A last generation cries, laughs, laments over Cuba
MIAMI – They hold court in the back of the Versailles restaurant in Miami's Little Havana, a group of old Cuban men whose raspy, impassioned voices fill the room.
Presidents and political candidates have passed through, hoping to lure the Cuban-American vote. Journalists come with cameras and microphones, looking for an aging exile to comment on the latest news about the island's communist government. Legendary singers and artists stop in for Cuban coffee.
Miami is the de facto capital of Cuban exiles, and Versailles is their prime meeting spot. The old men call themselves La Pena del Versailles. The Club of Versailles.
Unlike the more traditional penas of Spain and Latin America where artists meet, these men are not poets or musicians. They are retired Realtors and salesman, war veterans and fumigators who gather each afternoon.
Cuba is always a topic of discussion, but these days, the talk veers elsewhere, as well. They talk about taking medicine and feeling old, about families that put their elderly in nursing homes, and feeling disconnected in an age of computers and cell phones.
My grandfather, Manuel Armario, is among them. "I was not meant for these times," he often tells me.
Their generation is shrinking, and the Cuban-American community is changing. Younger generations and newer immigrants tend to be less Republican. Many were born in the United States and have never been to Cuba. Some don't even speak Spanish.
The first arrivals left Cuba thinking their sojourn in Miami would be brief. But years extended into decades and now the likelihood of a return seems a near impossibility.
"There are weeks that six, seven, eight people leave us," says one of the men, Juan Pena.
So they gather here, among a final stronghold of friends.
They call him the president. He's the one who stands every day under a palm tree beside the coffee window. Inside, waitresses in olive green uniforms hurriedly serve churros sprinkled with sugar, ham croquetas, guava pastries and cafe con leche. Outside, men and women wait impatiently in line to place their orders.
Juan Pena arrives around 4 p.m., dressed in a well-ironed collared shirt, a pin with the Cuban emblem on one side, the Cuban and United States flags, joined together as they have not been since 1961, on the other.
He has no political experience, no desire to be officially recognized or to hold elections. He takes his place next to the window and soon a circle of three or four men gather around him.
"We recognize Pena as the president of the Pena del Versailles," says a loud, balding man with a broad smile. "There is no one else. No one has been here as long."
"He's the leader!" another man chimes, as he passes by.
Pena blushes, shaking them away.
Pena was born in Havana 76 years ago. His mother was a Spanish woman from Barcelona who taught bridge at the foreign embassies in Cuba. Pena proudly recalls that she met Maureen O'Hara and once kissed Winston Churchill on the cheek during a visit to the Havana Yacht Club, one of the most extravagant clubs in pre-revolutionary Cuba.
He worked for Cuba's Department of State, issuing passports. He also took classes at the IBM building in Havana, where he became friends with a young woman named Estrella. He would visit her family's home every week or so, as a friend — and always with her mother present.
He would have liked to have a closer relationship, but since Fidel Castro marched victoriously into Havana on New Year's Day in 1959 and declared the triumph of a revolution, Pena had wanted out of Cuba. Six years later, he had finally gained passage to Mexico, where his father had been born.
He left alone, uncertain if he would see Estrella again, but somehow sure it would be many years before he returned.
Pena doesn't like to talk much about the revolution.
"Hate I don't want to have," Pena says.
From Mexico, he went to New Jersey and eventually Puerto Rico. His mother told him Estrellita had sometimes called to ask about him. But after a time, he lost track of her. He wrote a letter to Diario de las Americas in the United States.
"To whom it may interest," he wrote. "If Estrella Alvarez has left Cuba, please contact me. I always had a grand impression of you. Lamentably, the political situation in Cuba is a tragedy, and I had to choose between exile and jail. What happiness it would give me to know you have left that torture. To hear from you."
A letter arrived less than a week later, sent special delivery.
The outside of the envelope had Estrella's name.
"When I saw that name," Pena says, his cheeks turning red, "what could I do?"
A family friend in Chicago had seen the letter and told Estrella. And there began a long series of letters — 50 in all — that ended with a marriage proposal and a new life for the couple in Puerto Rico.
"Those letters," Pena says, "No one has ever been so romantic."
The marriage produced one daughter but fell apart after 18 years. She asked him for a divorce, and he agreed. Thereafter, he devoted his time to caring for his aging mother in Miami Beach.
Each day he made a two-hour trek, taking three buses from their apartment to Versailles in Little Havana.
"It filled a great emptiness," he says.
After his mother died a year ago, his visits to Versailles became longer.
He is, arguably, Versaille's most recognizable patron. He is the one who journalists are most likely to approach, and years of interviews have made him a natural.
On a fall afternoon, TV Marti, the U.S.-government sponsored news program that sends broadcasts to Cuba, asked him about the annual American tradition of eating turkey on Thanksgiving.
"Thanksgiving is fantastic," he told the reporter.
"Do you think it's good that the president pardons the life of a turkey?" she asked.
"Yes, of course," Pena said. "Of course."
"Tell me in a complete sentence," she said.
"I think it's good that they suspend the killing of the turkey," he said.
Pena usually heads to his apartment around 8 p.m. He stays up until 2 or 3 a.m. It's hard to go to sleep before then — his clock is still set by the hours he spent caring for his mother. He reads the day's newspapers and listens to the radio. An easy-listening station helps put him to sleep.
Twice a month, Mike Baralt writes for La Voz de la Calle, The Voice of the Street. In the picture that accompanies his column, Baralt poses with one hand drawn to his chin, his face pensive, eyes tired.
From his seat in the back of Versailles — the group calls this the "Salon de los Pasos Perdidos" or the "Hall of Lost Steps" — Baralt quietly observes the passing political candidate, the businessman stopping in briefly for coffee, the old men discussing baseball, international affairs, the trials of being old (though he says he does not know his own age). And then he shares his musings with the paper's 25,000 subscribers.
The columns "all maintain the same idea," Baralt says, in a soft, scratchy voice. "The fight for the freedom of our country. The unity of exile. The battle for democracy."
Baralt has spoken, briefly, with several U.S. presidents. Bill Clinton struck him as "a very nice person." With Ronald Reagan he had "a small exchange of words." And though he is hardly one to seek out attention, Baralt himself has appeared numerous times on television when there is news from Cuba.
"I saw you on television," family and friends will tell the white-haired and nearly toothless Baralt. He laughs. "I like to be discreet," he says.
In his youth, Baralt was a journalist. At 12, he created his own newspaper, which his grandparents read and affectionately critiqued. Four years later, he was published in a small magazine.
Then he went on to work for two of Cuba's largest pre-revolutionary newspapers, La Informacion and El Pais.
In one, he had a Catholic column. In another, he gave advice. And for a radio station, he reported on the activity at a train station — once, he notes with a laugh, mistakenly reporting that a political leader was traveling with his wife (in truth, it was his mistress).
He can't say what particularly draws him to journalism. It is simply his trade.
"Journalists are not made," he says. "They are born."
In Miami, he worked in restaurants, starting as a busboy and working his way up to manager to support his wife and two children. The Spanish language press in the 1960s was still young and unable to provide him a steady living. He visited Versailles, but mostly he spent time with his family.
Then, 12 years ago, his wife of more than three decades died. When he reaches this part of his story, Baralt clenches his right hand into a fist and lowers it onto his thigh.
After her death, friends suggested that he write a column for La Voz, one of the many small, exile newspapers that rest on a small bookshelf beside a pastry counter. He refused. They insisted.
"Write," the newspaper's editor told him. He put together a few paragraphs and submitted it.
"If you like it, publish it," Baralt said. "If not, throw it away. It doesn't matter to me."
They printed it, and in the course of a dozen years, he has written nearly 300 columns, all by hand.
"They've never criticized me," Baralt says of his readership. "Although, they do ask me to be more aggressive. Some want a more combative journalism. But that doesn't interest me."
He is sometimes political: "There is a project that will permit American tourists to visit Cuba," he wrote in one column. "They will go, as if to a theater, to see in all its reality, a picture titled, `The Destruction of a Country in 51 Years.' And everything will continue, unchanged."
Other times, philosophical: "Man and the planet. After the oil spill, one asks, `Where is man headed? It is time that the destruction of the environment stops, that we sacrifice a bit of the advancements in science and technology. Human life is more important."
Occasionally, somber: "Our friend, Pedro Bringas, a member of the Pena del Versailles, has been admitted to Baptist Hospital. We pray for his swift recovery."
"It has been, perhaps, a medicine," editor Vicente Rodriguez says of Baralt's writing.
A medicine, perhaps, for the other men as well. They never doubt the sacrifice of immigration, but sometimes wonder whether, and how, anyone will remember them.
"Some pessimistic people believe Cuban exiles are not united," Baralt wrote in a recent column. "That they have not accomplished much in 50 years of existence here. We believe they have."
At 94, Pedro Fernandez still dresses impeccably in European suits and ties. He wakes up at 6 each morning and does an hour of exercise. Then he cooks his breakfast, ham and eggs.
"I'm going to show you some exercises," he says.
Fernandez lifts his agile, thin body from a chair and stands firmly, feet shoulder length apart. He's in a gray suit he bought in France — one of 103 suits he owns — and a pair of pointed black-and-white shoes.
He hurls his right, boney fist forward in a punch.
"Huh!" he exhales loudly.
Fernandez is the only surviving member of his family. He has married eight times, but had no children.
"No one," Fernandez says. "I'm alone here."
He says that solitude doesn't bother him. That any of his friends would help him in a moment's notice. But his face sometimes speaks otherwise. His eyes will stare somberly across the rows of tables and the restaurant's green and white checkered tiles. His lithe frame nearly disappears beneath the folds of his opulent suits.
He lives in an apartment about 30 minutes away and makes the drive every day from Hialeah to Little Havana. At Versailles, he hovers from one table to another. He says Versailles is a good place to do business. Sometimes he stands outside, leaning against a wall as cars pass by.
"These days, I've been a bit agitated," he says. He's moving to a new apartment, closer to Versailles, but at the moment all of his belongings are in boxes.
"Look at this shirt," he says. The beige shirt he is wearing, with a black tie and light colored flowers, has a few faint stains. "All the clothes are packed."
Originally from the small town of Rancho Veloz in the northern, central region of Cuba, Fernandez came from a family of successful sugar field and refinery owners. As a teenager, he went to work in the fields, learning about the different types of cane and how to cut, process and refine it.
He eventually became the head of production. Then came the revolution.
"The whole country was finished," Fernandez says. "As if oil was poured over everything."
Fernandez claims he staged an attempt on Fidel Castro's life a few years later. He doesn't disclose many details, but says 10 men died and that he was sentenced to 25 years in jail.
"But I only served 37 months," he says, grinning. "Because I escaped from Fidel."
He created two construction businesses in exile: Hacia Arriba (To the Top) and Mas Todavia Arriba (Even Higher Up).
Even in old age, Fernandez is all about numbers. The value of the car he is trying to sell. The cost of his most recent trip to the drycleaners. The 500 homes he is looking to build with Chinese business partners in the Dominican Republic. He traveled there recently. He says the beach is "precious."
"I brought back a bottle of sand," he says. "People told me it was white sugar."
He has a younger girlfriend he hopes to marry.
"We've been dating for three years," he says, taking out a picture from an inside jacket pocket of the two smiling together. "I sincerely think she loves me very much."
He likes to keep it there, where he says he can keep her in his embrace.
One of the other men talks about his grandchildren.
"What a beautiful thing to say you have grandchildren," Fernandez says. "I don't have anyone."
Fernandez calls out to my grandfather, who is sitting at a nearby table with a group of three or four other men.
"Armario," he says. "Coma here please. Sit down please."
They talk about their eyes. Fernandez says he is going to see a doctor about his. My grandfather says he'll have eye surgery in another month. He talks about the heart attack that nearly killed him two years ago, when he was 79. About having to take pills and feeling weak and not wanting to bother others with his worries.
"I get afraid something will happen to me," my grandfather says. "But I try to avoid calling."
"I'm a bit like you in that," Fernandez says. "I don't like to bother anyone."
My grandfather likes to call Versailles his "office." He jokes that there are three shifts — morning, afternoon and evening. He usually shows up in the late afternoon, staying just until dark.
In Cuba, my grandfather worked for the electric company in Havana. It was an unusual choice for a profession. As a teenager, he saw his younger brother electrocuted after stepping on a downed wire after a hurricane while they were playing baseball with some other boys.
But he has always been a bit brash and unafraid. When revolution gripped the country, he was among those who stood in opposition, convinced that Castro was a communist.
He often tells the story of how he decided on exile after seeing my father, then just a young boy, and his older brother marching outside like members of the revolutionary guard. He feared that staying in Cuba meant a life of indoctrination. And so he fled, bringing his wife and children later.
In exile, he bounced from one career to another. At one point, he had an ice cream truck. It played the Cuban national anthem and had the words "We Will Return" in Spanish on the back.
In old age, he mostly feels disconnected, out of place.
Like many, he says he is waiting for Castro to die before stepping back on Cuban soil. Now they are both old, the ideological war that divides them increasingly outdated, insignificant.
If he returned, what would he return to?
I have been to Cuba and the stories of a glamorous, majestic Havana no longer describe it. His memories lie under layers of paint and dust. Perhaps the only marvel that survives as he remembers it is the ocean.
And so, Versailles may be his closest place to home.