Exile on Garcia Street
For many Americans the Bay of Pigs, the CIAsponsored invasion of Cuba by exiles hoping to topple Fidel Castro, is remembered mostly as a minor embarrassing episode in American foreign policy. But for Santa Fean and Cuban exile Andrea Bermúdez, the invasion that failed 50 years ago this month had personal consequences. It triggered a long and arduous search for a new identity that ended only when she wrote and published The Incomplete Traveler: Diaries of a Cuban Exile. On Saturday, April 30, Bermúdez reads from the work at Garcia Street Books.
Born in 1941 in Havana, Bermúdez grew up the daughter of a well-connected and successful doctor. The 1959 Cuban revolution turned their world upside down. The family’s ties to the former Cuban dictator, Fulgencio Batista, became a liability. In fact, on Bermúdez’s wedding day, in the summer of 1960, armed military men burst into the reception in search of a former police chief. “The party came to an abrupt end, and the signs were loud and clear that the new Cuba was no longer a welcoming place for the family,” Bermúdez writes. invasion of Cuba. Even her brother, who had also come to the United States, was part of the covert plan.
Pedro recovered from his injuries and, once again, rejoined the training camp. Weeks went by with no word from him. The Cuban community in which the Bermúdezes lived was abuzz. “Miami was rumorland,” she said.
Returning one day from the post office with her father-in-law, Bermúdez was greeted at the door of her small efficiency apartment by her husband and brother — both dressed in army fatigues. The invasion had failed disastrously, they said. The supporting air strikes, promised by the Kennedy administration, never materialized. Castro’s superior forces had quickly routed the stranded ragtag army. The speed of the defeat may have spared the lives of her husband and brother, who were to be part of the second wave of attack that was never launched.
The failure of the Kennedy administration to have fully backed the invasion was a bitter moment. “This Camelot stuff doesn’t work for Cubans,” Bermúdez said. “They were hurt.” The defeat also marked a turning point in Bermúdez’s life. “We had thought that the Castro revolution wasn’t going to last,” she said. “We realized after the Bay of Pigs that this was it. We better unpack.” She recalled thinking, “We have to learn about this country and its people. We are going to be part of them.”
Reunited with her father as well as the remainder of her family, who fled Cuba soon after, Bermúdez was able to complete college and earn a graduate degree and eventually a doctorate providing her with a solid career in education in her new land.
But the loss of her homeland weighed heavily on her. As an exile in a foreign land barred from returning to her native world, Bermúdez discovered that one’s childhood memories are sustained and validated by cultural props. The books, movies, school lessons, clothing, food, and almost everything in her new land were alien to her. “You are always looking at the world from the outside in, making it hard to join a group identity,” she said. Only music offered a link to her past. “I stayed very Cuban when it came to music. Music kept Cuba alive in my heart.”
Feeling neither Cuban nor American, Bermúdez pushed on. In the 1970s she was divorced from her husband, severing yet another Cuban connection. On the other hand, success in the educational field took her from Texas to Florida and eventually to Santa Fe. From 2003 to 2005, she served as vice president for academic and student affairs at Santa Fe Community College.
Retired, she settled into a new home in Eldorado with her partner, Deborah Shaw, a former manager of environmental affairs for the Florida Keys Electric Cooperative. Yet even in this new tranquil existence, Bermúdez’s disquieting sense of being without a clear identity continued to nag her. Her children, raised in the United States, and the gaggle of grandchildren harbored no such doubts. They are American.
With them in mind, Bermúdez sat down in her favorite brown leather chair on a January day in 2010. She had decided to write a memoir, though one using pseudonyms, as a gift for her grandchildren. Crowded on one side by her dachshund Charlie, Bermúdez began to write on a laptop that she perched on top of Lily, her other dachshund, nestled in her lap. “Those who have suffered the loss of a homeland know that one of the most difficult realizations is the inability to pass on to the next generation the love and respect that are felt for the mother country,” Bermúdez writes.
Words poured forth. Day and night she devised a book that she said had been a lifetime in coming. Then one day, months later, sitting in her car, waiting for a light to turn green on Cerrillos Road, Bermúdez dictated the last words into a small tape recorder she kept with her at all times. And the book was done. Although it was intended for her grandchildren, the process of writing the book gave her, at long last, the sense of identity she had been seeking. “Writing the book made me Cuban American, because I realized those memories existed,” Bermúdez said. “It was like standing on a mountain and screaming into the winds, This is who I am, and I am proud of who I am.
“The Cuba I left behind will never come back. I captured a Cuba that will never be again.”