caridad, Sab, the old storyteller, and the greedy gentlemen are fictional characters in Avellaneda’s book; however, biographers believe they were inspired by real people. Margarita re-introduces these fictional characters in her novel. Margarita provides biographical information at the end of the book about Avellaneda and her “mentor” and Cuban poet, José Maria Heredia (1803-1839), who wrote poems about his abolitionist views and his goal of independence from Spain. In addition, she includes a sample of Avellaneda’s prose and poetry as well as a list of references she used in her research to write the story.
Margarita’s wonderfully written story-in-verse takes place in Camagüey, Cuba during the 1800s, prior to Cuba’s independence from Spain and during a time in which many Cubans and freed slaves were holding discussions in secret about the need for the abolition of slavery. Tula desperately wants to read the books locked up in her father’s bookcase and write about more than ghosts, vampires, and ancient warriors. However, her mother is insistent that Tula give up her unladylike desires and marry a suitor with sufficient means for her family to purchase more slaves. Tula sees a comparison between “selling” her to a suitor in an arranged marriage and the selling and purchasing of slaves. She develops a rapport with Caridad, a freed slave and house servant, as she begins to delve deeper into the need for abolition and her own need to break away from her family:
Today I released
my caged goldfinch.
Mamá scolded me bitterly,
but I do not care, because today
one small, winged creature
has finally learned
how to fly! (p. 84)
Every novel of Margarita’s captivates me in a way no other book does, partly because of the subject matter and always because of the form. I simply know no other author who can so deftly intertwine the telling of the story with the story itself. The Lightening Dreamer is no exception.
In Brené Brown’s book, Daring Greatly (2012), she asks readers to consider what has gone undiscovered, uncreated, unwritten because girls are expected to “follow the rules.” Margarita helps us understand the magnitude of that question in the writing of The Lightening Dreamer. In telling this story, Margarita weaves together facts about Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, pieces of Cuba’s history, and the imaginations of what life was like for Tula as she refused arranged marriages, rejected the expectations for young women, and witnessed the abuses of slavery. As Deborah notes, Tula fights against the established grain, in short refusing to “stay small, sweet, and quiet as possible and use [her] time and talent to look pretty” (Brown, 2012, p. 89). Rather, she struggles to write poetry and plays that reveal her passions– sharing them first with her brother Manuel, then with their freed-slave cook Caridad, and next with the nuns and orphans. She then flees to Havana where she can share her words with others, and ultimately leaves Cuba for Spain where she can openly express her passions through her talent of writing.
Absolutely one of the outstanding features of this novel is the included excerpts from Avellaneda’s and Heredia’s works. Margarita features the Spanish and then includes an English translation beneath each excerpt. These excerpts along with the historical background notes and references encourage readers to go beyond this work and engage in their own research into the lives and times of Avellaneda and Heredia. Relatedly, Margarita is known for her attention to detail. One example of this is a reference to “a giant woodpecker with a smooth ivory bill” (p. 119). Readers might recognize this bird from Phillip Hoose’s book, The Race to Save the Lord God Bird (revised ed 2014), a bird classified as “definitely or probably extinct” and last sighted in Cuba in 1987. It is the attention to details, such as this one, that put Margarita’s novels in a class of their own.