War Heroes

When El Exilio found out Fidel might finally be dead there was a party out on La Calle. The Cubans came out dancing and waving banners because they thought they had finally won the war. La Guerra Fría may have ended twenty years ago for everyone else, but not the Miami Cubans.

Mami and I didn’t go to Calle Ocho because we wanted to be with my 89-year old Abuela. “Oye Panchito,” Mami would always say, “don’t forget to visit your abuelita de vez en cuando.” When Abuela came to the door of her Hialeah apartment, I bent down to hug her frail body, but she swung an arm around my back and we danced a bolero across the room. Mami told her she sometimes worried she was getting too old to live by herself and Abuela threw her hands up in the air, yelling, “¡Olvídate de eso chica!” She could still swing her machete if anyone gave her trouble.

I laughed and went to the kitchen to make some café cubano, which is really just espresso with extra sugar but just about the most patriotic thing a Cuban can drink. Then we sat around the TV to watch Univisión. No one was sure if El Tirano was dead yet, but at the very least he was dying so we could be happy about that. When it was time for dinner I held out my arm and helped Abuela shuffle to the table. We ate while the triumphant voices of Radio Mambí echoed in the background, and Abuela’s famous lechón con congrí was so good I went back into the kitchen to serve myself seconds while Mami made el cafecito. When we returned to the table Abuela was gone.

I found her back in the other room, dimly lit by the TV’s glare. “Todavía no,” she sighed from the couch. “Yo vuelvo,” she looked at me and said, “si de verdad se ha muerto.” Abuela has been in the United States for more than forty years. How could she still want to go back? “Yo me muero en Cuba,” was all she said.

And suddenly all I wanted was to give Abuela my arm and help her shuffle all the way back to Oriente. I could be a guajiro, live in the Cuban countryside, even if only for a little while. I wanted to finally lay eyes on the Sierra Maestra, the tocororo, the zunzún, places and creatures of which I’d heard only stories. Cuentos de La Isla Perdida.

Perfect, Abuela and I will go be guajiros, just like Teddy Roosevelt said. When the Rough Riders came to Cuba, he congratulated all those machete-wielding campesinos who drove out the Spanish without even guns by yelling, “You’re all war heroes!” The Cubans didn’t understand, but they took the name anyway. Now all the Cubans from outside La Habana call themselves guajiros. When Fidel is gone, we’ll be war heroes again.

Next morning Mami and I went to have breakfast at Sergio’s, but there was such a huge crowd we went to the McDonald’s next door instead. Even there CNN reported on Fidel’s bad health, and I wondered if Mami would go back too. I knew she wouldn’t go forever, but maybe she’d visit. When I asked, she dropped her McMuffin and clenched my wrists. Her fingernails sank into my skin and it hurt. “Don’t ever go there Frank!” I saw her eyes moisten and overflow. “Don’t ever go there because it was too fucking hard for us to get out!”


“War Heroes” first appeared in Hinchas de Poesia #5, an on-line journal based in Los Angeles.


Filed under: Prose