Orlando Ricardo Menes
Freedom Tower — El Refugio —
processing center for Cuban refugees
Abuela Nena waddled into the waiting room
her red dress crumpled like cellophane
her scuffed Soviet shoes
cajas de muertos
the orthopedic pair
my mama’d sent confiscated (filched) in Guanabacoa’s post office.
passport stamped NULO with her tears, eleven years
muttering Ave Marias
Fidel’s infernal island.
for a pound of rice, half the bag tiny black stones or
were they turds?
Hands scarred, fingers crooked
from having washed 20 tubfuls a week
charging less than black women, old Chinese washermen
who’d come to Cuba as coolies.
My Catalan grandfather, mathematics teacher, earned barely enough for
& a one-room apartment
near the docks.
Abuelo used a parasol
to shield himself from Cuba’s primitive sun.
Dreamt of returning to Barcelona, barrio Pedos
Died in La Habana spitting hostias from his mouth.
Abuela began a new life
on Miami Beach, an efficiency on 12th & Euclid, her neighbors
Refused mama’s money or any help with chores & shopping.
When food stamps ran out
Abuela made do with cans
of surplus corned beef, powdered eggs
even peanut butter
which she called mierda
A few crumpled dollars in the fridge (can of
Abuela lit round candles
for the Virgin of Regla, patron of Havana, Our Lady of Miracles
who cured mama of diphtheria
when she was seven.
In Cuba Abuela’s black neighbors gave la Virgen rum & Lucky Strikes;
she wore silk gowns & faux agates
& like Abuela had a terrible temper
but also a loving heart, a joy for life, laughter from the gut.
At 70 Abuela was losing her memory, at times unable to recognize
Abuelo from his photograph
next to a large St. Roch.
Advanced arteriosclerosis, the doctor said, a lifetime of eating lard
& pan con chicharrón.
Abuela warned she’d rather die than go
to a nursing home in Sunny Isles
Ester La Turca — a neighbor — called mama
with news that Abuela had stopped eating, bathing & grooming.
She was roaming the streets
como un alma en pena.
We found Abuela on the kitchen floor, dehydrated, barely conscious.
Blaming herself, mama
banged her head against the wall, pulled clumps of hair
chewed valium like chiclets.
After a week in Mount Sinai, Abuela died of a brain hemorrhage.
Lying in a casket of burnished cherrywood, she wore a frilly dress, her
favorite orthopedic shoes
her face waxy & hollow, her jaw wired shut
so that she smiled mischievously.
Mama wept, fist beating her heart, murmuring she’d made a mistake
bringing Abuela to this country, just 90 miles away, while I
cried too, though offering no real consolation, yet I knew
at that moment for mama Miami was the island
sinking in the sea.
cajas de muerto: boxes of the dead.
gusana: worm, name given by Castro to those Cubans fleeing the island
nulo: void, refugees would automatically lose their Cuban citizenship, thus becoming people without a country.
Pedos de Jesús: Farts of Jesus.
hostias: literally “hosts,” but in Iberian Spanish this word is frequently used as “damn.”
mierda de pollo: chicken shit.
pan con chicharrón: bread with fried pork rinds.
como un alma en pena: like a soul in Purgatory
La Turca: the Turk, name given to Cuban Jews of Sephardic origin.