Author Carlos Eire spoke to an attentive audience at McCall Middle School Tuesday evening, October 20. Eire, who has written two memoirs: Waiting for Snow in Havana and Learning to Die in Miami (the Winchester Reads selection for this year), was introduced by Alan MacDonald, one of Winchester’s preeminent citizens. Eire’s first book was about his childhood in Cuba, and the second about his experiences coming to the U.S. as part of the Pedro Pan airlift which took place in the early 1960s when Castro came to power in Cuba. “Parents feared they would have their children taken away from them,” he said, and, in sending their children to connections in the United States, thought they would soon be reunited. The Castro regime began conscription into the army at the age of 18, and students of all ages were being indoctrinated with Communist propaganda. Religious instruction became illegal and children who attended a place of worship of any kind were threatened with exile to Prague and other places in Eastern Europe.
The United States government gave out visa waivers freely so that children could leave the country, and by 1962 80,000 waivers had been given out (though only 14,000 actually were able to leave). After the Bay of Pigs failed, many parents never saw their children again. Eire once had the opportunity to ask a Cuban official at a conference they both attended why the Castro government allowed children out and not parents. The answer was that the Castro regime was in favor of anything that would destroy a bourgeois family. Eire later noted that most of the children in the airlift were from middle class and upper middle class families.
Children, first processed in camps and then sent to one of four different states, were placed with foster families. Eire was placed with a Jewish family who were very good to him, but after the Bay of Pigs, when it was clear that his parents wouldn’t be coming to the U.S. anytime soon, he and his brother were put in a group home—in “storage” as he put it—until an uncle could take them. Eire touched on the feelings of utter loneliness, of having no one to rely on but himself.
Eventually Eire and his brother went to live with their uncle in Bloomington, Illinois, and finally his mother was able to emigrate. The three of them lived in Chicago where a teacher told his brother to leave school and work to support his family. Eire attended one of the best Chicago schools just by the luck of his school district. He was put in an intensive English language immersion class and, when he became fluent enough, was mainstreamed into regular classes, a process he advocates.
Speaking about what he sees as a universal experience for all immigrants and refugees, he said “Part of everyone who leaves their home country dies, sometimes repeatedly. There are so many things you have to leave behind. You become a different person. The older you are, the harder it is.” He reflected on the common experience we all have—being “exiled from childhood—something we must all do in one form or another….The trick is how to be happy with the new you.”
Commenting on his memoirs Eire talked about the connection between history and memory and how memory is fallible. We all remember things differently. “But nothing brings a person into the past as a first-person narrative,” he said.
Photo above: Courtesy of Barbara Yuan, Assistant Director, Winchester Public Library
Shown left to right: Winchester Reads committee members Kathy Richardson, Joan O’Neill, Gerry Driscoll, Carlos Eire, Judy Manzo, Connie Stolow and Barbara Yuan. Not pictured is Winchester Reads member and WMCN founder and board member, Sandy Thompson.