December 1, 2016

MIRTA OJITO: I Forgot Fidel a Long Time Ago.

Growing up, Fidel loomed large in my life and in the life of most Cubans of the generation born shortly after he assumed power in 1959. Because we knew nothing else, because we were taught only one reality, Fidel came to embody not only the ideas of the revolution but also the nation itself. He was the mambí (those who fought for independence against Spain) and the bearded revolutionary; he was the national anthem and the flag, the mountains and the sea.

All powerful, all seeing, he came to replace God at a time when the government declared the country atheist. Who needs God in the face of such powerful force?

To reject him, to stand against everything he stood for was to be disloyal not only to him but to la patria – the motherland.

It is no coincidence that the government adopted words to demean those who wanted a different life. In revolutionary Cuba, people didn’t just leave the island, they “abandoned the motherland.” At first and for a long time they were called gusanos, or worms. Later, when my time came to leave, we were called escoria, or scum.

I left in a boatlift that brought more than 125,000 Cubans from the port of Mariel, in northern Cuba, to South Florida 36 years ago. On a wall in my home office I keep the departure order the government issued to the Mañana, the boat that carried me and my family to the US. Under the category of shipment, someone at the port wrote the word “lastre” or ballast.

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