Vol. 10, No. 47

November 21-27, 2002

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The Last Time We Saw Cuba
Figuring out why our closest neighbor remains so distant
is a little like trying to cut open a mango.
by April Falcon Doss

After all these years, I still can’t slice a mango. The tropical fruits are easy to find these days: two for $3 in the grocery aisle or four for $5 at the warehouse club store. Their juicy yellow flesh bursting with sticky-sweet juice makes me long for the opportunity, just once, to travel to my ancestral home: Cuba.

November 21 marks the 40th anniversary of the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis. October 28 was that day the world exhaled as Kennedy and Kruschev decided not to push the red buttons that could plunge the world into nuclear war. But U.S. ships continued their naval blockade of Cuba until Kennedy was satisfied that all threats had indeed left the island. The day the naval quarantine ended was November 21.

Here’s the trouble with mangoes as I see it: It’s hard to get to the solid core, to the very center of things.

Holding the oval fruit on edge, braced on its narrow side against the table, I estimate the most likely orientation of the oblong pit. I slice downward, through the leathery skin of the fruit, through the succulent flesh. If I’ve aimed just right, I should be able to slide alongside the edge of the pit down to the countertop. Invariably, though, the steel’s edge rasps against something wooden and semi-solid. So I score the flesh still clinging to the skin, then peel back the hide to remove the luscious chunks of golden fruit.

My mangos don’t come from Cuba. The U.S. embargo on trading, traveling and investing in Cuba has lasted for 40 years. It began in 1960 as retaliation against Castro’s move to nationalize the Cuban holdings of two U.S. oil companies. By 1962, the embargo was firmly rooted in a series of regulations prohibiting ordinary citizens from taking our U.S. dollars or curiosity to Cuba.

Journalists, academics and politicians can get there, as can religious leaders and people with close family members there who are traveling out of extreme humanitarian need. I’ve never fit any of the categories, so I’ve never found out what it would be like to slice a mango on the same shores as my great-grandmother did.

Celia brought her sons to this country in the second decade of the 20th century. Her 90-mile journey offered her a job hand-rolling cigars in Ybor City, the Cuban section of Tampa. She passed down aromas of black beans and rice, and I credit her with the roast pork and fried plantains on my family table that were my closest connection, outside of strong coffee, with the island nation she’d left behind.

Celia saw no threat in Castro’s takeover; the Fidelistos offered freedom from Batista’s dictatorship. Por la gente, the regular people like Celia, there was no property to be seized. Socialism promised greater equality, not thievery. It held out the hope of education, literacy, medical care, evening the island’s wealth distribution. In spite of the promises that haven’t been met, not all Americans of Cuban descent support the embargo or despise Castro.

Amid the paper tornadoes of left- and right-wing propaganda, who can see the truth?

So what’s the big deal about November 21? Only that so often history lingers, entangled and unresolved.

For nearly a month after the Cuban Missile Crisis broke, the standoff held. When the U.S. naval quarantine ended, relations between the two countries fell into a tailspin. The embargo has continued for four decades, long after most anyone can quite remember what prompted it.

So here I stand in my American kitchen, the only kind I have ever known and the kind that is my heartfelt home. I listen to Jimmy Carter and bipartisan House Cuba Working Group of congressmen call for an end to the embargo. I read the roll call of the United Nations vote, 167-3 urging the U.S. to end our economic blockade.

Still, in a swirl of Miami vote calculations and bygone affronts, Cold War breezes ruffle our flags long after the cold front blew past.

I peel and slice the mango but cannot seem to carve the slippery pulp neatly away to reveal the hard seed of truth underneath.

I cook fried plantains once in a while and adore my father’s black beans and rice. I’ve never smoked a Cuban cigar. And I still can’t slice a mango.

Bay Weekly regular April Falcon Doss — a lawyer with a Goucher College masters degree in creative nonfiction — reflects from Lombardee Beach.

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly