A Mini-Memoir About My Grandfather
by Vicky Paz, SUNY Cortland, February 16, 2010
The life of my grandfather, Lorenzo Paz, has always intrigued me; he has quite a unique story to tell. A native of Cuba, he fled his home country when Dictator Fidel Castro arrived and infiltrated the Caribbean island with communism. My grandfather, or Papa as I lovingly call him, grew up on this island in a poor family at a time when plumbing in one's home was reserved for the wealthy, ice was a luxury, going to school was optional and children labored just as much as adults to help their families financially.
As I sit down in my grandparents' brightly lit, cluttered but cheerfully decorated kitchen over Thanksgiving Break weekend, the delectable, spice-infused aroma of Latin cuisine -oregano and sazon to be exact - flows into the air. Mama cooks while Papa reminisces about the past. It's story time and I feel like a giddy child, incessantly asking questions while Mama chimes in with the occasional zippy comment, forgotten detail and Spanish translation of my too-fast English.
The giddiness that consumes me is reminiscent of the days I'd sit in the kitchen with Mom as a kid, asking her questions like "Why is the sky blue?" while she'd break a blue & yellow Kraft box out of our white cabinets to make me Rugrats Macaroni and Cheese for lunch after school.
Papa asks me what I want to know and says that it's been so long that his memory is kind of fuzzy.
"Well, start from the beginning," I say. "Where were you born? Where did you live?"
The second out of Jesus and Josefa Paz' five children, Papa was born on July 8, 1929 in the quaint, pint-sized town of Las Villas. "It's like living in a sticks hick town here!" Mama jokes of his hometown. "You wouldn't even find it on a map!"
Mama and Papa always reminded me of Lucille Ball and Ricky Ricardo from "I Love Lucy." Besides the fact that Mama is a scatterbrain like Lucy and Papa is Cuban like Ricky, they poke fun at each other and make faces while the other's back is turned. But their antics are all out of love; the love they have for one another is still palpable after all these years.
Papa brushes her off, continues talking and tells me that he and his family lived on a farm in a small country home.
"..You know, we had no bathroom in the house. We had to go outside," he tells me.
"What'd you use, like a bucket? What did you do to shower?" I reply in shock, thinking to myself how much I've taken plumbing for granted.
Papa tells me how they used an outhouse in place of a toilet, and in place of a shower, a self-made sprinkler in which they'd fill up a large tank with water and attach it to a punctured hose. Going to the river was also an option to get clean, but only for the boys. The boys were far too rambunctious and the girls' mothers wouldn't let them anywhere near the river; that didn't stop them from sneaking behind the bushes to tease them though.
"We used to go and swim and at the same time, take a shower," he says, like killing two birds with one stone...or taunting several birds with one sausage casing.
Papa and the boys used to inflate sausage casings like balloons and tie them to birds' tail feathers, making the other birds think it was something to eat. In mid-flight, flocks of birds would fight each other in the sky for a taste of the victim bird's tail-end treat. The boys would watch them and laugh at their mischievous antics for hours, sparing themselves from boredom for quite some time. Those antics gave a completely new meaning to "air combat." We laugh like hyenas as Mama tells the story Papa almost neglected to mention.
I ask him to share more memories of his childhood, because he really didn't have much of one. He recalls a holiday party at his elementary school when he was around five or six years old. Papa was excited to find that there were ice cubes floating in the refreshments. He gulped down his drink, snatched the ice cubes and ran home from school, ecstatic to save the rare treasures for the next day. The only problem was that he put them away in his mother's dresser drawer, only, to his dismay, to find a puddle of water and a pile of ruined makeup the following morning. Laughter overcomes us once again because a story like that would be so silly now, but 70-summat years ago, ice cubes were non-existent to a significant number of people.
As I write this, I take a sip of my Arizona iced tea, only to find that it's at room temperature after having been sitting on my desk for an hour. The condensation that formed on my glass has traveled down to the coaster to form a ring-shaped pool. As I go to the kitchen to grab the ice tray and drop a few cubes in my glass to chill my beverage, I chuckle to myself and think of this story. Boy, am I spoiled or what?
It gets quiet for a second after our laughter ceases.
"Tell her what time you woke up!" Mama says.
"There were two different seasons for that," Papa explains.
In the summertime, he and his brothers worked on the sugarcane plantations, slaving away while cutting crops to send to factories that would be processed into sugar. Papa began working at just seven years old, forcing him to drop out of school to assist his growing family.
"We get up at three in the morning, we start to work and we keep working 'til seven o'clock in the night," he says. "So we only sleep a few hours and then we have no time to take a shower everyday. We only do that Sunday afternoon."
"Only once a week!?," I exclaim.
"Only once a week," he says as-a-matter-of-factly.
"You guys must've been stinky!" I laugh.
"...You don't [notice] that because everybody was the same," Papa replies.
Fortunately, harvesting tobacco, rice and bean crops in the wintertime wasn't as time-consuming. The brothers instead woke up at 6 a.m. and worked the entire day, but did have time to shower daily for that half of the year. They also grew an array of sweet potatoes, potatoes, yucca, oranges, mangoes, limes and avocados and raised cows, pigs and chickens on their farm. A considerable amount of the family's income came from selling their farm's crops and livestock, particularly chickens and eggs.
"Did you sell them live or did you like have a butcher?" I ask.
"No, we sold them live. The whole thing live," Papa says.
"You didn't kill them right? Did you eat them?" I reply.
"Yes, we ate them..." Papa says before he pauses.
"Yeah, but to eat them, you have to kill them!" Mama chimes in. I gasp; I can't picture my sweet old grandpa killing an animal.
"I kill cows, pigs, and chickens. It's your life, the way you live; you have to," he tells me.
So of course, I ask how he killed them, thinking he used a gun for a quick and painless death. Well, I sure was mistaken. Papa tells me that to kill the chickens, you had to snap the neck then pull and twist it. He makes fists with his hands and turns them in opposite directions, replicating the action as he explains it, adding that they had to clean the chickens afterwards by removing their feathers.
I think of going to the supermarket to pick up a package of meat. The dirty work is done for you and you avoid having to picture the farm animals' gruesome executions. I cringe at the thought of it now that the slaughtering is being explained in specific detail, yet I proceed to ask him how he killed the cows anyway.
He tells me how they slit the cows' necks and left buckets underneath the gashes while the blood drained. After hearing that, I didn't even bother to ask about execution methods for the pigs.
When he turned eighteen, Papa served in the military but thankfully never had to go to war. When he joined, however, he barely knew how to read or write having skipped the last eleven years of school. He yearned for an education and took night classes paid for by the army. After several years, he was called to serve in the police force in Havana, the country's capital three hours away from his hometown, a job he kept for another several years. While supporting himself as a police officer, he shared an apartment with a roommate and continued going to school so he could work for the National Bureau of Investigation, "like the FBI or Secret Service over here in this country," Papa says. He excelled in school, took an examination to become an agent and landed the job not long after.
He was still an agent when Castro took over the formerly democratic government in 1959. Castro, a Cuban native, plotted the revolution while living in Mexico. He and a band of Communist followers arrived back in Cuba on a boat named Granma in December 1956 to begin internalizing and organizing plans to overthrow the government of Fulgencio Batista, Cuba's president at the time.
Eventually, "Castro...kicked the old army and police force out to change the system. They didn't want anyone against communism in there," Papa says. Castro spread propaganda through the Americas, claiming that Batista was a killer and a communist so that people would lose trust in him, thus making it less challenging to take over.
"That wasn't true because when Batista was in government, Cuba was the richest country in Latin America. People had good jobs, cars, televisions, radios. They got everything," continues Papa, explaining that the country was chock full of exports like sugar, tobacco and fruit. Turistas, or tourists, particularly Americans, adored the country; tourism was a dominant industry that raked in loads of revenue for the Cuban economy.
Because of his job, Papa knew that chaos would ensue before conditions really began to worsen and was getting ready to leave for a long time beforehand. He had to remain inconspicuous and fabricate a few lies to get out of there.
"I got my passport and everything ready because of the connection with the U.S. Embassy. We worked together and they know what's going on," said Papa. "The American people gave me the opportunity [to leave] and they knew what Castro would be doing - killing people. And that's it, I got to go."
But he needed permission first. The U.S. Embassy gave him a visa with ease but getting a permit from Cuba was more challenging, since the government was hesitant to let anyone leave.
Lucky for Papa, the people who came to take over the government knew nothing about the previous one, so he was able to deny any affiliation. He told them he needed to go to the United States to visit his brother, Reinaldo. That much was true; since Papa was ahead of the curve, he actually helped his brother (and several others) get the necessary paperwork to flee before him. Papa also told them he was taking up studies in radio and television there as well, which of course, wasn't true.
"They give me a permit that said to be back in six months, which was a big lie!" Papa laughs with a smirk. "I never think to go back. They give me a permit and I come and make my life here."
So he packed his bags, booked his ticket and headed to the airport. He decided to wait until his arrival in the United States to call his family and let them know he'd left. He didn't tell a soul he was leaving: not his friends, family or co-workers. Just one of his brothers, Pedro, who always kept his lips zipped. He kept his passport, visa and paperwork tucked away in secrecy until the day of his flight.
When he got to the airport, Papa hid in the men's room for fear of seeing anyone from the Bureau or anyone else he knew that might give him away. He waited in there until his name was called for the flight.
"Wanting freedom made me feel guilty," he said. "Getting out of living in a communist country is like trying to get out of jail."
He boarded the four-hour flight to New York in late September of 1959 and as the plane ascended into the sky, he looked out at the clear blue sea, the scattered ships and the Cuban coastline as waves crashed onto the shore.
"'Oh my God. If this thing does down right now, I don't care because I'm gonna die free,'" Papa thought to himself. "That's the feeling I got at the moment."
Papa spent three to four months in New York and began working as a commercial painter, saving up money to get the rest of his family out of Cuba. He later moved in with his brother in New Jersey, taking buses to Long Island almost daily to continue his work painting for the next year and half. After two years, he couldn't take the chest pains caused by the lead paint, so he searched for new job prospects. He then obtained a job working in a bakery.
In the meantime, he had met Mama, who just emigrated from the Dominican Republic, in 1960. They married in 1962, and a year later, two just-as-exciting occasions took place: the birth of their first child, my mother, Miriam, and the birth of Papa's very own bakery, El Carousel Bakery, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
While he was in the United States, Papa's father passed away of lung cancer. He couldn't even make it to the funeral. Had he returned to Cuba, the Communists would have surely killed him. It was difficult not to be there during such an emotional time, but Papa pulled through and kept working in hopes of bringing the rest of his family to the land of opportunity, saving up money to buy seventeen relatives airplane tickets.
I ask Mama and Papa how anyone was even allowed to board an airplane in a communist country if the government forbade people from leaving. They tell me that government took everything from the people who want to leave: their property, animals, jewelry, and most of their possessions. The government would send to the homes of those leaving, several months prior to their departures in order to search and count the things in their homes.
If so much as a single chicken was missing upon departure time, a person's permission to leave was revoked. If it wasn't planned well ahead of time, people couldn't even give their possessions to family members or friends. Government officials went as far as shaking down and searching people in the airport before departing to make sure they didn't miss any possessions they may have tried to hide.
Papa paid for seventeen fares on three different occasions before his family was able to leave the country, since they were continuously denied permission to leave. Eight years after Papa's arrival and months before the birth of his and Mama's second child, my Aunt Diana, his mother, sister, brothers, as well as their spouses and their children were finally able to come here together.
"It was one plane full of crazy guajiros," or country people, Papa laughs.
Our family has since scattered to different parts of the United States and Papa kept El Carousel Bakery open and in business until just last year, when he finally retired at the ripe old age of 79 to undergo hip and knee replacement surgeries.
"I feel we're lucky to live in this free country," Papa says. "It's the best part of the world to be living. I loved this country before coming here and I love this country now more and more and more. There's a lot of people like me who were scared to leave and ended up getting killed or forced to work for Castro. I'm very happy to be here; I thank God for that."
As soon as anyone walks into his office at home, it is obvious how happy he is to be here; American flags and eagles run rampant from the magnets on his filing cabinets to the patches on his baseball caps and the afghan that lays atop the ancient mint-green recliner he's had since before my mom was born.
I'm proud to call him my grandpa and even more proud of what he's accomplished and gone through in his life, as well as the profound effect it's had on my family. His life experiences have instilled in us a sincere and genuine gratitude for the free lives we live, the privileges we have, and the opportunities presented to us daily.
He's worked every day of his life from ages 7 to 79. It's no wonder why our family has such a strong worth ethic; it stems from the sugarcane plantations of Cuba and into our veins. Had it not been for his surgeries, I know he'd still be getting up at 6 a.m. to drive to Brooklyn every morning. But in a sense, I'm thankful he needed those surgeries because it made him realize that he needs to slow down and enjoy the life he worked so hard for.
He took his first vacation with us in more than fifteen years, just last summer. In fact, up until last Christmas, our family never knew what to buy him as a gift because he worked seven days a week, early in the morning to late at night, and wore nothing but his pressed, crisp white baker's uniform every single day. He had no need for clothes or much else because he never wasn't working, even when he was sick. When he closed the bakery, the girls of the family were thrilled to buy him a whole new wardrobe, anything and everything as long as it wasn't white! We're still getting used to seeing him in jeans, funny as that may sound.
His favorite items of clothing though, are Guayaberas, traditional Cuban collared linen shirts with two front pockets. It's said that the name is derived from "a Cuban legend that tells of a poor countryside seamstress sewing large pockets into her husband's shirts for carrying guava (guayabas) from the field" (Wikipedia). Ironically, Mama is a seamstress and sews extra pockets onto most of Papa's shirts because it's like pulling teeth to get him to wear shirts without two pockets.
You won't find me with Cuban flags emblazoned on my notebook, clothing or bedroom walls, but I take pride in the Cuban side of my colorful mixed heritage. It's a quiet pride tucked not onto the hood of my car or inked into my skin, but into my mind. What my grandpa and so many other Cubans have endured, and still endure, to make a better life for themselves, is what I'm really most proud of. It's not something I exclaim to everyone around me. But to anyone who asks, I'd love to tell.
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