Up my very tangled family tree

When I visited Cuba in 1998 to cover the visit of Pope John Paul II for the Chicago Tribune I stumbled onto a few surprising branches of my family tree, including relatives I’d heard about but had never met and who appeared to be loyal and highly placed apparatchiks. They lived quite comfortably in an upscale Havana neighborhood that had been called Miramar before the Castro brothers revolutionary cavalcade rolled into town in 1959 and changed it to Playa, and along with that the number of provinces in Cuba, from six to fifteen, not to mention the lives of all six million people on the island.

A second surprise was my discovery of an Afro-Cuban trail of relatives, also last-named Lanier, who welcomed me warmly if somewhat cautiously, and whose members included a gorgeous light-skinned second cousin named Caridad. They lived in a far poorer quadrant of Havana and did not seem nearly as enthused about the country’s revolutionary convulsions as my cousins in Miramar.

These two clans did not seem to know each other, or so they said, though the Afro-Cubans did mention something about my grandfather and something-or-other, that, hmm, we don’t quite seem to recall. The story of that encounter is at: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1998-01-20/news/9801200168_1_havana-street-cuba-white-woman

Since that trip my family has tree sprouted several more intriguing branches, including a cousin who lives in Kiev and whose grandson, Maxim, was shot in the leg during the recent street demonstrations; another cousin who ended up in Odessa, a Ukrainian port on the Black Sea, before seeking asylum in Japan and moving to Florida; plus a likely explanation of my puzzling Afro-Cuban connection that involves an uncle who was thirteen pounds at birth.

Cubanicity Central: Miami’s Little Havana.

Indeed, a trip to Miami a month ago that began as a family obligation turned into a yakking fest during which my cousin, her husband and my aunt filled in quite a few blank boxes in my family tree. They also welcomed my husband Stewart with the usual you’re-one-of-us-even-if-you-can’t-understand-a-word-we’re-saying enthusiasm and fed him accordingly. He’d gained five pounds by the time we returned to Mexico.

For Cuban-Americans regular pilgrimages to Miami are much like Muslims going to Mecca or Jews to Israel, a cultural obligation, a re-calibration of one’s ethnic GPS. We visit relatives and talk incessantly—and very loudly—and speculate for the millionth time when that bearded motherfucker in Cuba is finally going to die and leave the rest of us be. On a visit to Little Havana, its Cubanicity now somewhat watered down by an influx of Central Americans, one listens to music, sips a couple of tiny cups of coffee and searches for a genuine Cuban Sandwich that I assure you doesn’t look or taste anything like the version served in Mexico.

This time in Florida another thing became very clear to me: God bless America and my good fortune to have landed in the U.S. during the chaotic Cuban diaspora of the sixties and seventies, instead of one the fraternal socialist republics behind the Iron Curtain, as was the case with two of my cousins.

My cousin Roberto, six or seven years older than me, left Cuba in 1961, a year before I came to the U.S. at age fourteen.  He went to Ukraine on a scholarship to study metallurgical engineering, married a local girl and that was that. We spoke on the phone in 2005 when his life seemed to fluctuate between gray and grim: Trying to survive on anemic government pension, his life complicated by the economic chaos in the Ukraine following the final collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1991. He is now in his 70s, suffering from severe depression and trying to earn extra cash by giving private Spanish lessons.

Roberto and his wife Sveta have one daughter, Tatyana, a dark-blonde with a fizzy personality that makes up for her uncertain command of English. Her training in biology led to an academic exchange visit to an American university in 2005, when she was in her thirties, and during her stay she visited Stew and me in Chicago and my other relatives in Miami.

My second cousin Tatyana in Chicago. 

Tatyana Stefanovska’s only son Maxim was among the recent protesters in Kiev’s Independence Square and got shot in a leg. Tatyana’s last email a month ago sounded like a tragic mix of heady patriotic hopefulness about Ukraine’s democratic future and gloom about the political and economic mayhem in Kiev and much of Ukraine. I have written her again but have not received a reply.

Another cousin named Gustavo went to study naval engineering in Odessa, on the Black Sea, in 1975. While on a port call to Tokyo during his third year of schooling he broke away from his classmates and asked for asylum at the U.S. embassy. The story goes that he threatened to jump out a window unless his request was granted, a sign of his desperation or of his mind beginning to come unglued. Dates, places and other specifics after that are blurry.

He ended up in Florida, lived with some family friends but then vanished until 2003, when we finally tracked him down to a small courtyard motel in Miami Beach that had been converted into a halfway house. Stew and I were the first to meet him and his beloved dog Chance, which had followed him home one day during a walk on the beach.

Our encounter at his tiny, seemingly hermetically sealed studio apartment was nothing if not disconcerting. It was neat but jammed with furniture and boxes and a metal filing cabinets full of pills of various sorts, mostly prescribed by an alternative medicine practitioner from India whom Gustavo described as his primary caretaker. Gustavo talked about feeling perpetually exhausted, his sleep cycles reversed from night to day, which may have explained the darkened windows.

Gustavo and his dear mutt, Chance.

At a lunch at a nearby diner, Gustavo’s world became even more conflicted. The conversation, all in English, would drift from periods of lucidity—he was clearly very smart and well educated—to paranoid musings about Castro agents who wanted to bring him back to Cuba.

Nevertheless a rapprochement with the family followed, including with this parents, sister, brother-in-law and nephews, and he even attended my dad’s ninetieth birthday in 2004. That truce didn’t last and Gustavo returned to his self-imposed isolation and wouldn’t speak to anyone in the family.

Around this time his beloved Chance, which seemed to anchor his life as much as his newly found family, was killed by a car. I’ve wondered if that might have accelerated his descent into paranoid schizophrenia. We do know he died the following year from an apparently suicidal drug overdose. Police found his body in his apartment after he’d been dead for several days.

Gustavo’s story made me think that the tragedy of mental illness ultimately is the inability to make rational decisions about one’s health. Had he received proper psychiatric treatment Gustavo might have beaten back the visions that tormented him. Instead he chose homeopathic treatments and other quackery and there’s no way anyone could have prevented that. He wouldn’t talk to me or return phone calls.

The latest trip to Florida cleared up another curiosity I had never fully understood: The Pauline conversion of the relatives I had met in Havana in 1998 during the Pope’s visit and whom I perceived to be stalwart and prosperous Communists. A scant two years after my visit they turned up in Miami with their two teenage sons, ready to join the exiles Castro refers to as “worms.” My uncle and aunt joined them a year later.

My uncle Alejo, along with entire Lanier family except my father, was in fact closely allied with the regime. Alejo held a high-level position at the Institute for Agrarian Reform, an important cog in the Communist machinery during the early days of the revolution charged with confiscating and re-purposing millions of acres of farmland throughout the island.

That early affiliation with the government proved potent enough to get Alejo and his wife the luxe home in Miramar, one of hundreds abandoned by wealthy families who had fled to the U.S. during the 1960s. A government official just gave my uncle a jailer-size key ring and a list of addresses and said: “Pick one.”

Despite their apparent comfort and ideological correctness my cousins already had started planning their move to Miami not long after the catastrophic implosion of the Cuban economy in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the billions in yearly subsidies it provided to the island vanished almost overnight.

It’s an undeniable testimonial to Castro—his genius for either leadership or repression—that he managed to keep his tottering regime together during that time. A good deal of his success might have stemmed from his knack from branding. He didn’t declare a national catastrophe or emergency but instead labeled it a “Special Period.” Madison Avenue and its armies of professional bullshitters couldn’t have come up with a more felicitous euphemism.

Mention the Special Period to any Cuban who lived through it, though, and the conversation is likely to pause as they take a breath. It was a horror when even the most basic foodstuff became unavailable and blackouts a daily occurrence.

What made it worse was that during the preceding decade, and thanks to Soviet subsidies and give-away trade deals, the Cuban economy had improved markedly and store shelves gradually filled up with some consumer goods. The jolt of the Special Period was like going from the Renaissance back to the Dark Ages without the benefit of a transitional century or two.

My cousin Olguita along with her husband Pablo, both university graduates, recall plucking fruit from the trees on the Miramar property and trying to sell them on the streets or exchange them for something of value.

Worried that their two sons had no future in the island, they started applying for the entry visas awarded by the U.S. Interests Section in Havana—the de facto American embassy in Cuba—through a lottery system. They applied in 1994 and 1996 until their number came up in 1998. Just to be sure they also hatched some far-fetched Plan B to emigrate to Italy and Canada or even marry a foreign national to get out on their passport.

They survived the Special Period and the years afterward by renting rooms to tourists, mostly from Italy, a profitable business particularly for owners of fancy homes. When I visited Cuba in 1998 their escape plans in fact had already hatched and their revolutionary fervor when I visited, I’m afraid, was nothing more than a charade. One thing you learn to survive in a Communist society is to keep your mouth shut.

They came to the U.S. in 2000 and plunged into the job market with the fury of Dobermans going after a T-bone: Pablito, then in his 50s, hauling drywall for a construction company, my cousin Olguita selling real estate and even delivering home-cooked meals. Their two sons went to high school and college. Today one is a chemical engineer working for Exxon in Houston and who recently received an M.B.A. The other is a pharmacist for Walgreens in Miami.

Here, let us pause to sing a couple of bars of “God Bless America!” or at least read a few lines from Shakespeare’s “All’s Well that Ends Well.”

Then there’s the matter of my black relatives and where they came from. Olguita cleared up that question too, though she didn’t know there was a child involved. It seems that delivering my uncle Alejo vaginally—he was a thirteen-pound baby—was so physically traumatic for my grandma Digna that she could no longer have marital relations with my grandpa Emilio. So she granted him a dispensation from his vow of marital fidelity and set him free to fulfill his “manly needs” with other women. That’s a magnanimous wife if there ever was one.

Emilio accepted the offer with some gusto, took up with a black woman and they had a daughter—the mother of the beautiful woman I had met during my trip in 1998. Olguita didn’t know there was a child involved who had taken the Lanier last name.

Next time I must follow up on that thread plus do some digging too about my mother’s side of the family tree. A month ago, Magdalena García, a dear friend from Chicago sent me a list of Sephardic-Jewish last names compiled by the Spanish Inquisition during its apogee during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when persecution of Jews was the rage, even those who supposedly had converted to Catholicism. The latter were often called marranos or “pigs” and were suspected of remaining closeted Jews.

The list of Sephardic last names is at http://www.eldiarioacontecer.com/news/129/ARTICLE/6257/2014-03-12.html

My mother’s family name—Quiñones—appears on the list

Wait, am I part Jewish too?

At this point in my genealogical investigations I’m left not knowing whether to exclaim “Mazel Tov!” or “Oi vey!”


5 thoughts on “Up my very tangled family tree

  1. I wouldn't want to take away from Jennifer's joy of welcoming you to The tribe with a hearty “mazel tov,” but I will — since I have some of the same genes from my mother.


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