Carlos Eire: A Cuban-American Searches For Roots

Carlos Eire i i

Carlos Eire is a professor of history and religious studies at Yale. Free Press hide caption

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Carlos Eire

Carlos Eire is a professor of history and religious studies at Yale.

Free Press

In 1962, 11-year-old Carlos Eire was one of thousands of children airlifted out of Cuba and sent to Florida to escape Fidel Castro's regime. His parents thought he would be back as soon as Castro was deposed.

But Eire never returned home. Shortly after he arrived in the United States, the Cuban missile crisis shut down Cuba's borders, and his parents were unable to leave the country. For the next several years, Eire would be shuffled between foster families around the country before joining his aunt and uncle in Chicago.

Eire's memoir, Learning to Die in Miami, chronicles the years he spent away from his family acclimating to a completely new country — as well as his eventual reunion with his mother. (His father died in Cuba.)

Learning to Die in Miami
Learning to Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy
By Carlos Eire
Hardcover, 320 pages
Free Press
List price: $26

Read an Excerpt

Now a professor of history and religious studies at Yale, Eire tells Terry Gross how a religious book his parents gave him just before he left Cuba made a lasting impression on him. The book, Imitation of Christ, was written by a 15th-century monk and is about accepting suffering and letting go of the idea that one has control over his or her life.

"It’s the last book in the world a 12-year-old boy wants to read, but I very quickly outgrew my clothes, so the only two reminders I had of my family physically were a religious medal I wore around my neck and this book," he says. "And there's a Catholic superstition where if you have a question and open that book at random, the answer will be on that page."

When he was 14, Eire says, the book started making sense to him.

"The book allowed me to let go of my past. It allowed me not to fix my gaze on what I had lost but rather to be happy that I had lost," he says. "To take my exile as a gift — to not focus on how I could reclaim my place in the social hierarchy, but rather just to devote myself to reading about my religion, learning how to live it, and then, once I got this idea in my head that my profession was going to be teaching, that's what I considered my vocation."

Eire's first memoir, Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2003. He is also the author of War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Eramus to Calvin.


Interview Highlights

On how the Pedro Pan Airlifts started

"It was begun by a headmaster, at an American school in Havana, the Ruston Academy. He knew several men and women who, in 1959, were already struggling against Fidel Castro. ... These men and women feared that if they were caught and imprisoned, they wouldn't know who would take care of their children or what would happen to their children. The headmaster at Ruston Academy had friends in Washington [D.C.], and they arranged for the State Department to grant visa waivers to Cuban children so they could leave right away without security clearances. Though it was initially intended for children of dissidents who were fighting against Fidel Castro, it quickly grew into a program for any child whose parents wanted them out of the island. As soon as government took over all schools in April 1961, the program really took off, and it mushroomed into something that no one had predicted or expected."

On his first foster parents

"They took us in, thinking they'd only have us for a few months ... when the Cuban missile crisis closed down everything. But my foster parents were not alone in being 'stuck' with a foster child they were only supposed to have for months. I know Pedro Pan kids who stayed with their families for several years."

On the concept of eternity

"I definitely believed in it and still do. [My concept of it has] changed enormously. The little kid in Catholic school has these graphic pictures to look at — the religious images, very graphic pictures. Heaven is always boring. It's just people on clouds, circling around God or Jesus, that never looked too exciting to a kid. [But] hell is terrible — people being fired or tortured. And, of course, my view has changed, and I think that's one of my chief interests as a scholar — dealing with the history of death and the way in which the afterlife has been configured in the West. I now know how tied to specific time and place images of hell and heaven are. I realize that. I can study that. I can detach myself from that and see it as a cultural construction — specific views of heaven or hell or eternity.  But as a person living out my life, I know that my years on Earth are numbered, and I look for some continued existence that I can't even begin to imagine. I leave it at that for myself. I don't try to imagine what will happen, but I'm pretty sure something will."

Excerpt: 'Learning to Die in Miami'

Learning to Die in Miami
Learning to Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy
By Carlos Eire
Hardcover, 320 pages
Free Press
List price: $26

One

Having just died, I shouldn't be starting my afterlife with a chicken sandwich, no matter what, especially one served up by nuns. Is it a bad omen, this sandwich? Perhaps. But maybe it's a good one too. How can I know?

I have no way of discerning good from bad omens, much less of intuiting that all auguries are really an extension of our own fears. I don't know yet, at this point in life, that misfortunes can prove to be gifts from on high, sometimes the greatest gifts of all, or that ironic twists of fate are sure signs of divine providence. A child of eleven has no way of knowing that, or of believing it. And that's how old I am.

It's late at night, and I've just arrived at the camp for airlifted Cuban children in deepest, darkest South Florida. Earlier today, I left behind my parents, my entire family, all of my possessions, and my native land, and at this moment I don't really know whether I'll see any of them ever again.

In other words, I've just died. I've passed through the burning silence that strips you bare of everything you've ever been. And so have the other two boys sharing the table with me: Luis Del Riego Martinez, age seven, and his little brother Roberto, age six.

The sandwich I've been served is very white. It's on that kind of bread that comes in square slices and is all spongy and tasteless, with a thin rubbery crust. American bread. Pan Americano. The chicken is almost as colorless as the bread, and so is the mayonnaise that oozes out, cautiously. It's been cut down the middle, diagonally, and the square has been turned into two triangles. It reminds me of the sand­wiches served at my first communion reception, at the Havana Yacht Club, back when the world was still spinning in the right direction. Except those had ham salad inside, not sliced-up chicken, which gave you a hint of pink. I stare at it, this white thing, these symmetrical tri­angles, there, on the flimsy white paper plate, which is round, on a square table that's covered by a white tablecloth. It's so orderly, so con­trolled, so geometrical, so colorless, this plate of food. Two triangles that form a square, inside a circle, laid out on a larger square. It's the perfect disguise for the very messy and painful process that made this meal possible. Chickens aren't square or triangular. Chickens don't just lay themselves down on bread, in neat thin slices. Where are the feathers? Where are the feet, or the beak, or the blood and offal? Who dismembered this lumpy, clucking creature and turned it into a geometry lesson?

The plate has scalloped edges that curve upward slightly. The curving indentations on the rim are perfect, having been stamped by a machine, a contraption that is surely a masterpiece of modern engineering, made possible only by very precise computations and the manipulation of Euclidean geometry.

Bright fluorescent bulbs flood the room with a bluish yellow light that makes everyone look slightly jaundiced or just plain ugly. The bulbs are long and tubular: perfect circles stretched out, in which mer­cury vapor atoms go berserk. The fixture into which these tubes are inserted — as two parallel lines that could stretch to infinity—is rect­angular. The other two boys look like zombies. The nuns look very kindly and very stern all at once, and very wrinkled, save for their habits and veils, which are the very definition of order, neatness, and control expressed in cloth.

"Pan Americano, Pan American: how hilarious, this double meaning," I say to myself, thinking of the bread on my plate and one of the two airlines that link Cuba and the United States. I've just flown on the other one, KLM, Royal Dutch Airlines.

This is only one of the many non sequiturs that are racing through my mind as I adjust to my death and rebirth, and prepare for torture.

Having just flown for the first time, I have airplanes on my mind.

Aircraft are all about geometry and symmetry too, and about using exact calculations to transcend our limitations. Airplanes are all about leaving messes behind too, and forgetting they exist. I meditate briefly on the fact that if it were up to me to invent airplanes, there wouldn't ever be any, given my loathing of exact calculations and my inborn distrust of the laws of nature. No airplanes, no way, if it were all up to me. No trian­gular chicken sandwiches either.

"Ay, pero esto es pollo," I yell inside my head, very, very loudly. Oh, but this is chicken.

Talk about a rough landing.

This chicken meal offends me, greatly, and scares the hell out of me. My parents have always been extremely indulgent when it came to my food preferences. I've spent my entire childhood shielded from chicken flesh, which, as every well-educated person knows, is not much different from that of reptiles. Even the not-so-well educated know this, I suspect. After all, is there anyone on earth who hasn't noticed that bird feet are thoroughly reptilian? And how is the taste of reptile meat described by those who have sunk their teeth into frogs, snakes, alligators, and iguanas?

"Tastes just like chicken."

Big problem, this likeness between avian and reptile flesh: It's all part of the evolution that made us humans what we are — so different from birds and snakes, and yet so much like them. Even as a small child, the whole deal bothered me to no end: Eat or be eaten, and beware of serpents in paradise.

Excerpted from Learning to Die in Miami by Carlos Eire. Copyright 2010 by Carlos Eire. Excerpted by permission of Free Press.

Books Featured In This Story

War Against the Idols

The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin

by Carlos M. N. Eire

Paperback, 325 pages | purchase

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Title
War Against the Idols
Subtitle
The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin
Author
Carlos M. N. Eire

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Waiting for Snow in Havana

Confessions of a Cuban Boy

by Carlos M. N. Eire

Paperback, 390 pages | purchase

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Title
Waiting for Snow in Havana
Subtitle
Confessions of a Cuban Boy
Author
Carlos M. N. Eire

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Learning to Die in Miami

Confessions of a Refugee Boy

by Carlos Eire

Hardcover, 307 pages | purchase

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Title
Learning to Die in Miami
Subtitle
Confessions of a Refugee Boy
Author
Carlos Eire

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