I decided to pick up How to Leave Hialeah by Jennine Capó Crucet after reading her being interviewed in New Times. Since I’ve been on a run of reading contemporary authors from Florida and since she attended the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop it seemed a no-brainer. How to Leave Hialeah is a collection of thirteen short stories all set in the greater Miami Metro area that all focus on different aspects of the Cuban-American perspective.
My favorite of the collection was And in the Morning, Work. In this story a Cuban young woman, Marielena, who still lives in Cuba, has recently graduated college. She is trained to be a librarian but is unable to obtain employment in a Havana library after graduation, so she ends up taking a position as a reader for a group of cigar rollers in Pinar del Rio. When exactly this is taken place is not mentioned, however what is clear is that it during a period of economic stagnation. The plot then develops by illustrating the tension stemming from the age and class divide between this young would be city librarian and the cigar rollers. This is shown via her quest to find appropriately compelling reading material and in the attention she is given by one of the older men there. She not only has a limited selection from which to choose, but she must also find something that is not something that they’ve heard many times before. In this she foregoes Martí and other authors that she must read from a Spanish tabloid. This exasperates her itself, and when an old man starts to walk and talk with her on the way home about books, she seems to get even more upset.
This conflict over taste is, to me, indicative of something that’s really interesting. How so? Well, many of the books that Marielena possesses are from relatives who have had them shipped over from the States. As they are “the classics” they were allowed to be delivered. She prefers these works, however the cigar workers do not. The perceived divide by Marielena between her, the intellectual, and those that are assembling cigars is clear. This conflict over taste and the deeper implications that it could have on historical and class consciousness in changing times, however, is glosses over and instead Crucet focuses on relative deprivation and the young girl’s concern that the viejito is attempting to be romantic with her. Given the culture of machismo it’s not unlikely that a man older than her father would come on to her, however it’s also clear that he’s simply trying to be welcoming and help lower her high expectations of what work would be like after college.
The perception of flirtation by Marielena soon vanishes as she comes to realize that he is merely expressing solidarity with her. In the close of the story the old man visits Marielena. A chicken that she was hiding from the Committee in the Defense of the Revolution inadvertently escapes from her room. Noticing that there are neighbors who see this, the viejo states that she should just let it go and they should both walk away not looking at it so that someone doesn’t question them.
Now I find this story interesting for a few reasons. For one the lack of specific time markers as to when this is occurring. Before or after Marielitos? The collapse of the USSR? The only thing that we really know is that this is after “the first years of the revolution”. This seems to me to indicate that the author is not actually that familiar with Cuban history and, like many gusanos, simply views Cuba as some cite of unchanging, ahistorical “injustice against people’s dignity because of a despot” transpires.
The second thing that I find interesting is her choice of cigar assembly facility, arguably Cuba’s most widely known export product, as the site for this sort of ideological conflict. I say this because I believe it was in David Montgomery’s The Fall of the House of Labor that I first learned about the conditions of cigar workers. There I read a quote from Samuel Gomper’s about how his early life working as a cigar roller helped him come to a trade-unionist perspective. Starting at age ten he worked in such a shop and people took turns reading from books and engaging in debates on news of the day. In this regard, by making the workers only able to recite selections of poetry that’s state-sponsored and thus “must be known and liked” and liking tabloid news and Che’s Motorcycle Diaries it seems to me that Crucet is likely misrepresenting what it is like there for the purpose of showing that these people repress the knowledge of their own oppression. While I think that this is her most powerful piece in the collection – it does suffer from these rather glaring omissions. As propaganda I think it’s successful – however as an accurate reflection of Cuban reality I question it’s felicity.
For the rest of the stories I feel like I had to really push myself to get through reading them all. I just didn’t find them all that compelling and the writing style was, to me, often times over-wrought for little payoff. The second criticism is self-explanatory so let me cover the former. While I’m sure that these anecdotes provided mid-west writing teachers and aspiring authors at the workshop lots of fodder to talk about multiculturalism, inclusivity, liberal values and whatnot, I grew up in South Florida and so what others see as “exotic” are often things that I’ve grown up with and don’t find that engaging unto itself as most of the stories seem to present themselves. I’ve lived most of my life in the orbit of the types that populate Crucet’s stories. Most of my long-term female companions have been Latinas – Cuban, Honduran, Colombian, Ecuadorian y Boriqua – so the issues and idiosyncrasies of protagonists, their friends and families didn’t catch me as unusual. For instance the closing line of the first story in the collection, Resurrection, is as follows: “And you, you keep watching her, hardly believing that people like this exist.” You read that after reading about a wild and somewhat weird party girl. My reaction was not, however, disbelief but to nod my head and think to myself Yes I do believe she exists as I have known party girls significantly wilder and weirder than her. The concerns over tradition and class shown in Noche Buena were, to me, more of a reminder of frustrating family drama than insightful narrative and perspective Cuban values and customs. Perhaps someone unfamiliar with Miami might find these sorts of tales to be engaging – I however did not and in the end I can’t see myself suggesting that anyone read this collection.