Go ahead. Try to tell my degreed, computer-wielding, 93-year-old mother-in-law about Cuba.
Just try to tell this remarkable woman, Annie Brunet-Garcia, about today’s politicians, citizens, and visitors who don’t understand why her generation of Cubans is so resistant to political change on the island. Try to reason with her about shifting dynamics in the face of a failed government policy, and why change is right. Indeed, inevitable.
Then hush, and listen closely to what she endured in the late 1950s. Some of which she shared with me for the very first time on a recent visit, as night descended in Jacksonville, Florida—500 miles and a world away from her native Punta Gorda, Cienfuegos, Cuba. Surprising, gut-wrenching events wrought by those most trusted, yet conveyed to me without the slightest hint of bitterness.
Stories of how her lovingly designed and appointed home at Varadero was seized and defiled. And so too her innocence, her trust, and many of her family bonds. In the slicing wake was left not sentimentality or nostalgia, but a clear-headed pragmatism. Her property and her heart might have been violated, but never would she lose her two precious sons to an ideology she could not embrace.
If you listen very closely, you might begin (like me) to perceive a different facet to the whole “Cuba thing.” You’ll probably realize that for her, it’s about much more than unsettled property rights or a failed embargo. It’s about the closest of familial relationships that ended violently, suddenly and forever. It’s about beginning a brand new life at the age of 39—one that she never expected, but that somehow, she has lived so well. Unlike many of her generation, she never looked back.
Coming to this country provided her unique opportunities. The opportunity to become a woman she never could have been in Cuba. To work toward another degree; to swathe herself in the safety and surety of mathematics; to inspire and to teach generations of girls to rely on the honesty of numbers and theory; to challenge them to aim high and to live lives based on their own interests and abilities, rather than family expectations, social status, or, god forbid, inertia.
As we talked into the wee hours, it dawned on me that Cuba left Annie, not the other way around. I’m often stunned by just what a realist our “Mami”, our “Tita” is—she simply doesn’t look back. I so admire that, and it’s one of the many reasons I love her. Perhaps, there’s a lesson there for all of us, as we try to figure out this new chapter for Cuba and for all Cubans—both on the island and in exile.