Sandra M. Castillo is a poet and South Florida resident. She was born in Havana, Cuba and emigrated on one of the last Freedom Flights. In this exclusive interview with Nin Andrews, Sandra discusses her life and becoming a writer.
Read the full interview with Sandra M. Castillo below.
Nin Andrews (NA): I would love to start by asking you to post the poem, “Pizza,” here, and then say a little bit about your life story. When did you emigrate from Cuba? How old were you then?
Sandra M. Castillo (SC): Pizza
I sit in East Hialeah,
a white, leather-top stool at Mr. Bee’s Pizza,
a left over, outdoor 50s soda shop
just off Palm Avenue.
These are out days with Father,
and this is his favorite spot.
Mabel and Mitzy shift their weight
to their feet, push into a spin.
Father lets them, so does Mr. Bee,
and we were drink 10-ounce bottles
of Coca Cola with our slices
while Father and Mr. Bee try
to understand each other’s language.
It is our first year in Miami.
Mother work days, Father nights,
and in that small, one bedroom apartment
Tía Estela rented for us a year before we arrived,
we watch American cartoons:
Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry,
run around the orange trees in the backyard,
think the world is 310 East 10th Street,
walks to and from El Caibarien,
Coca Cola, a slice
I think I was born knowing that we would be leave Cuba. Household conversations, particularly hush-toned ones, were always about our departure. It was always a question of the when. My mother’s oldest sister, who had left the island prior to the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, had arrived in Key West in 1958. If you can believe it, she actually traded homes with an American who was traveling through Pinar del Rio and fell in love with an idea of himself in the Caribbean. He offered her his home in Miami in exchange for hers. Sight unseen, she accepted the offer and came on the ferry (Havana-Key West) with her husband, her children and all their possessions. By the time I was born, she was sending my parents Gerber baby food and all things American, including the Sears catalogue.
By 1962, the year I was born, my parents and I had US entry visas. My father’s brother, who had come left Cuba before the United States broke off diplomatic relations with the island, had sent us US entry visas in the hope that we would follow, but my mother refused to leave her parents behind and the visas expired.
Then, in September of 1965, Fidel Castro stood at La Plaza de la Revolucion and made an unexpected announcement. Beginning in October of 1965, the Port of Camarioca would be open to Cubans wishing to leave the island. Castro also said the port would be open to anyone wishing to go pick up their relatives. Cubans who opted to leave the island, however, were effectively forfeiting their property and possessions to the Castro government. This exodus did not last. It did, however, lead to conversations between the United States and Cuba, which ultimately negotiated what became known as The Freedom Flights. These twice-a-day-flights were made possible via diplomatic talks as the Johnson administration wanted an orderly exodus. As such, specific criteria was set in place. In order for a family to leave the island via these flights, that family had to be claimed from the United States by a US citizen who agreed to be financially responsible for those family members. Once that paperwork was completed, that given family (in Cuba) was assigned an exit number. By the time our number (160,633) came up, my grandparents had passed away. We arrived in the United States in the summer of 1970: my parents, my twin sisters, who were four and me. I was eight years old.
NA: And you grew up in the shadow of the Revolution?
SC: I cannot say that it was an innocent time because there was always an enormous tension just underneath the surface, and it was always palatable. My Uncle Berto, who lived with us, was an amateur photographer. In the early years of the Cuban Revolution, he photographed a Russian ship at the Port of Habana. This automatically made him a political suspect. This led to his imprisonment. In 1966, the military police came to our house and after going through the entire house and confiscating cameras, photographs and rolls of undeveloped film, dragged my uncle away. It was months before we knew what had become of him, and his was not an exception–that was the case for many Cubans. He was held in various different jails throughout the island. He was accused of being a member of the CIA and was facing a death sentence. Though I was only four years old, I remember the day he was taken, and even in recalling that experience, I can sense the fear of those years. As child, I think I internalized it all. It did not help that we were being watched and monitored. There were neighborhood watch groups on every block. They were called Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), and they functioned as the eyes and ears of the Revolution. It was a system of collective surveillance that allowed the Castro government to protect the revolution and expose spies and traitors among the citizenry, but it pit neighbor against neighbor as each CDR was responsible for keeping detailed records of the activities as well as the comings and goings of each member of each households on the block. It did not take much to be reported to the military police.
NA: In your poems, I feel a part of you keeps going back to Cuba, in memory if not in reality. It’s as if you see Cuba, or the Cuban you, as your true self. In the poem, “Unearthing the Remains,” for example, you call your American self, the Other. You write:
“Separated by the Caribbean, secret underwater mines,
a revolution, ninety miles of nostalgia, a new language,
I no longer remembered myself.
I had become someone else, the Other,
a stranger, a skeleton of whom I might have been.”
SC: As a Cuban exile, cut off from the past for so many years, I had all these Cuban memories that somehow did not belong to the person I became, and I was fascinated with the idea of going back to the island to reclaim the past, the person that I was there, even the years I remembered as having happened to a different me. Though I will admit, it took me years to feel brave enough to return. But for me, that first visit, and the many that came after that, enabled me to better understand the exile experience.
Though I have lived more than half my life outside of my homeland, I still feel connected to that island. In dreams, I walk the streets of Havana and see myself in a place I will never truly inhabit. Miami, however, by virtue of its geographical and cultural proximity, has always been a bridge to Cuba. As such, I would have to say that growing up Cuban in Miami intensified both my fascination with all things Cuban, as well as my sense of disconnect.
I am haunted by the idea that historical events beyond my control changed (in significant ways) the person I was going to be, and in essence, defined me, so I am fascinated by the notion that I might have been a completely different person had I had a Cuban life. Thus, a lot of my work deals with issues of history and memory and identity.
As a writer, I remain haunted by the weight of the past, this notion of home as an abstraction, an imagined place that I never really knew.
NA: I love all your family stories, all the names of relatives. I wondered at times if you might include a family tree. Your family seems like an endless source of inspiration. Are there other poets or artists in your family?
SC: It is true—I have written a great deal about my extended family. I have told their stories, not just for those of us who left the island, but for those who we left behind, those we never saw again, those we never knew, and like Kerouac before me, everything I have written is true, and it reflects a history both personal and universal.
I have always been interested in genealogy, but because the island was not accessible and because when we left in the summer of 1970, we were only allowed to take the clothes we were wearing and a change of clothing, I did not actually have family records nor photographs. I have used language to collect the past, and the few photographs that I do have are those sent to the United States in letters long before we ever arrived.
My visits to the island, beginning in 1994, were part of an emotional journey, if not a pilgrimage to the land of my ancestors, and believe or not, I am still working on that family tree beyond my great-great grandparents. I, have, however, learned that I am a descendent of the father of the Republic: Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, who began the struggle for Cuban independence in 1868.
NA: Sometimes I feel as if you are looking at your past through photographs, as in the poem, “The Last Photo of the Real Me, circa 1966.” I wonder if you could comment on that.
SC: My Uncle Berto was an avid photographer and his black and white photos of those years hung in our bathroom, which he turned into his darkroom. Even as a child, I was fascinated with the idea of capturing time, a moment, a place. I think of memory like that. Not as moving pictures, but still frames. I think my mind works like his, and I have come to think that I am using language to capture, not just the past, but moments in time.
NA: You have a lovely poem dedicated to Richard Blanco. Is he a source of inspiration for you?
SC: Richard Blanco was my student. He spent two semesters in my poetry workshop. My poems to him and about him were conversations between poets, conversations that extended beyond the classroom to the written form. As Cuban-American poets, we had similar experiences—growing up Cuban in Miami, so ours was a written dialogue, which proved to be quite productive.
NA: I also admire your love poems, especially “Letter to You in Seclusion.” It’s both painful and gorgeous at the same time. It reminds me of your poems about Cuba—in both you are writing of a place or person you no longer have. Did you link those two in your mind?
SC: “Letter to You in Your Seclusion” is a very personal poem for me. One I have never read out loud or talked about. It is certainly about loss, and heartbreak so in that respect, it is very much like my poems about Cuba as it focuses on something lost or unreachable. But I find that while there are things I could never speak to or about, I can always write about it.
NA: Tell me about your sources of inspiration.
SC: Jack Kerouac once said, “I am made of loss,” but he also said, “I accept lossness forever.” I think about such profound sentiments a great deal, and I would have to say his work, particularly Visions of Cody and On the Road, his ability to render details, moments, to capture a place and time, as well as his sense of loss and displacement have always moved me, and in many ways have shaped my own work, for I, too, am fascinated by the history of place. In my case, that happens to be the island where I was born.
I think about exile literature in that same context, for it attempts to traverse those two points, establishing a dialogue, a living dynamic between two polarities. This is but the reality of being and living in exile. As a Cuban-American, I find that I vacillate between such profound sentiments though I do not think the notion of loss is exclusive to exiles. I do feel, however, that such thoughts capture what is at the center of exile literature, this complex persona struggling between the self and the other, between what was and what is, as well as what could have been.
Kerouac, to whom English was a second language, never escaped his own sense of foreigness, and this regard, he, too, was a child of exile. French-Canadian by descent, American by geography, he was attempting to shape and define his world through his adopted language.
NA: I love the title of this book. When did you decide that this was your title?
SC: I wanted the title of the collection to encapsulate the book, and what better title than one that addresses culture and history than by talking about food? White rice and black beans, a Cuban staple, certainly, but I wanted to address the legacy of Spanish colonization and the racism that came with the arrival of Columbus, which perversely extended itself into the simplest element of a culture: what we eat. As Cubans, ours is and has always been a struggle to define ourselves on our own terms, if not to decide how we deal with the weight of the past.
NA: I wondered if you could say a few words about your writing process. When you write, and whether you have any rituals around your writing. And how a book takes shape for you.
SC: There are poems that come to me as a glimmer of an idea, a fragment that I explore as part of the writing process because I am following the idea to where it wants to go. Other poems come as visuals, as mental photographs, snapshots of a time or place that I focus on and recreate with language. But I also keep a journal. I collect images, ideas for future poems, and I work from it and off of it regularly, so I am always writing.
For me, a book needs an overarching theme. That theme and its subsets become the scaffolding for a collection. That focus is what enables me to organize the sections and choose a title. For me, the title of a collection informs the reader, clues him/her about the themes I am working with. Such is certainly the case with Eating Moors and Christians in which I use food to address a legacy of colonialism.
NA: Maybe we could close with a poem of your choice from this book?
with respect for Omar Lara
I am the six-year old in the center, the timekeeper in the Havana blue dress, waving as if to say Adios Habana, the birthday girl sitting on the lacquer-black coffee table Mother dragged out to el portal for the afternoon, two years before we lose everything. But there is no way of knowing any of this as Tío Berto measures the existing light, the distance between me and the inevitable, mapping our lives with photographs.
The red and green croto plants framing the shot: Teroina’s house behind me, its wooden-green Caribbean windows shut tight, a skeleton inside, Dyango singing between our lives about geography or distance, about what you cannot forget—the color of grief—language pressed between flesh and nostalgia as she wastes away from love or cancer, the past lost or unreachable.
Here, at the edge of the afternoon, I cast my own shadow, myself as Other, the dark daguerreotypes de mis antepasados, cafetaléros, Españoles, Isleños, generaciones perdidas, not yet lost, destroyed, cut into fragments, the mosaic pieces of the past, our ancestry, along with the passport pictures de mi Abuela Isabel, mi Abuelo Leopoldo, that might expose those who will choose to stay behind, imagining that they will always be themselves here, where everything is familiar and that we will never return to this life, this long summer house, so haunted with whispers, so filled with the scent of olive oil and garlic, to find how little survives.
Chilean poet Omar Lara, whose work, inspired me to write this poem, was, himself, forced into exile after being imprisoned in the wake of the September 11, 1973 coup that put Augusto Pinochet in power. There was something so profoundly haunting about Lara’s work, about his ability to capture time and place at a critical time in Chilean history that fascinated me. I was also thinking about Chilean poet Juan Luis Martínez: “El niño que yo era/ se extravió en el bosque/ y ahora el bosque tiene mi edad,” which translates into “The child I once was got lost in the woods, and now, the woods and I are one.” To me, the work of Chilean writers, like Lara and Martinez, are suggesting a oneness with history and the past, as well as with sorrow.