Art and book design by Rolando Estévez

From Poems Returned to Cuba / Poemas que vuelven a Cuba:

Island of Tears
for Rolando Estévez

Don’t cry anymore
it wasn’t your fault
take this handkerchief
stretch it if you want
from Matanzas to Miami
then let it go
so the wind will carry it
very far
to that country
I know exists
made of everything
we’ve lost
of all the tears
that no longer fit
inside you or me

let’s create another country
where breakfast consists
of macaroni and hot sauce
and in the night
lit up by fireflies
you hear Marta Valdés sing,
If you return
return so that life
can flower again…

Illustration by Rolando Estévez

From Everything I Kept / Todo lo que guardé:


I regret many things, but none so much as the time I refused to buy the five red apples for little Amanda in Cuba. The apples were very expensive, it is true. Terribly expensive, even though they had a few bruises. They were for sale in dollars and only I could buy them for her. I thought: Why does she want apples when it is the mango season and everywhere there are plump, juicy, big, yellow mangos falling from the trees? But she wanted apples, the ordinary fruit of cold northern lands. And I would not buy them for her.

Now it is autumn here and apples are everywhere. But I long for mangos.

How sour are the apples that would have made little Amanda so happy.


This happens to me often, too often: I am on my way home, driving down familiar streets, only a few blocks to go, and out of nowhere a merciless hand comes and grips my heart and wrings it dry. I tremble. Fog clouds my eyes. I am no longer sure if I am awake or dreaming. If I die, who will find me? All I can do is pray: Let me return home, I am almost there, please….

I don’t know why this happens. What I know is that, so far, my prayers have been answered. Hardly breathing, I reach my house. And when I open the door, I hear many keys clanging, the keys my ancestors stubbornly took with them to their exile.

Rolando Estévez - Carta

Illustration by Rolando Estévez


My dear friend:

I have the autumn leaves. You have the blue ocean.

I have the wide and terrifying highways of the world. You have the crumbling streets of our tearful island.

I have the fear of a lamb in a den of wolves. You have the courage of a samurai warrior.

I have silver and steel; I have a house too big for me and a calendar marking the days when I will be away. I have tomorrow and tomorrow; I have everything.

You have the witness of your eyes….


Fragment from The Broken Streets of My City / Las calles rotas de mi ciudad:

My city has broken streets.
The earth wants
to take them back.

I saw the sea take back
the streets along the Malecón
weaving up to Linea and G.

Streets that once belonged to the sea.

The sea takes back
what belonged to her.
That is the way of the sea.
The sea remembers
all her stolen shores.
That is the way of the sea.

As the waves rose
tall and magnificent
I sat with three women
who bowed their heads
and sang, “Agua, Yemayá, agua.”

From Two Womans, One Island / Dos mujeres, una isla:

Saying Goodbye to La Habana in May

There’s always that last day in La Habana.
When I want to fix the city in my memory.
I want to take another walk on the Malecón.
I want to feel the sea wetting my eyelids.
I want to run after the little girl who walks on the seawall
clasping her father’s hand, that little girl who was me, long ago.
I want to hear the street musician with his guitar
singing Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You.”
And I want to hear myself sing along with him, I who never sing.

There’s always that last day in La Habana.
When I want to sit in a rocking chair and listen to the rain
pouring despondently from the sky, as if the world were about to end.
I want to watch my neighbor Delia caress the potatoes she’s thankful for,
the red earth of the island coating her fingers with love.
I want to go searching for eggs with my taxi driver, who also needed some,
both of us standing in line for almost an hour at El Ten Cent on 23 and 10,
each emerging with thirty eggs, happy, the best of friends.
There’s always that last day in La Habana.
When I want to lose myself in the hustle and the bustle on Calle Obispo.
A woman sweeps its cobblestones with a broom, and she wears
a flower in her hair, showing off, posing for pictures with the tourists.
I want to feel the palpitations of my heart after too much sweet coffee.
I want to eat an entire plate of ripe plantains, fried in lots of oil.
And not worry about a thing.
There’s always that last day in La Habana.
When I want to fill my suitcase with the orange blossoms of the flamboyant trees.
I want to believe Caro won’t ever die, that she’ll braid her beautiful hair
in the morning and unbraid it at night before she goes to sleep, forever and ever.
All she wants now is for her son, Paco, to return for a visit from Miami.
It’s been eight years, much too long, tell him to come soon, she tells me, soon.

There’s always that last day in La Habana.
On Calle 15, where I once lived, the men are finishing their domino game.
Around the corner, at the Patronato synagogue, our sacred Torah is safe.
We Jews have nothing to fear in Cuba.
Estévez has called from Matanzas to wish me a good trip and make me laugh.
Cristy, who’s never flown anywhere, has promised to recite a rosary, yet again,
so my plane won’t crash, and says, “Don’t worry, Ruti, you’ll get there just fine.”

There’s always that last day in La Habana.
When I want to still be there, but I know I am already far away.
Tomorrow, I will be struggling to find the words to explain how I feel.
This is my last day in La Habana and I have left, even before saying goodbye.

To learn more about Ruth’s work, please visit her academic site.