Washington Post

A history of anti-Hispanic bigotry in the United States

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This animus bubbles up frequently, with devastating results.

Never before have things seemed so hard for Hispanics. The signals are stark and dire: A drowned father, cradling a dead daughter. A lone mother, defending herself against an armed Border Patrol agent, with a terrified toddler at her side. A diatribe hectoring whites to purge the country of a rising brown tide. A Walmart in El Paso, strewn with the dead. Caravans of the hopeful willing to suffer indignities, splinter their families, cower in cages, risk life itself for a distant dream. And looming over it all: a president who shrugs when a voice in the crowd shouts , “ Shoot them! ” and who tells Hispanics with roots in this country to go back to the cesspools where they belong. The ground seems to have shifted in this land of the huddled masses.

Read the full article at The Washington Post

Review of “The Gods of Tango”

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In a mean era for the tango — in the days of papal condemnation, of Queen Mary’s censure — De Robertis sets her potboiler of a novel, “The Gods of Tango.” And it is into the overcrowded conventillos of turn-of-the-century Buenos Aires, those squalid slums filled with luckless immigrants and the stench of plonk, sweat and foul meat, that she thrusts her virginal heroine, a 17-year-old Italian bride named Leda. Read the review.

Why Nigeria’s kidnapped schoolgirls are worth more than gold

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One of Nigeria’s newest businessman, a slave trafficker for the modern age said: “I will marry out a female at 12; I will do same for a nine year old girl like it was done on my own mother. . . . I am the one that captured your girls and I will sell them in the market. I have my own market of selling people; it is the owner that instructed me to sell. Yes, I will sell the girls, people, I am selling the girls like Allah said, until we soak the ground of Nigeria with infidels’ blood.”

Such is the message to us from Abubakar Shekau, the fiery leader of Boko Haram, a militant Islamist organization whose very name means “Western education is forbidden.” Today, one month after the abduction of more than 200 girls from a Christian boarding school — and a few days after the dissemination of a video showing those girls as cowed, bewildered hostages “converted” to Islam — a worldwide campaign has been mobilized to save them from being sold off as sexual chattel in neighboring Chad, Cameroon and Niger.

How is their rescue being mobilized? Read more here.

Nadine Gordimer reflects on her Writing Life. With a profile by Marie Arana.

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Nadine Gordimer’s essay appeared in The Washington Post as part of Marie’s Book World series, “The Writing Life.”  Scroll to the bottom to read Marie’s profile of the writer. The essay and profile can be found in the book, “The Writing Life.”

August 5, 2001 Sunday 

A Nobel Prize-winner, on being a product of a dwelling place — its conflicts and resolutions.




   People always want to know when and where you write. As if there’s a secret methodology to be followed. It has never seemed to me to matter to the work — which is the writer’s “essential gesture” (I quote Roland Barthes), the hand held out for society to grasp — whether the creator writes at noon or midnight, in a cork-lined room as Proust did or a shed as Amoz Oz did in his early days.
   Perhaps the questioner is more than just curious, yearning for a jealously kept prescription on how to be a writer. There is none. Writing is the one “profession” for which there is no professional training: “Creative” writing courses can teach the aspirant only to look at her or his writing critically, not how to create. The only school for a writer is the library — reading, reading. A journey through realms of how far, wide and deep writing can venture in the endless perspectives of human life. Learning from other writers’ perceptions that you have to find your way to yours, at the urge of the most powerful sense of yourself — creativity. Apart from that, you’re on your own.
   Ours is the most solitary of occupations; the only comparison I can think of is the keeper of a lighthouse. But the analogy mustn’t go too far; we do not cast the beam of light that will save the individual, or the world, from coming to grief on the rocks.
   Another standard inquiry put to fiction writers: What is your message? Milan Kundera has provided the response: “A novel searches and poses questions. . . . The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything. It does not prescribe or proscribe answers.” We have the right and the obligation of honesty to imply moral judgments we know that people have, as exemplified in our fictional characters, because — I paraphrase Goethe — wherever the writer thrusts a hand deep into society, the world, something of the truth will come up. The writer stands before what has been dredged to light just as the reader will; what either makes of it will be individual moral judgment: her or his, the writer’s or reader’s, self-message.
   That is the low-wattage beam I would claim for my own writings cast from my lighthouse, and for those of the great writers who have illuminated my life. For me, writing has been and is an exploration of life. That is why my novels and stories are what I call open-ended: I’ve taken up an invention of human beings at some point in their lives, and set them down again living at some other point. My novel written in the 1980s, July’s People, ends with a central character, a woman, wading through a shallow river, running from a situation. To what? I am often asked. The answer is I don’t know.
The only clues I have, and pass on for the reader in the text of the novel, are the social and historical context, the conflicting threats and pressures, personal and aleatory, of a time and place that would make up her options — what she could or might attempt next. The sole conclusion was one that I myself could come to, after I had re-read the novel (for a writer becomes a reader when the publisher’s proofs arrive): Crossing through the water was some kind of baptism into a new situation, new life, however uncertain, hazardous, even unimaginable in the light of how she had lived thus far.
   One can’t even say that an individual death is the end of a story. What about the consequences the absence is going to have for others?
   What about the aftermath of a political and societal conflict apparently resolved, in a novel whose final page leaves the men and women, the country, the cities, the children born to these, at that point? Again, the reader has the narrative and text that have gone before, to waken his or her own awareness, his or her own questioning of self and society.
   If the writer does not provide answers, is he or she absolved from the ordinary human responsibility of engagement with society (apart from the “essential gesture,” extended through literature)?
   Does the writer serve the raison d’etre that every human being must decide for the self, by asserting the exploration of the word as the end and not the means of the writer’s being? “Words became my dwelling place.” The great Mexican poet and writer Octavio Paz wrote this; but in his superb life’s work, on his intellectual journey, he invaded that place. He also wrote, “I learnt that politics is not only action but participation, it is not a matter of changing men but accompanying them, being one of them.” The reason-to-be was a bringing together of the dwelling place of the artist and the clamorous world that surrounded it.
   The great Gunter Grass told me: “My professional life, my writing, all the things that interest me, have taught me that I cannot freely choose my subjects. For the most part, my subjects were assigned to me by German history, by the war that was criminally started and conducted, and by the never-ending consequences of that era. Thus my books are fatally linked to these subjects, and I am not the only one who has had this experience.”
   He certainly is not the only one.
   In Europe, the United States, Latin America, China, Japan, Africa — where in the world could this not be so? None of us can “choose our subjects” free of the contexts that contain our lives, shape our thoughts, influence every aspect of our existence. (Even the fantasy of space fiction is an alternative to the known, the writer’s imaginative reaction to it.) Could Philip Roth erase the tattoo of the Nazi camps from under the skin of his characters? Can Israeli writers, Palestinian writers, now “choose” not to feel the tragic conflict between their people burning the dwelling place of words? Could Kenzaburo Oe create characters that do not bear the gene of consciousness implanted by Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Could Czeslaw Milosz, living through revolution and exile, not have to ask himself in his poem “Dedication,” “What is poetry, which does not save/ Nations or people?” Could Chinua Achebe’s characters not have in their bloodstream the strain of a civil war in Nigeria? In Africa, the experiences of colonialism, its apogee, apartheid, post-colonialism and new-nation conflicts have been a powerful collective consciousness in African writers, black and white. And the increasing interconsciousness, the realization that what happens somewhere in the world is just one manifestation of what is happening subliminally, everywhere — the epic of emigration, immigration, the world-wanderings of new refugees and exiles, political and economic, for example — is a fatal linkage. Not “fatal” in the deathly sense, but in that of inescapable awareness in the writer.
   However, when a country has come through long conflict and its resolution, its writers are assumed to have lost their “subject.” We in South Africa are challenged — top of the list in journalists’ interviews — “So what are you going to write about now that apartheid has gone?”
   Apartheid was a plan of social engineering, and its novels, stories, poetry and plays were an exploration of how people thought and lived, their ultimate humanity out of reach of extinction. Life did not end with apartheid; it began, from that human base. “The new situation must bring new subjects” — Czech writer Ivan Klima wrote this, in exile, and out of the breakup of his country. In South Africa there is not breakup and its violent consequences, but rather a difficult and extraordinary bringing together of what was divided. The new subjects, some wonderful, some dismaying, have scarcely had time to choose us.
   “What do we know/ But that we face/ One another in this place” — William Butler Yeats. That is surely the subject that in the dwelling place of words, everywhere, chooses the writer. *


                                                                                                                                                            The Washington Post

August 5, 2001 Sunday 

Final Edition

By Marie Arana
   Few citizens of the republic of letters have as complicated a relationship with the word as Nadine Gordimer does. She is a novelist of considerable subtlety and skill. But she is also an activist, a human Geiger counter, a moral force for South Africa, not only during its most oppressive hour, but now, as it steps from the rubble of apartheid to try its fortunes as a fledgling democracy. Gordimer has lived through her country’s fractious history and forged from it novels that do more than mirror a landscape — they dig down like weapons and strike elemental rock.
   She is not an easygoing person; she has none of the affable approachability you might expect from a woman who once had dancing and acting ambitions. She is intensely private, prickles at interviews, rejects amiable preambles, cuts questions to the quick. “Artists often try many things before they settle down to do what they do well,” she says when asked about the dancing. “It’s a kind of showing off, that’s all. . . . Eventually they develop one thing. In my case I developed the writing.”
   Gordimer was born in 1923, the daughter of Jewish immigrants, and grew up in the South African mining town of Springs. Her father had come from Latvia at the age of 13, “a premature man,” and went into the jewelry business. Her maternal grandparents moved from London when her mother was 6, to pursue a life in the diamond trade. “My roots are effectively South African,” she says, for she had little or no contact with her European relations.
   She began to write children’s stories at the age of 9 and gathered them up in a newspaper she fashioned daily for herself. She attended a Catholic convent until she was “taken out” at the age of 11, an event she will not discuss. At 15, she published her first short story in a South African magazine. For a brief time in her twenties, she studied at the University of Witwatersrand. But that is the extent of Gordimer’s formal education. “I am an autodidact,” she says crisply. “The library was my education. I was taught by the literary imaginations of others. It’s impossible to learn any other way.”
   First published in the New Yorker in 1949, she now has more than 200 short stories and 13 novels to her name, and in late September will publish The Pickup, a novel about the love between the daughter of a white South African banker and an illegal immigrant from a poor Arab country. Among her many works (once banned in South Africa) are A Guest of Honour, The Conservationist, July’s People and A Sport of Nature. Ten years ago, she was awarded the Nobel Prize.
   Seamus Heaney has called her “one of the guerrillas of the imagination,” in reference, surely, to her stubborn insistence on focusing her literature tightly on racism, even during the perilous days when friends were in prison, Soweto was a powderkeg, and censorship reigned. But when asked if she is a political writer with a mission at hand, she replies, “Not at all. Writing is an exploration of life. If you happen to live in the milieu of conflict, that obviously is what life means to you, and that is what you will explore. . . . I’m actually looking forward to the next few years in my country, after the censorship and oppression. There will be extraordinary stories out of the present. This is the exciting time.”
— Marie Arana

Marie reviews “Jack 1939”

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I once heard a master of suspense say that the craft was actually quite simple: Take a perfectly normal situation, a trope readers know well, then throw in a wild “what if?” What if your mild-mannered, homebody spouse — so familiar to you — is the midnight stalker in the black balaclava? What if the buttoned-down banker, the one who always takes home the civic awards, is knee deep in sex and depravity? What if your president — he who died martyred and tended to be a wee sickly — was a thrill-seeking spy at a pivotal time in history?

It’s a lesson Francine Mathews seems to have learned well.

Her “Jack 1939” is most assuredly a work of fiction, but it takes skeins of history we all know well — Churchill’s England, Hitler’s Germany, Roosevelt’s White House, the rise of the Kennedy family fortunes — and ravels a hair-raising tale.

In it, John F. Kennedy is young Jack, a junior at Harvard languishing in the Mayo Clinic and eager to board the Queen Mary for a much-needed rest in England. His father, Joe Kennedy, is the ambassador to the Court of St. James; his father’s rival, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, is angling for a third term; Hitler is busily cooking up a pact with Stalin; Himmler is madly devising the Final Solution; and war is in the air. But Jack is less driven by battle drums than a broken heart. The girl of his dreams has just thrown him over, and he is off to to Europe to stanch the wounds. Maybe even write his Harvard thesis. So far, all this is true. We’re in the comfortable zone of history.

Read the full review

The Queen’s Lover.

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A society dame with the shrill voice of a street vendor hides her lover upstairs, then steals up for nocturnal raptures. A gay king who can’t stomach his queen sends his most trusted courtier to impregnate her. A palace congested with vermin and lice harbors lamb chops and cakes tucked deep into the upholstery. A queen fleeing the scourge of revolution relies on a careless hairdresser to get her to safety. What’s not to love about history!

History is what you get in Francine du Plessix Gray’s deeply intelligent novel “The Queen’s Lover.” Not history of the Sofia Coppola variety, mind you, in which Marie Antoinette is a bubblehead, giggling her way through a fog of silliness until her head is removed from the finery. This is History with a capital H, served up with relish. Packed with names, dates and research and bristling with a lively correspondence, du Plessix Gray’s book gives us fiction with a full dose of fact.

Read the full article

On Immigrant Culture

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Three marielitos, three manifest destinies for immigrants of cuban boatlift, freedom rings — in distinctly different tones.

By Marie Arana-Ward, Washington Post Staff Writer.

Every year about now, the memories rush back. The knock at the door. The police. The neighbors shrieking “Escoria! Gusano!” (“Scum! Worm!”) and wielding rocks. The bumpy bus ride through the Cuban countryside to the port of Mariel. The regiments of rifle-toting guards. The fierce-faced dogs. The biblical mass of humanity huddled beneath the hiss of a nearby electric plant. And then the heart-stopping sight of thousands of American boats bobbing in the water, waiting.

Sixteen years ago this summer, the Mariel boatlift brought 125,000 Cubans to the United States in one of the most remarkable waves of immigration in recent U.S. history. It began when a driver seeking asylum rammed his van through the gates of the Peruvian Embassy in Havana on April 1, 1980. A fight broke out. A guard was shot. When Fidel Castro pulled Cuban security out of the area, 10,000 Cubans flooded the embassy grounds, clamoring to leave. Furious, Castro opened the borders and announced that anyone could go. American adventurers took to their boats, descending on Cuba by the thousands, eager to be saviors of the oppressed.

The Freedom Flotilla, President Jimmy Carter called it, and it was an invitation as clear and open as the one carved in stone: “Give me your tired, your poor . . . the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” The new arrivals poured into Florida, jamming immigration facilities, straining police and welfare services and giving Americans one less reason to reelect their president.

The lives of Eduardo Barada, Pedro Santa Cruz and Carlos Buergos converged in 1980 when each boarded a boat bound for Florida with nothing but the clothes on his back. Months later, fate brought them to the streets of Washington. They were led to the same destination, given the same chance to reinvent themselves. And yet, somewhere in the decade and a half between youth and middle age, they took divergent paths. Barada today is a radiantly successful entrepreneur. Santa Cruz has worked in dozens of jobs and found little reward. Buergos’s drug-soaked trajectory has led him to forfeit the very freedom he thought he had won in coming to this country, a paradox he contemplates in prison now.

“America,” George Santayana said, “is the greatest of opportunities and the worst of influences.” For many Marielitos, life has been good and work rewarding, but for just as many, the road has been bewildering and hard.

By any measure of success — money, love, status — the three men chronicled here occupy points far from one another on the grand American spectrum. Together, they offer a window on the perils and possibilities of immigrant life in the 1990s. Each has struggled, found love, encountered his weaknesses and strengths and discovered that in undertaking to become an American — a voyage every bit as stormy as the 90 miles from Mariel — he has traveled farther than he ever dreamed. The Convict

Although Castro implied that anyone who wanted to leave Cuba was either criminal or insane, most Marielitos were law-abiding citizens who passed themselves off as “antisocials” to qualify for the exodus. Of the 125,000 who came, according to Tomas Curi of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the great majority hailed from ordinary lives in Cuba and proceeded to ordinary lives in the United States. A small fraction of them — about 2,500 — were criminals and mental cases thrown into the mix by Castro.

One of those was Carlos Buergos, eldest son of a stevedore, a wiry, blue-eyed descendant of Spaniards — happy-go-lucky guy and convicted thief. He was hardly 25 when he clambered onto Florida soil but already had accumulated a history of misadventure.

His family was hardly the reason. His parents had raised nine children, a tightly knit, responsible group of siblings (“I was the only bad one”). But by the time America got him, he had fought in the war in Angola, been put in prison for stealing and butchering horses, and then, on his release, been imprisoned again for attempting to escape Cuba. He was exactly the kind of Cuban that Castro did not want.

On May 9, 1980 — one year into his 12-year sentence — Buergos’s prison threw open its doors, and he was taken to the port of Mariel. There, with very little ado, his wildest dream came true: He was put on a cargo boat bound for Key West. Forty-eight hours later — sunburned, sun-blind and dehydrated — he was whisked through a processing center with thousands of other Marielitos and put on a bus to Fort Chaffee, a military base in Arkansas. Five months later, he was in Washington, free to go out into the October afternoon. The Functionary

Pedro Santa Cruz, a 25-year-old accountant in Havana’s transportation department, got his first American break in the Krome detention camp at the edge of the Everglades. There he was spotted by Penn Kemble, now deputy director of the U.S. Information Agency, then doing research on Cuba’s war in Angola. “I was looking for Afro-Cubans. . . . There were not a lot of blacks in the Mariel camps. Pedro was a real black. He stood out.”

Kemble befriended him. “He was depressed and didn’t think he’d ever get out. But he was very smart. And well-educated, well-versed in world affairs.”

In fact, Santa Cruz had graduated second in his high school class and had garnered honors at Jose Marti University. The only child of a seamstress, he was one of nine inhabitants in the two-room house of his mother’s second husband, a gas station attendant who adopted him as his own.

He held several government jobs, but he never made much headway because he refused to join the Communist Party. “I was having trouble with the revolution,’ ” he says in a lilting Cuban Spanish.

When the Mariel expulsion began, he got a call from an old professor. ” You haven’t built a good political base, Pedro,’ he told me. The best thing you can do for yourself is go.’ ” He began soliciting letters from friendly officials who were willing to lie on his behalf and say that he was antisocial, lazy and a liability to Cuba. He presented the papers to the police; two days later, a bus appeared at his door.

In another week, he found himself incarcerated at the Krome camp. As the weeks dragged on, he tried to forget his anxieties by helping fellow Cubans with their paperwork. When Kemble came to his tent asking about Angola, he decided to help him, too.

Kemble didn’t forget Pedro Santa Cruz. Months later, he offered to be his sponsor. By September, Santa Cruz was in Kemble’s home, scratching his head over the electric can opener and wondering how he would ever learn which bus to catch. The Dreamer

Eduardo Barada crossed to Florida on a 50-foot shrimp boat as a storm whipped the sea into a fury, sending streams of salt water across the deck. When he looked down, there was little left of his well-worn shoes. “I took them off and threw them overboard,” he says. “The next day, I arrived in the United States barefoot, walked onto my first airplane barefoot and stayed barefoot for the full first two weeks of my American life.

“My great good luck was to have grown up in Cuba,” he says. “It taught me discipline.” When he was 7, his mother died, and his father placed him in an orphanage. For the next 10 years, he was a ward of the Cuban state. When he graduated at 18, he got a clerical job and began dreaming about owning his own business. “Many of us were frustrated by the communist system, but of course we never said that out loud. And life went on. I got married; we had a baby. But one Sunday when I was 23, I was out having lunch with friends and someone mentioned that they were taking applications at Mariel. I said: That’s it. Let’s go.’ ”

His young wife was unwilling. They were black, and she had heard things about the way black people were treated in the United States. But she didn’t try to stop him, and he left, thinking that someday she would follow.

Barada convinced Cuban officials that he was a drug addict. They took him in one of the first roundups.

As soon as he passed through Key West, he was transferred to Miami International Airport and ushered shoeless onto a flight to Pennsylvania. They took him to Indiantown Gap, a National Guard training center where 20,000 Marielitos were held behind barbed wire.

In August, after several strikes in holding camps across the country, the INS began processing Marielitos rapidly. They gave Barada $20 in pocket money and asked him where he wanted to go. He pulled out a scrap of paper with an address someone in Key West had scribbled down for him. It was in Washington. The Slow Slide

When former convict Carlos Buergos walked out into the crisp October afternoon in downtown Washington, INS staff members had done three things for him: They found him a job as a busboy in American University’s cafeteria at minimum wage, no tips. They gave him a monthly stipend of $150 until he was settled into the routine. And they rented a room for him in a Mount Pleasant boardinghouse.

After a few months, he landed another job with a caterer to augment his meager salary. Coming home late one night from that second shift, he was robbed by three street toughs and shot in the stomach. For two months, he nursed eight perforations in his intestine. He underwent a colostomy and was unable to eat normally.

He had survived a shooting before. In the Angolan jungle nine years earlier, a well-aimed lead slug had pierced his skull, grazed his brain and exited the rear of his cranium. It took three months in a Mozambique hospital cot to bring him around. The scars are clearly visible on his forehead and crown.

When he recovered from the stomach wound, he started in on a carousel of short-lived jobs — waiting tables, tending bar, putting up drywall. But it was with a difference now: He’d sniff a bit of cocaine when he was out with friends. He had never taken illegal drugs before.

And he began collecting misdemeanors. INS correspondence shows arrests in 1982 and 1983 for carrying a concealed weapon. “I was with a group of Cubans both times,” he says, “and we were a little drunk in a 7-Eleven parking lot maybe. The weapon was my drywall knife.”

One day in 1984, he was offered several days’ pay to deliver a packet of cocaine across town. Before long, he was taking packages here and there for anyone who asked. On Sept. 24, 1984, according to Buergos, he was sent off with a thick stack of $100 bills to Springfield, Mass., but when he and his traveling companion checked into their motel room, the other man pulled a pistol from his belt, shot Buergos in the back and ran off with the money. Rushed to the emergency room, he was hospitalized for two weeks. The bullet is still lodged in his hip.

Within a few months of his release, he began buying cocaine regularly. By 1987, he was doing errands for small-time dealers, keeping himself in gold chains and designer clothes, feeding a spiraling habit. He robbed a store and a private house in Ocean City, Md., and served 12 months in prison.

In 1988, he met a young Venezuelan woman who was cleaning houses in Bethesda. Responsible and hard-working, she tried to instill some order in his life, and for a while he was off drugs and working regularly as a drywall finisher. The two were married and had a baby boy in May of the following year.

Buergos got his best job yet — as a waiter at Rockville’s Woodmont Country Club — but it didn’t last long. He quit in a huff when the headwaiter complained that he was too slow. To take the place of one job, he now found two: working room service at a Bethesda area Marriott hotel and then heading out with his best friend to work as a waiter in a Baltimore Holiday Inn. “I was getting right,” he says, “trying hard.” But when that friend died of cancer in 1991, Buergos stopped showing up at either job. Soon he was back on cocaine with a vengeance and into the netherworld of freaks and thugs who traded in it.

When a big-time drug dealer moved into his apartment building on 16th Street NW, he began running drugs for him. Before long, Buergos’s wife and their 3-year-old checked into a shelter for battered women, and then she moved into a separate apartment altogether, resolving to do something for her sickly little boy, who was exhibiting acute signs of attention deficit disorder and emotional confusion.

On his own, Buergos surrendered completely to his habit. He was, he says, pocketing no money, just getting from one snort to the next. By the time he landed in Lorton prison for selling cocaine, he was a ghost of the young blond boy who had marched off to Angola 20 years before — a gaunt, twitching, 130-pound basket case.

Buergos’s 6-year-old son died last summer of heart failure; his wife has drifted away. He speaks now, in rapid-fire Spanish, from a meeting room in Lorton. “I can’t blame this country for my flaws,” he says, his arms resting on a bare table. “This place has given me nothing but opportunities.” Dreaming about a possible parole next year, he is hopeful about his future: “I’m ready now to be responsible. I can do it, I’m sure of it, if God and this country will just give me another chance.” Gridlock

Pedro Santa Cruz eventually figured out the bus schedule from Penn Kemble’s comfortable Northwest Washington home and began an English as a Second Language program at Georgetown University. He had friends in high places: Frank Calzon, for instance, director of an organization called Of Human Rights and a prominent anti-Castro activist, had secured him the place at the university. He studied by day and washed dishes in the school cafeteria by night.

Santa Cruz was among the best performers in his class, and when he finished, Kemble offered him a job in his Institute of Religion and Democracy, a group helping Latin Americans. But when Santa Cruz found himself stuffing envelopes and being paid a pittance, he left.

He began a series of menial jobs — running errands at a Rosslyn printing shop for $3.50 an hour, making sandwiches in a L’Enfant Plaza deli, cutting grass at Arlington National Cemetery, even flipping hamburgers at McDonald’s. In those jobs, he often was tossed in with other Marielitos, among them Carlos Buergos, whom he still calls a friend. But unlike Buergos, he was never caught up in the lure of the illegal.

“Pedro was always straight,” says the woman he eventually married, Carolina Santa Cruz, a white Honduran. “He was quiet and tranquil, a man with good manners and a good nature. His problem was not any given temptation; it was that he never understood what it takes to make it here.”

Although he was constantly signing up for courses — computer skills, insurance sales, real estate and banking — his career never seemed to take off. He found employers became nervous when applicants identified themselves as Mariel Cubans, something Santa Cruz always did openly, proudly.

When he and Carolina were married, he was still working construction, taking odd jobs as a salesclerk in the evenings to augment his income. She was a university graduate, but she cleaned houses in Potomac for a living. “That sort of thing never bothered me,” she says. “I was studying insurance on the side, and the people I worked for were so nice to me.”

By 1990, when their daughter, Mariel, was born, Carolina had landed a $26,000-a-year job selling insurance for Allstate. Shortly thereafter, Pedro became an $8.50-an-hour part-time accountant for a printing company in Virginia. They moved into a three-bedroom town house in Arlington, acquired an assortment of credit cards and sent for Pedro’s mother in Havana to come live with them and mind the baby.

Pedro’s mother did come, but she balked at the baby-sitting responsibilities. She felt hoodwinked and complained that she hadn’t come to the United States to be anybody’s slave. She wanted to go out dancing, have some fun. And she insisted on being paid. Within weeks of her arrival, there was all-out war between the two women. Before long, Pedro was driving his mother to Miami in a car he could barely afford, hoping the Cuban environment there would be more welcoming for her.

The setting was definitely more Cuban but hardly more welcoming. Miami Cubans were largely from pre-revolutionary Cuba’s upper classes. And they were largely white. “When I started looking for an apartment, it hit me how racist the established Cuban community there was. I’d call and people would be pleasant on the telephone. Yes, Mr. Santa Cruz, how nice, a Cuban from Washington. Please come over, have a look.’ And then we would show up, they would see that we were black, and suddenly the apartment wasn’t available anymore.” Santa Cruz eventually did find a Miami home for his mother, and after a rocky period of adjustment, she settled down in the job she still has: ironing clothes in an apparel factory.

By the time he returned to his wife and daughter in Arlington, however, his world had changed. He began to miss Cuba, to resent the standoff between his wife and mother, and to hop from job to job again.

Amid rampant credit card debt and day-care costs for the baby, he and Carolina found themselves fighting about money, fighting about work and contemplating separation. In February 1995, after years of unhappiness, they were divorced.

Today, Carolina is still at Allstate, making $44,000 a year. Pedro, after a series of jobs, is a sales representative for First National Bank of Maryland, making $21,000. He lives in a rent-controlled building in Arlington, where he often spends time with 6-year-old Mariel. Life is simpler now, he says.

“He’ll stay at that job for a while,” his old friend Penn Kemble says, “and then he’ll start to wonder why he’s not getting anywhere. He’ll get angry and discouraged, and he won’t realize that he has to promote himself. That he has to go out and do the middle-class American thing of hustling, doing favors, getting in with the boss, getting noticed, pushing his way up the ladder.”

“Maybe it’s because I’m from a communist country,” Santa Cruz says, “but I think it’s very difficult here. It’s not the racism. There’s racism in Cuba, too, though everyone there is trained to deny it. What’s hardest for me about the United States is the lack of security. You can get the pink slip any time. There’s more to life than a job, but you’d never know it living here. This stressed-out, work-obsessed, credit card culture is not for me. I can do it, but I don’t like it. . . .

“Sometimes I think that if all 125,000 of us had stayed,” says Pedro Santa Cruz, leaning back in the mauve chair of his bank’s tidy little conference room, “Cuba might have been a different place today. All the unhappiest ones, all the frustrated ones left. We could have been a force for change.

“No, I don’t want to die here. Someday, when Fidel’s gone, I’ll take my mother and go back to Cuba, have a little house on the beach, teach English and business and be free of the tyranny of the almighty car and dollar. Jose Marti said it long ago, but it has taken me 16 years to appreciate his words: Nuestro vino es amargo pero es nuestro vino.’ ” Our wine is bitter, but it’s ours. The American Dream

Across the Potomac, a Marielito with a fraction of Santa Cruz’s advantages was thriving. Eduardo Barada arrived at the scrawled address, settled in with a Cuban family and took a job with the garbage and floor-polishing detail at Blair House, the U.S. government’s guest house for visiting dignitaries. “You had to be careful in those days. People would hire a Marielito, ask for his Social Security number, then throw him out and use the number for somebody else. The Latins especially treated us badly.”

It didn’t seem to matter. Barada was making his own opportunities. For a while, he did menial jobs at the Four Seasons Hotel, the place he calls “my school.” He credits Omar Cardenas, a Peruvian waiter there, with teaching him everything he knows about the business.

“I met Eduardo Barada in the hotel personnel manager’s office one day,” Cardenas says. “He spoke no English, and the manager wanted me to explain to him that there were no openings. He was just sitting there, understanding nothing. But there was something about him. So honest.” Cardenas persuaded the manager to hire Barada as a kitchen boy, and then trained him up the ranks.

Three years later, pursuing his dream of owning his own business, Barada decided that he needed to know how goods moved from wholesale to retail, and so he offered to work at Potomac Wines in Georgetown for nothing. “I was more interested in what they could teach me than in what they could pay me, but they paid me anyway. Eventually the owners even trusted me with the store’s money.” He worked there for two years.

In 1987, Barada opened Altagracia, a small shop in Adams-Morgan, selling herbs associated with Santeria, an Afro-Cuban religion. Four years later, he had raised enough money to open Habana Village, a scruffy little bar and dance spot that would change his life.

On Thanksgiving 1995, when the nightclub was closed, a fire consumed the premises. Barada had no fire insurance. But this apparent disaster turned to his advantage when two investors came forward to help him rebuild.

Today, Barada is a legend among Cubans in this city, and in recent years, his fame has reached back to Havana. Even the diplomats who represent Fidel Castro in the Cuban Interest Section at the Swiss Embassy can be found raising a glass or smoking a cigar at his new Columbia Road bar. Barada’s nightclub is a throbbing center of Latino culture, where classes and exhibits are held, where you are likely to find a law partner dancing with a garage attendant, black with white, rich with poor, young with old, where “at least one night at a time,” Barada says, “we can all be equals.”

Last year, when he returned to Cuba for the third time, Barada went through a grueling week of ordainment into Santeria. He is a high priest, a babalao. Even his management style verges on the inspirational. “The most important asset is the human component,” a recent memo to his staff says. “No pessimism or negativity allowed.”

At first, he says, he had problems with white and Latino police officers. “All they could see was this” — here he points to his cinnamon skin — “my exterior.” His face breaks out into a wide, sunny smile. “And now that they see this part of my exterior” — he flings his arms about to indicate the pleasant ambiance of Habana Village — “they are my friends.”

He and his wife divorced last year, but he continues to support his 16-year-old daughter. He sends money to the Cuban school that helped raise him. And he wants to help the Marielitos who keep appearing at his doorstep.

Someday Carlos Buergos may be among them. “Si si, Barada. I’ve heard all about him,” Buergos says, his blue eyes shining momentarily out of a haggard, tic-tortured face. “When I get out of here next year, I’m going to go see him. I hear he helps Marielitos like me. Maybe he’ll let me work for him.”

“If they come to me,” Barada says, “I help them. But I have no sympathy for people who waste the chance this country gives them. The addicts, the hoods. They are incompetents, irresponsible. There are 9 million people sitting in Cuba right now who can do exactly what I have done, if given the opportunity. I feel sorry for the ones languishing on that island with no chance at all.”

Someday, he says, he will marry Julia Aymerich, a serious young Spanish woman who is finishing her doctorate in linguistics at Georgetown University. Barada himself is almost entirely self-taught. His success in America is not a result of any particular credential. It seems to be a direct result of his state of mind. “Live with love and act from discipline, and life will treat you well,” he says.

“I feel sorry for my sad fellow immigrants who came to this country chasing the almighty dollar. I want to shake them and tell them: Don’t think so much about the money. That’s not what’s important. Destiny’s the thing. That’s what you can change in America. I’ve done it. I know.’ ”

1,400 Marielitos Detained in U.S. Official Says Crimes Here, Not in Cuba, Are the Reason

Today 1,400 Marielitos remain in detention in the United States, 963 of them in federal prisons, the rest scattered among Immigration and Naturalization Service facilities and county jails. Keeping Marielitos in correctional facilities has cost the federal government half a billion dollars since the 1980 boatlift.

“Nobody is being held based on their criminal records in Cuba,” said Tomas Curi, of the INS. “Everyone who came in 1980 was released at one time or another. If they are being held now, it is because they have commited crimes in the United States, some of them repeatedly. Five or six hundred of them are very violent, with records of assault, murder or rape.”

In 1984, the INS got Cuba to agree to repatriate 2,700 of those the service categorized as “the worst offenders” — Marielitos repeatedly found guilty of serious crimes. But after 1,300 were returned, Cuba’s Fidel Castro refused to admit any more. In the last three years, the INS has managed to repatriate about 100 Cuban criminals a year.

Besides Carlos Buergos, five Marielitos are incarcerated in the Lorton Correctional Complex. Until last year, 100 or so with serious mental problems were being held at St. Elizabeths Hospital in the District. They have been dispersed to halfway houses and federal prisons.

— Marie Arana-Ward

CAPTION: Cubans crowd the deck of a boat in the Straits of Florida during the Mariel boatlift of 1980, which brought 125,000 Cubans to the United States. CAPTION: Eduardo Barada relaxes in his Columbia Road nightclub, a center of Latino culture that even attracts diplomats representing Fidel Castro. CAPTION: Pedro Santa Cruz, once an accountant in Havana, works in a bank office after a series of menial jobs. He dislikes the “work-obsessed, credit card culture” here. CAPTION: Carlos Buergos, a convict in Cuba, has ended up in prison in this country, losing the freedom he had sought in coming here. CAPTION: Carlos Buergos’s drug habit led to a prison term. He is hoping for parole next year: “I’m ready now to be responsible.” CAPTION: Pedro Santa Cruz’s plans for a post-Castro Cuba: He’ll teach “and be free of the tyranny of the almighty car and dollar.” CAPTION: During a visit to Havana, Eduardo Barada pauses in the neighborhood where he was born. Word of his success in the United States has reached his homeland.

A Russian at Large

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The Epic Saga of Writer Vassily Aksyonov’s Life.

By Marie Arana-Ward, Washington Post Staff Writer.

Vassily Aksyonov. Say it to a Washingtonian and you’re likely to get a blank stare. And yet Aksyonov may well be the most important writer in this century to hold a Washington address. He has been hailed as a Salinger, a Dostoevsky, a Hemingway, a Tolstoy. Aksyonov is one of the giants of 20th-century Russian literature, but after 16 years of Washington tenure, hardly anyone seems to know he is here. (more…)

Orhan Pamuk

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The Museum of Innocence, by Orhan Pamuk. Translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely.

One of the trickier subjects in fiction is that of the hapless suitor, besotted with love, locked in a lifelong obsession with a woman he can neither leave nor have. Yet, for all the perils of that soupy scenario, great literature has come of it. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote memorably of just such a man in “The Great Gatsby”; William Styron, in “Sophie’s Choice”; Gabriel García Márquez, in “Love in the Time of Cholera”; and Mario Vargas Llosa, in “The Bad Girl.”

Now, adding to those triumphant chronicles of the lovelorn, comes Orhan Pamuk’s mesmeric new novel, “The Museum of Innocence.” In it, the Nobel Prize winner proves his own dictum that a lover’s best hope, like a writer’s, is patience, or, even, stubbornness. In loving, as in writing, you dig a well with a needle. You’re in for a long haul.

As familiar as the subject of love might seem, “The Museum of Innocence” is a startling original. Every turn in the story seems fresh, disquieting, utterly unexpected. Like the old Turkish legend of love-struck Ferhat, who literally tunnels through rock to reach the object of his affection, Pamuk’s hero, Kemal, finds no obstacle too daunting in the single-minded pursuit of Füsun.

Those obstacles can be formidable: First, Kemal, an urbane bachelor of 30, already has a fiancée, Sibel, an Istanbul woman of his own class. She is sophisticated, beautiful, and, by his own agency, no longer a virgin (which in Turkey means that, if he doesn’t make her his wife, no other man ever will). Second, the sudden angel of his dreams, Füsun, is a schoolgirl from a poor neighborhood — a distant relative — barely 18. Third, and perhaps most vexing of all, their story begins backward: bedding Füsun is surprisingly easy. It’s winning her heart that proves devilishly hard.

So, as strange as it may seem, the novel opens with Kemal and Füsun in bed together: “It was the happiest moment of my life, though I didn’t know it,” Kemal recounts. “Had I known, had I cherished this gift, would everything have turned out differently? Yes, if I had recognized this instant of perfect happiness, I would have held it fast and never let it slip away. It took a few seconds, perhaps, for that luminous state to enfold me, suffusing me with the deepest peace, but it seemed to last hours, even years. In that moment, on the afternoon of Monday, May 26, 1975, at about a quarter to three, just as we felt ourselves to be beyond sin and guilt so too did the world seem to have been released from gravity and time.” Sadly, as Kemal later ruminates, we never recognize life’s happiest moment when we are in it. We always believe that there’s a brighter one on the horizon; that the “golden instant” of our now is but prelude. For the rest of his life, Kemal will labor mightily to recapture the bliss he wins so easily on the first page. The genius of Pamuk’s novel is that although it can be read as a simple romance, it is a richly complicated work with subtle and intricate layers. Kemal’s descent into love’s hell takes him through every level of the social order, past countless neighborhoods of sprawling Istanbul, in a story that spans 30 years.

At first, he believes he can have it all: a rich fiancée and an earthy shop-girl; his father’s enormously successful business as well as long, self-indulgent afternoons. The scene of his engagement party at the Hilton turns out to be as glittering as any in Manhattan, replete with black market whiskey and all the Western trimmings, from miniskirts to revolving doors. All Istanbul society is there. He goes through the motions with Sibel, making his parents happy, but it is clear that this nuptial revelry is headed for disaster: He cannot live without Füsun.

It’s impossible to tell more of the plot without giving away the story. Suffice it to say that as Kemal struggles to win and rewin his true love, bewildering things happen. But he finds strength to carry on.
Along the way, we learn a great deal about Turkey: its advertising business, its film industry, its brothels, the Turks who are driven to prosper and the Turks who are driven to drink. And as Kemal becomes more and more obsessed, even ill, in his irrational pursuit of happiness, we cannot help but see that he is utterly blind to the dire politics of his time. Is it lovesickness or innocence or just plain apathy that so distracts him from the bombs, the riots, the crackdowns, the unfortunate ranks among his schoolmates who are being dragged away to jail?

Eventually, one obsession leads to another and Kemal begins to swipe and hoard knickknacks that have any slightest relation to Füsun: mementos from her house, objects she merely touched in passing, keepsakes from outings they made together, cigarette butts from stolen afternoons. With frightening prescience, he sees very clearly where this will lead: “I sensed this room mysterious with old objects and the joy of our kisses would be at the core of my imagination for the rest of my life.” And so it is. By the end of his bizarre journey, he will chase down the past, even overtake it; and he will transform his love for Füsun into a museum of relics, keeping the rapture alive.

All Istanbul, too, is alive in this wonderful novel. From the mists that rise from the dark waters of the Bosporus to the creaky old houses on its shores, from self-satisfied merchants in luxury apartments to out-of-work artists in shabby bars, from the brisk cologne offered by the city’s bus drivers to the stench of life’s waste in the bay, the city fairly breathes on these pages and, in one way or another, so do its eccentric inhabitants. Even Pamuk himself makes an appearance: first as young Orhan, a gawky writer in the ’70s, then as the Orhan of these 2000s, the famous author of “Snow.”

There is a magical sense of the Ouroboros in all of this, as the novel begins to swallow its own tail. The Orhan Pamuk who lives inside this novel is eventually persuaded to tell Kemal’s story. That involution gets even more interesting when you know that there was once a writer named Orhan Kemal, and that, at the very start of Pamuk’s career, Pamuk was conferred a prize bearing his name. Orhan Kemal was also a collector; his flat, too, a quirky museum. There are myriad such Turkish delights for those familiar with the country.

For all of its many layers, however, this is a book wholly centered on love and our desperate need to make sense of it. Like Kemal’s instinct to pilfer Füsun’s trifles, the human impulse is to grasp at love, as if it could be a concrete thing held by fingers. As Nietzsche once said, “There’s always a drop of madness in any love, but there’s also a drop of reason in any madness.” Kemal’s love drives him to acts of momentary irrationality, but it’s on that tiny plunder that his very sanity depends.

In sum, “The Museum of Innocence” is a deeply human and humane story. Masterfully translated, spellbindingly told, it is resounding confirmation that Orhan Pamuk is one of the great novelists of his generation. With this book, he literally puts love into our hands.

From The Washington Post

Jane Smiley

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A little more than midway through Jane Smiley’s extraordinarily powerful new novel, “Private Life,” the childless wife of a prominent astronomer becomes fascinated with a family of coots, ducklike birds that live on the pond near her house on Mare Island, up San Francisco Bay. So taken is she with that happy brood that she insists that Mr. Kimura, a Japanese friend, paint it for her. He does so, quickly and delicately, in a scroll that delights her with its urgency. (more…)