LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Comedian Chris Garcia has a new podcast that's very personal. It's a loving tribute to his father, who fled communist Cuba and built a life for his young family in LA.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "SCATTERED")
CHRIS GARCIA: Even in his free time, he was always making things. He made a jewelry press, a mechanical orange peeler. He would've killed it on "Gilligan's Island." He would've been like, give me two coconuts and a shoelace, and I'll make you a cellphone tower.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The podcast is called "Scattered." And while some of it is funny, it goes where Chris Garcia couldn't go after his father developed Alzheimer's - into the past.
Chris Garcia joins us now from NPR West. Welcome to the program.
GARCIA: Thanks, Lulu.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: This podcast is ostensibly about your father, and I do want to talk about him. But it is also about - it struck me - loss, you know, of memory, of place, even of time.
GARCIA: Yeah. I mean, my father passed away two years ago, you know? And he was a big impact on my life, obviously, and a big part of my stand-up comedy set, you know? I'd always talked about him since the very beginning. And when he died, it left a big hole in my life. And I had a lot of grief, and I didn't quite know what to do with it.
And I realized I didn't know all that much about my dad. Like, I knew about his life before he came to the United States, and it kind of set me on this journey to find out about him a little more. And in a way - in this kind of beautiful way, although it's been hard and I've missed him, I feel like I've kept him alive, in a way.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. It's like a memoir, almost - a podcast memoir of your...
GARCIA: Yeah, it's a memoir of my dad's life.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The exile of Cubans from the island after the revolution is the great cataclysm in our community. I'm Cuban as well. It's essentially a schism where families were separated by politics and sort of physically scattered. Growing up, how did you understand it?
GARCIA: You know, I understood that it was really difficult for them. But the details of it - my parents always kind of guarded me from it. They didn't really tell me exactly what went - what they went through. I knew some things that they - that it was - my dad was in a work camp for a little while and stuff like that. But they never went into the details of it. And I knew that my dad had scars on his hands and up his arms and stuff like that, but I never really knew why. And I think maybe to protect me - and maybe men of that generation didn't really share their emotions with their kids like that, you know? Like, my dad certainly kept me from that stuff. And it's - I understand why (laughter).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah - when you know that, like, that generation kept so many secrets because they had to, in many ways.
GARCIA: Yeah, they had to. I mean, I think they also wanted to. I think it's something they wanted to leave behind when they left Cuba and all that trauma. They wanted to start a new life in the United States or wherever they immigrated to. And so they'd rather not remember it.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "SCATTERED")
GARCIA: My dad was sent to a camp about 30 miles east of Havana. Ernesto (ph) says every day was just cut cane, throw it on a cart, wheel it away. Cut cane, throw it on a cart, wheel it away. And I know, I know Ernesto is not my dad. And I can't say that they experienced the exact same thing. But this is the closest I've come to knowing my dad's own story. I see my dad under the hot Caribbean sun, his active mind idle, his hands, which had once been busy building gadgets, now raw from cutting cane. I picture him restless, sleepless, getting skinnier and skinnier.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Your father got released from the camp because his sister managed to get a doctor to issue a fake medical waiver saying he was having a nervous breakdown. And he was treated then at a mental asylum called Mazorra. Tell us about that place.
GARCIA: It has kind of a boogie-monster element to it. Everyone knows it as this kind of terrible place.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, they used electric shock and all these other technologies.
GARCIA: And without anesthetic for some people in some cases. So my dad was an outpatient there. So after he left the camp, he would go there a couple times a week for months. And you know, I was always under the impression that it was punitive. It was to punish him for wanting to leave the island and for leaving the camps early. But after talking to professor Jenny Lambe, who lives in Rhode Island, who's kind of - she's a specialist on Mazorra and everything - I learned that it's a little more complicated than that - that it may have actually helped treat him, as well.
So it's interesting being a Cuban American 'cause we - usually, the generation - the diaspora my parents came from - it's always bad. Cuba's the devil, you know? It's - they always have such bad impressions of it. But it's not always that way. And so it's complicated and nuanced. And so I learned that Mazorra could've been bad, but it also ultimately helped my father.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I'm wondering, after you've done this, do you feel like you understand your family better now, and yourself?
GARCIA: Yeah, I understand it so much. I mean, there's the generational trauma where there's anxiety. You know, my parents - if the doorbell rang, they would freak out, and now I know why. And now I know why I get some anxiety myself. It's been passed down.
I mean, I eat quickly. I am a really fast eater. And it's - when I was a kid, my parents would be like, all right. You better eat this before the government takes it away, you know (laughter)? And now I understand this context.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Has your family heard it? And what do they think?
GARCIA: You know, it's really - that's what makes it really special to me - is that my sister and my mom really love it. I mean, my mom loves it 'cause she's a ham, and she loves hearing her own voice. And she's like, I'm a star.
GARCIA: And also, my - I mean, some things are very difficult to rehear for them. And honestly, I've gotten scared that this will retraumatize my family. But I think, in all, they really think it's a beautiful memoir to my dad who, you know, did not live a super remarkable life, a very known life that would make a movie. He's not, like, a movie star or anyone. He doesn't have a Wikipedia page or anything. But he's still a wonderful man that people should know about. And I know my family and my mom and my sister are very proud of him, as am I.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why'd you call it "Scattered?"
GARCIA: Well, a couple different reasons - they hit me one day. You know, my dad's dying wish was to be scattered along the coast of Cuba. And also, it's left me scattered (laughter). My dad's death has kind of left me all over the place and not knowing what to do. So I feel like it's just a good word that encapsulates all of that.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Chris Garcia's new podcast is called "Scattered."
Thank you very much.
GARCIA: Thank you so much for having me, Lulu. I really appreciate it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLEASE WON'T PLEASE")
HELADO NEGRO: (Singing) Our lives on fire just to see if anyone will come rescue what's left of me.
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