On New Year's Day 1959, as Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba, Alejandra San Jos� was born in Havana, entering the world through the heart of revolution. Fearing the conflict and strife that bubbled up in the streets all around the new family, her parents took Ale and fled to the free shores of America.
Ale grew up in Chicago amid a close community of refugees who lived with the hope that one day Castro would fall and they could return to their Cuban homes. Though Ale was intrigued by the specter of Havana that colored her life as a child, her fascination eventually faded in her teens until all that remained was her profound respect for the intricacies of the Spanish language and the beautiful work her father did as a linguist and translator.
When her own job as an interpreter takes her back to Cuba, Ale is initially unmoved at the import of her return-- until she stumbles upon a surprising truth: the San Jos�s, ostensibly Catholics, are actually Jews. They are conversos who converted to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition.
Enlightened by a whole new vision of her past and her culture, Ale makes her way back through San Jos� history, uncovering new fragments of truth about the relatives who struggled with their own identities so long ago. Ale is finally lured back to Cuba to make amends with the ancestral demons still lurking there--to translate her father's troubling youthful experiences into the healing language of her Cuban American heart.
In beautiful, knowing prose, Achy Obejas opens up a fascinating world of exotic wordplay, rich history, and vibrant emotions. As Alejandra struggles to confront what it is to be Cuban and American, Catholic and Jewish, Obejas illuminates her journey and the tempestuous history of Cuba with intelligence and affection. Days of Awe is a lyrical and lovely novel from an author destined for literary renown.
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July 29, 2002
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Excerpt from Days of Awe by Achy Obejas
Well before dawn on Sunday, the fifteenth of April 1961, the day we left Cuba--a dreaded day, an ashen day without a single blush of blue in the skies over Havana--my mother ensconced herself in a back room of our apartment, arranging a series of clear glasses of water under a small effigy of Saint Jude, the patron saint of impossible causes.
"This will help purify us," she said carrying in the tumblers, filled not with tap water but with the sanitized kind that came in huge blue bottles.
If my mother's Saint Jude looked a little shiny compared with the other saints on her altar, that's because he was fairly new to her pantheon. My mother's prayers usually went to the Virgin of Charity, Cuba's patron, to whom she'd entrusted my mortal soul if I survived those delicate first hours of transfusions and gunfire.
Even as she lit a white candle to Saint Jude to help us on our journey, which seemed impossible enough, her preferred icon was carefully wrapped in newspapers, plastic sheets, and a double-folded yellow cotton blanket. It was then tucked into a box to which my father had fashioned a handle from thin rope and the inside of a toilet paper roll. Regardless of Saint Jude's divine jurisdictions and whatever seemingly untenable situations we might encounter, it was the Virgin who was traveling with us, the Virgin who would be settled at the pinnacle of whatever new altar my mother constructed wherever we might wind up.
I've always thought of the Virgin of Charity as the perfect mentor for Cuba: Cradling her child in her arms, she floats above a turbulent sea in which a boat with three men is being tossed about. One of the men is black and he is in the center of the boat, kneeling in prayer while the other two, who are white, row furiously and helplessly. (It's unspoken but understood that it's the entreaties of the black man, not the labor of the white rowers, that provides their deliverance.)
I've always found it poignant, if not tragic, that Cuba, whose people are constantly seeking escape and entrusting their fortunes to the sea in the most rickety of vessels, should have early on foreseen this fate and projected it onto its sacred benefactor. When her feast day rolls around each eighth of September, devotees like my mother dress in bumblebee yellow and wink knowingly at each other in church. Also known as Och�n, this particularly Cuban madonna is the Yoruba goddess of love, patron saint of sweet water. She's a beauty, the pearl of paradise, a flirtatious but faithful lover to Chang�, the capricious god of thunder.
It's these very elements, I think, that make my mother's choice of this vision of Mary--la Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre--as my patron a perfect guardian: I am a child not just of revolution but also of exile, both of which have so much to do with love and faith.
Even then, on that gloomy gray dawn in 1961, as my father waited for my mother and paced on the third-floor balcony of our home, there were Cubans leaving the island on anything that would float and looking to the skies for signs of salvation. The Cuban Revolution was two years old then, and already defying expectations.
What fueled those who were leaving was less fear of communism, which Fidel had only hinted at at that point, or shortages of any kind, because the U.S. embargo was still a distant concern, but the persistent rumors of invasions and imminent combat that were sweeping Havana. From the countryside came reports that cane fields were being torched, the flames like red waves. What were thought to be American planes constantly buzzed the city. Weeks before, El Encanto--Havana's most exquisite department store and perhaps its most conspicuous link to the United States--had burned to the ground. Its destruction had traumatized the city no less than the break of diplomatic relations between Cuba and Washington, D.C., back in January. Not an hour went by without the breathless dispatch: "The yanquis are coming, the yanquis are coming."