Beneath the shade of a tamarind tree in bloom
My father was smoking under the tamarind tree while the women skinned the animals and peeled the cassava. Poor thing. I see him getting a breath of fresh air under the tree, a tree overshadowing the whole yard with its eight-meter-thick trunk and the small tamarinds flowering on its branches, its frond cooling and shading the property, its dense, brilliant green foliage marking its territory from twenty-five meters high, the extent of its shadow, and its leaves always green even in the dry season and the abundant grace of its five-petaled flowers in orange and yellow bunches with red garlands and purple buds.
This clues me in to the communion that can exist between a man and his surroundings. I think my first awareness of something tangible was of my father with that veteran tamarind tree, estimated to be over one hundred years old. These were the unmistakable signs of summer. The sugar harvest is over and the field hands’ lodgings disappear from the region and out go the chimneys of the nearby sugar mill, Marcané. Then the tamarind tree starts to bloom and my father comes out from his winter refuge up in the attic of the house and begins his long musings, tobacco in hand and stocky legs spread apart under the tree. You can tell by the blooming of the tamarind tree that summer is right around the corner. La calor, the intense heat, as the peasants call this season. My father’s other ritual begins later, at the beginning of July. At least, that’s how I remember it. He voices his admiration for the tree’s productivity and incessantly points out the sheer volume of fruit he has picked from it.
The wooden benches, where my father used to sit in those years, surround the thick trunk, like the four cardinal points. And close by, behind him and to the left, is the elevated water tank on its four cement legs, and beyond that, the blackened sticks of caiguarán wood holding up the house. As I was saying, I see him. I see him with a Cazador de Pita cigar and the solid diamond adorning his right hand, the one he holds the Cazador in, not letting it go out and not removing the label until the embers threaten to reach it, close to his lips. Cazador de Pita was his favorite brand of cigars and the carreros brought cartloads of them to the front gate of the farm. Carreros is what we called traveling salesmen. Later, when my father opened his little store on the other side of the road and across from the house, they would leave the tobacco and the rest of the merchandise there.
And my father has tall rubber boots on and his guayabera is lightly, but visibly, stained with coffee.
Now do you see him? Good, well this is the bucolic and archetypal Cuban landscape that I myself will destroy thirty years hence. It seems incredible to me. Everywhere I find this scene throughout the country, everywhere, I will destroy it. But not because I hate it, or because it is a premeditated act, or because I think it deserves it, but rather, because—this is what I will end up believing—it is the result of an inevitable process. It’s something that I myself will raze and that will, little by little, leave me with little power except to adhere to the brute force which I have created and let loose. Because, in all truth, I can’t say that things were so bad for me there, in that setting. All my biographers fail on this point. They want to uncover the motives for the Cuban Revolution in my childhood in Manacas, Birán, as if they were watching the behavior of Pavlov’s dog. They never want to grant me that the Revolution was an intellectual process. First, of balance. Second, of function. Third, of control. They also don’t notice that the apparatus I put into motion, or at least stirred, has nothing to do with a happy childhood.
To witness this scene through my eyes—the eyes of a five-year-old—and see my father stand like a chief under the tamarind tree and hold out his large hand with the sparkling diamond on it, calling me “son” or “plebeian,” is to contemplate the landscape, the world. It’s what I’m seeing. The whole world. And, without being able to explain it exactly, I take it as immutable. That is the only landscape that existed. And, I must admit, it was enough for me. A medieval landscape that was to remain unaltered from the time that my father, to establish his sugar colony, tore through mountains and destroyed forests of ácana, majagua, mahogany and caiguarán trees. I feel like I am revolving around my own axis, but in slow motion. The icebox is leaning against the outside of the shack where we keep the pots and the grains and where there is a large table that the old ladies (my mother, my older sister Angelita, and some maid) use to skin the pig, and where they will later put the corn mill, and on that table there is a gutter to carry the animal’s blood down the middle toward a bucket on the floor underneath. And since no one knows what’s in the icebox, we can still say it’s like a medieval landscape.
The house overlooks the road. The road goes to Cueto, half an hour by horse, ten minutes by truck. The windows face the northeast, the direction of the trade winds, if the builder knows what he is doing. My father is smoking his cigar and he has called me over and is saying that since I am turning five, he’s going to give me one peso. He adds:
“This year the son of a bitch has given me three hundred and fifty pounds.”
Three hundred and fifty pounds of tamarinds.
He uses his cigar to point up at the treetop in which all flowers and fruits have faded until the next spring.
I ask, but Father, why don’t you give me five? Five pesos. One for every year. And my father says, cabrón, one peso is made up of five pesetas. How can you ask for five pesos? You’re too much of a little shit to deserve that kind of reward.
The younger women—my sister Juana and maybe Emma or some other seasonal girl, a daughter of the Haitian day laborers who stay around the area after the sugar cane harvest—are peeling cassava in front of my father, and up there, in the house’s kitchen, I’m not sure who is making the white rice steeped in black beans. Which aunt, which grandmother, which maid. Little Raúl isn’t on the scene yet. Either he’s in his crib or he hasn’t been born yet. I’ll do the math later.
I say that the kitchen was up there because it was built on wooden pillars up to seven feet high. The post office, visible from the farm’s front gate, and the little school were also on pillars. Years later I learned why so many houses and public buildings in the Cuban countryside were built on wooden pillars or on cement posts. It was to save on moving and the considerable cost of laying down a foundation and spending a fortune on cement. But it wasn’t a cheap Spaniard’s invention as they would have you believe to belittle my father. It was a reasonable habit with its own sound logic that was applied to a lot of buildings in the countryside. As a matter of fact, all of the houses belonging to the United Fruit tycoons in Banes, a nearby town, in the area called “the Americans’ neighborhood,” were raised up on cement posts. But nobody calls those yanquis cheap bastards. The only things worth mentioning are the animals that were raised under my house. The truth is that there were all kinds of animals which my father insisted on calling “domestic” animals. This classification included cows, chickens, turkeys, sheep, and ducks. But not pigs. Pigs went in the pigpen. This invention was a kind of rationalization of space. Not only had he saved himself the foundation, but simply by using pillars that were a bit longer than were commonly used, he also saved himself the barn.
On with my tour. The kitchen window, facing the opposite direction of the wind to carry away the smells and vapors, is propped open so that the scraps can be thrown out, falling more than nine meters before landing in the bucket below ready to collect that watery edible material we then call potluck stew once it’s ready to take to the pigs. And the tamarind tree makes the whole yard lovely. And it smells like pure, simple air with a steady wind, and if this keeps up, you’ll never notice the smell of sacrificial blood, and the flowers create what my mother calls an ambience, and this is something that stays with you. The mud bricks surrounding the thick tamarind tree trunk like a flowerbed are also there, brought from the little factory at Cueto that resembles the ones that every town in Cuba has, with the same oven, the same pile of bricks, the same black men soaked in sweat, shovels in hand, the beads of water on their naked torsos glimmering like after a rainfall.
“Five pesos, my ass!” my father says.
Then he looks me straight in the eye and I notice a rapid flash of mischief in his eyes. I know it’s mischief because his face softens and he lowers his voice to make sure that the girls peeling the cassava just twenty meters away from us don’t hear what he is about to say, and what he says is something I am not ready for yet, not even to understand it, but as a result I realize suddenly there is a door that can be opened and beyond its threshold, I will encounter a possibility of such magnitude that I am still incapable of grasping, so much so that I feel disturbed for the first time in my life and I forget all about the loss of the four pesos at the mere suggestion of this sinister game.
“You wouldn’t want this money for the girls, would you? Hmmm? Are you already feeling the itch? Well you let me know, because I’ll find you a piece of tail for that job and it won’t cost me more than four pesetas.”
At the edge of the yard is the shack where my father has his RCA Victor and where he takes a nap sometimes and where my brother Ramón, the oldest of the boys, goes to hear Mexican music even though my father only wants to hear the radio serials, when they come in.
Beyond the pigpen are the tractors, Ferguson and Caterpillar.
According to the stories to be fabricated in about sixty years to make me seem like the product of a family of bandits, the United Fruit people, led by their manager Hodgkins, storm in to where these tractors are parked and chip away at the paint until the original paint underneath reveals the true owner. It is none other than the very same Mr. Hodgkins with his righteous and redeeming switchblade in his pocket, which he brandishes before my father. Manacas farm, which he cleared with his own hands and in which he only permitted himself three luxuries his entire life: the house wired for electricity, the inexhaustible supply of tobacco—his Cazador de Pita cigars—and the diamond ring on his right hand, is the great lie of my biographers who, having no other way to blemish the story of a boy in the course of his childhood, take it out on a hardworking man born for nothing else. Poor man. If we remember Mr. Hodgkins at all in our family—on the rare occasions on which we gather to evoke the past—it is as a drunk who gave Birán’s supply of cognac a good run and who always ended up in some tangled discussion with my father over the sinking of the USS Maine. My father, who first arrived in Cuba as a soldier, felt it was his duty to blame the Americans for the sinking of their own ship as a pretext to declare war on Spain. Hodgkins, of course, defended the opposite view. Those cognac-fueled sessions about the Maine were just like the two countries declaring war on each other all over again. My father used to wave a daguerreotype—or was it a postcard?—of the remains of the Maine in the bay of Havana that he kept on hand in the dining room for these occasions, and gave free range to the mocking tone I never heard at any other time when he said, “You can’t possibly deny, my dear Mr. Joquins, that whoever placed the dynamite there, your guys or ours, was perfectly aware of what this would lead to. Listen here, this is what I call sinking a ship with prescience. Just look at this, my God. What a way to be sunk.” Even so, later—and this much I recall—while Mr. Hodgkins stumbled toward his car, my father would say to my brother Ramón, “He still doesn’t take me seriously.” It’s so easy to take land away from these Americans, just by moving the fences over. But no one can prove this little story. To increase his eight hundred hectares at the expense of the United Fruit Company, shifting the fence posts, and doing it at night, is more than my imagination is ready to accept. Although in the end, in my opinion, there is some honor in the legend that a foot soldier of the Spanish army won the war after the war. Pork for you, he yells to the women, to all the ones surrounding us, in the kitchen, the ones toiling over the cassava, the ones quartering the animal. But for me, bean and sausage stew.
“Did you hear me, women? Dammit. Pork for you. Bean and sausage stew for me.”
Up above, in the house, is the vast wooden and leather furniture, big and solid pieces, and with the outhouse being at the edge of the yard there are washbasins under the beds so we can empty our bladders at night and then throw the contents out the window, and here comes the ice cart, Don Hildemaro’s cart, pulled by a mule, and there’s always an abandoned wagon wheel and always some guy or other who starts calling out to the oxen when he’s drunk.
Sunday, August 16, 1931. We’re celebrating my birthday three days late so that it’s not a work day. The festival, my father calls this, placing a heavy hand on my head. I accept it as a tender caress. That same hand on my head on a stormy night is the first memory I have of real contact with the outside world. I can’t say—because I don’t know—when I was able to speak for the first time or when I first engaged in what the women in the house called cute little antics, but I remember that hurricane just south of Birán when I was two years old and I associate it with the weight of that powerful Spanish soldier’s hand. There was no hurricane over Birán the day I was born, as some writers say. That little gringa Georgie Anne Geyer, despite the disparaging tone and racism of her treatise, can’t help but attribute to me some sort of supernatural power capable of unleashing a devastating hurricane over the area in her description of my arrival in this world. There were two very bad hurricanes relatively close by, so they say, and the reddened sky was full of rain and occasional squalls, but that was normal in August. In Cuba, it has never snowed. Only very rarely does a light layer cover the vegetation on the highest peaks of the Sierra Maestra. The temperature is high, but not excessive, and there aren’t many completely sunny days and the trade winds always lighten the air. But there are hurricanes. When these let loose, winds can reach up to three hundred kilometers/hour, with torrential downpours and tidal waves. These monsters show up with their hot nucleus (the eye of the hurricane) measuring twenty to fifty kilometers in diameter in the middle of which the temperature can be about ten degrees Celsius less than the surrounding winds. These whirlwinds can get to be five to eight kilometers high and three hundred kilometers across and last an average of eight days. But I couldn’t have known I was being pushed into this world on that night of August 13, 1926, around two in the morning, nor that there was a hurricane at a reasonable distance from Birán. But during the hurricane of ’28—two years later—I did smell the danger and I could smell the rain and I still hear the rattling of the windows and I still feel the tender heat of the protective hand that was my father’s, that strong, tough Spaniard, as he patted my head. My mother has me on her lap and for the first time I am conscious of the tempest and what it’s like to be trapped in it and to weather the storm even when you are inside a house, and you hear the winds and the floods and you learn how wonderful it is to be sitting there with a roof over your head while this is happening and you learn this through touch, through my father’s hand resting on your head while mother protects you in her arms. The next day is when you experience the devastation—although now I don’t know if I saw it with my own eyes or if I was told about it: the whole settlement in ruins, the sugar cane flattened by the wind and the cows, the animals—and even people—all drowned.
Once, I mentioned my mother’s fervent religiosity to a little Brazilian priest, Fray Betto, who was taping a long interview with me. He was a revolutionary priest of that jittery and very susceptible Latin American left and with whom I personally sympathized. So, I gave him some tidbits to feed his illusions. But, I didn’t tell him the whole truth. Not even a smidgen of it. Certainly, when I described my mother as a deeply religious woman, I didn’t specify which religion she gave herself over to body and soul. She was a santera, a follower of Santeria. And, in addition, she thought I was destined for greatness. She thought this while I was still a fetus. I was in her womb when it was revealed to her that her unborn child had a very important mission. That my fate was ordained by the gods. She was so convinced that they initiated me into the religion from the womb. She told me this herself, just a few days before the triumph of the Revolution, on December 24, 1958, when I made a quick trip from the Sierra Maestra to see her. Our control over the territory was such that I was able to travel safely within a pretty wide area—through back roads and sugar cane paths, of course—in a well-accompanied four-vehicle convoy. The landscape had changed dramatically in the four years since my last visit and both my father and the big house were gone. But we’ll get to that later. Night was falling over Birán and she was waiting for me at the top of the steps, which I ascended while my men, in a state of indecision, milled around at the bottom of the steps. Before Lina Ruz Gonzalez stood a warrior, his FAL rifle hanging over his shoulder, a beard from two years’ growth in the mountains, a slightly worn olive green uniform with pockets full of cigars and papers, but that fit me like a glove, not like a provision left behind by enemy forces, and who took her in his arms and nearly lifted her off the ground when he heard her say, “Aggayú.” And almost immediately, as befitting the situation, she began her long list of reproaches. But for once, they were tender reproaches. That I didn’t have anyone to iron my uniform. That I had dirt underneath my fingernails. That my men should come out of the orange grove. That my men were eating all the oranges. And the foremost reason I’ve been waiting for you, Fidel. How dare you have the audacity to order the burning of my sugar cane fields? At least your father, may he rest in peace, wasn’t alive to see it. Fidel. Fidel. Oh, my child. That night, as a side note, I learned the story. I learned that I was a son of the god Aggayú and about the whole process of initiating me into Santeria from the womb. She knew I had an important destiny, she told me, and she sent for a Santeria priest and it was he who specified my father was the god Aggayú. “I can tell by your left hand”—he told her—”because this is blood of your blood and through it I can see your son through you.” Being a son of Aggayú complicated everything greatly because Aggayú, who is a top-tier warrior, hadn’t had anyone who knew how to perform the saint-making ceremony for him in many years. The old Santeria priests were the only ones who knew the ceremony, but all of them had died by the 1920s, taking their ceremonial secrets to the grave. So the saint wasn’t one that could be made by its own initiates. In other words, and she took the liberty of using an example of modern medicine, you find the closest saint, which in this case was Changó, whose own Santeria father is Aggayú, and you chant the ritual songs to Changó, like a kind of bypass. Do you understand? You initiate him with Changó and you prepare the initiate’s head to be dedicated to Aggayú and you ask that the situation be transmitted to Aggayú. There are saints that go from being orishas, gods, to being ochas, messengers, and these are very strong and with the passing of the years their initiation secrets are lost. I understand that even the ceremonies to invoke Aggayú stopped happening years ago; the last ones are rumored to have taken place in Pinar del Río around 1959. Of course, my friend the Brazilian friar will learn the full story if he happens to read these pages. But I remember once, at the beginning of the Revolution, I told one of my classmates at the University of Havana, a black man with intellectual airs named Walterio, whom I later appointed Ambassador to Morocco and whose inaugural act there was to take the Cuban Embassy’s Mercedes, while drunk, through a busy market and run over the King’s tailor, who, by the way, was Her Highness’s lover. Walterio Carbonell. Black Walterio.
So that was how my mother had her ceremony, I mean, I made the saint through my mother, who showed up at the ceremony and they shaved her head and carried out the rest of the ceremonial acts, which are secret. They even brought a Santeria priest from Havana, someone very famous. I can’t say whether it was Miguelito Febles, who was also a babalawo (a priest of the Yoruba religion), or Taita Gaitán, both of them well renowned, or maybe it was Antonio Peñalver, although Peñalver was too young around that time; these are the three names (just names, because they are all dead) that the State Security Forces were able to track down at my request through bureau number three, the one covering culture, religion, and sports. Of course, they were also able to uncover the secrets of that famous initiation, but I am keeping that to myself out of the deepest respect. I asked my mother if my father knew. “He paid for everything,” she told me.
An Aggayú ceremony cost three hundred pesos in those years. That was a fortune at the time. But there were other saints that could be invoked for less. Animals were cheap and abundant in the countryside. Sheep, hens, cocks, doves, chickens, guinea pigs and tortoises. All were sacrificed. I think that sheep were a basic requirement for Aggayú. Two cocks are offered. One tortoise, for Changó who eats tortoise. The animal is sacrificed, and then comes the secret ceremony that can’t be revealed. But the animal is killed right there and its blood is given to the saint, and I can’t disclose what they do with the animal either, but it follows a different path later.
Almost no biography or story about any historical figure starts with the birth of the protagonist but focuses instead on the high point of that person’s life to lure the reader in before taking a few steps back. Since that whole part about birth and childhood is more or less the same for everyone and the following years spanning youth and careers are the fodder for psychiatrists and studies in personality development, let’s get down to those obscure corners in the history of an individual—in this case the individual is me—where we can find the most important unedited material since everything else abounds in one way or another in newspapers and libraries and even in film and video stores lately. Take note of the unusual point of departure: my mother’s womb. Now let’s go into the other area off-limits to all of my biographers until now: my memory. My prodigious memory. If I wanted to precisely describe the place where I stockpile the information in it, I’d have to say that it is on the other side of where the news is produced. There’s nothing to read into. Just facts. In any event, my private pantheon of deities or the gods of my fate increased that night, just forty-eight hours before my victory. Saint Fidel of Sigmaringa. He was the first one. I remember that when I was a kid, my parents told me that April 24th was my patron saint’s day, and there was Saint Fidel of Sigmaringa on the almanac.
“There’s no such thing as fate. There are decisions,” I told my mother that night, around ten, a little bit before leaving for Ramón Font’s house, the manager of the America factory, where we had put the commanders in preparation for the siege of Santiago. It was at least a two-hour journey. With all the lights out, those back country roads were very dangerous. “There’s no such thing as fate, mother. There are decisions.”
Then I smiled. I had to add something. To make her happy:
“And witchcraft and the University of Havana.”
From La Autobiografia de Fidel Castro (Barcelona: Ediciones Destino, 2004). Copyright © 2004 by Norberto Fuentes; copyright © 2004 by Ediciones Destino. Translation copyright © 2005 by Anna Kushner. All rights reserved.