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Life as a Footnote

Carlos Eire’s new memoir explores life after leaving Cuba in the 1962 airlift that brought thousands of children stateside without their parents.

En español | Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy won Carlos Eire the 2003 National Book Award in Nonfiction. The memoir of his boyhood in Cuba was, said the Yale professor of history and religious studies, “his first book without footnotes.” Now he’s back with Learning to Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy, the next chapter in his life story — again without footnotes.

Waiting for Snow told the story of Eire’s boyhood in Cuba before and after the revolution. In his new book, the reader accompanies him to the United States as he and his older brother, Tony, become part of Operation Peter (or Pedro) Pan, a 1962 airlift that brought thousands of Cuban children stateside without their parents. The shattering transition imposed on 11-year-old Carlos sets him off on a tumultuous journey, one filled with multiple foster families, emerging identities, two languages and a host of battling desires. When he arrives in Florida with the other children, he experiences the first of several “deaths” he says he passed through in the States: the painful process of leaving an old self behind in order to forge a new one.

<p><i>Learning to Die in Miami </i>fills in an important, neglected chapter in the ongoing story of Cuba and the United States.</p>

Eire is at his best conjuring the exile/refugee/immigrant relationship with memory and longing. Describing his budding interest in history while living in a horrendous foster situation, he writes, “Before I know it I’m obsessed with time, and above all with the way in which all that we can really own is the past, what once was, but no longer is.” His recollections of the dangerous process of assimilation are equally affecting, and just as universal. “I know for sure that I can be an American, that not only can I pass for one, but be one, for real,” his boyhood self explains. “I don’t have to be a refugee or an exile who happens to speak without an accent. I can own the accent and the language, and let it own me. I can sell my soul to it.”

A tale so full of universalities, however, always runs the risk of cliché, and Eire occasionally falls into this trap. “It’s like I’ve died and gone to heaven,” he says at one point. And: “You never know how things will turn out.” These lapses get between the reader and what is otherwise a fresh, engaging story. So does Eire’s insistence on letting you know how much he hates Castro’s Cuba. There’s nothing wrong with holding these beliefs, or expressing them in his memoir, but from a literary standpoint, reading the same barbs so many times can get tiring. Luckily, the memoir holds rich pleasures, most of all Eire’s sensual descriptions of the novelties he encounters in his new life: bowling, IHOP, hot dog toppings and, of course, snow.

As a book grounded in a historical moment, Learning to Die in Miami fills in an important, neglected chapter in the ongoing story of Cuba and the United States. As a personal history, by embracing his many “deaths,” Eire energetically relates a vibrant, topsy-turvy life as one of Operation Pedro Pan’s “invisible footnotes.”