NERDY BOOK CLUB: INSPIRATION FOR LETTERS FROM CUBA BY RUTH BEHAR
Though my new middle-grade novel takes place in the Cuban countryside in the late 1930s, Letters from Cuba is my heart’s response to the current news of deportations, immigrant travel bans, and international refugee crises. How, I wondered, could I talk back to the cruel anti-immigrant climate of our era? It occurred to me that by setting my novel in another time and place, I could offer a fresh perspective on how we think about immigrants, especially immigrant children. Because seeing immigrant children in cages hurts us all.
I can’t help but be passionate about this subject. I was once an immigrant child from Cuba, and I won’t ever forget that. We came to the United States at a time when Cuban immigrants were welcomed because we were fleeing the autocratic rule of Fidel Castro. Unlike my parents, I learned English when I was young, so I don’t have any trace of a Cuban accent. But I vividly recall how strange and frightening everything seemed when we first arrived. It took constant effort to get the cues right that allowed you to fit in and not be seen as totally “other.”
Being an immigrant once is hard enough. Imagine, then, being an immigrant twice over. That’s what all four of my grandparents experienced. They left Europe for Cuba in the 1920s and 1930s, as poverty, discrimination, and rising anti-Semitism created an unbearable situation for Jews on the eve of World War II. My grandparents created a new life for themselves on a tropical island, expecting to stay forever, but then, in the 1960s, they had to leave their beloved Cuba after the sudden turn to communism erased everything they’d worked for. They resettled in New York, where they worked again to build a new life. They crossed from América to America.