Tuesday, August 10, 2010

My Havana: Memories of a Cuban Boyhood

By Rosemary Wells
With Secundino Fernandez
Illustrated by Peter Ferguson
$17.99, ages 9-12, 72 pages

A Cuban boy aches to return to the Havana he once knew, but comes to realize that even though he can't go back, he can still keep his beloved city with him by sculpting his memories of it out of cardboard.

In this captivating true story by award-winning Wells, 10-year-old Secundino "Dino" Fernandez creates a miniature version of Havana on the floor of his New York City bedroom to ease his sadness at having to flee Cuba after dictator Fidel Castro comes to power.

Wells (Max and Ruby) was inspired to tell Dino's story after hearing him recount in a 2001 radio interview the intense homesickness he suffered 50 years ago when he emigrated to the United States with his parents, and the grit he showed by taking control of his situation.

Born with a passion for sketching buildings, "Dino" was so mesmerized as a young boy by the architectural splendor of Havana that he sketched every facade he passed, and with the help of his cousin, cut out the sketches and strung them with tape into a circle on the floor.

Together they'd sit inside the paper city and marvel at the beauty of the stone archways and the entrance to El Palace, the president's house, with its marble column.

"Until I am six years old, in 1954, my world is sweet," Wells writes on behalf of Fernandez, now an architect in New York City. "'We live in a city built by angels,' Papa says."

But Havana was also city on the verge of a Communist Revolution, and that year -- as if fate was trying to prepare Dino for what was to come in his homeland - Dino saw how a totalitarian regime can crush a city's spirit.

One afternoon, Papi and Mami received word that Papi's older brother Jose had fallen off a roof in their native Spain, so immediately the family set sail to Spain to help Jose's family make ends meet while he recovered. But Spain, under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, was an austere place.

Upon their arrival, Dino's family was confronted by a cruel customs officer, who put Dino through a strip search and ridiculed him, and in Madrid, where Dino's grandparents' lived, life felt withdrawn. "The windows are solemn," Dino remarks, "like eyes that won't look at you."

No one laughed or played freely because they were afraid of the police, and Dino, seeing only what was missing, struggled to find a building he wanted to draw. "I have a stone where my stomach is," he tells his grandmother.

Then one day, the chef of Papi's restaurant sent a telegram saying he could no longer manage the restaurant alone, and since Dino's uncle could now walk on crutches and return to work, Dino's family sailed back to Cuba.

But it was not the Cuba they had left. Dictator Fulgencio Batista had come to power, and soon his thugs were trying to force Papi to go into business for gangsters. Then on New Year's Eve 1958, Castro chased out Batista, violence erupted on the streets and his compadre Che Guevera began taking over businesses at gunpoint.

Papi and Mami feared not only that their restaurant would be taken away, but that their family was no longer safe, so early in the morning in 1959, Dino's family left Cuba for good, catching a plane to Miami then a train to New York City.

New York City in winter, as Mami predicted, was as cold as a meat locker, and Dino felt the weight of having left behind so much that he loved. "When you fall and scrape your skin on pavement," Dino imagined writing to a friend in Havana, "that is how New York feels against the eye."

But just as Dino was at his lowest, something took over inside him. "In the way that a fallen bird struggles to fly again," Wells writes, Dino began to build what he remembered of his city on the floor of his apartment bedroom.

First he painted a map of Havana on a large piece of plywood, making the harbor out of aluminum foil that he glazed with blue nail varnish. Then he cut his favorite buildings out of cardboard and painted their archways and balconies to scale. Soon every window and streetlight glowed with fluorescent paint.

At night when Dino turned off his bedside lamp, his Havana sparkled and shined like the real thing.

"From my bedroom floor, I believe I can hear dance music pouring out…," he says, "…this Havana, city of memory, saves me from the homesickness."

Final Thoughts: Wells's spare, lyrical words speak so honestly of Dino's joy and pain, while Ferguson richly colored paintings draw out the pinnacle moments in Dino's life when nothing is said, but so much is conveyed.

In one picture, Dino sits cross-legged on a sidewalk sketching Havana's buildings over the pages of his religion homework. The cityscape is awash in gold, warm light. A flower grows boldly out of a crack in a stone wall, as if to suggest how free things are to express themselves.

Across the cityscape, Dino's sketches are pinned up on the things they depict. A turret Dino drew overlays the real turret, a balcony sketch covers the real one, conveying so vividly what Dino sees and feels when he look over his Havana.

Later when Dino is plucked from all that he knows, Ferguson's images feel lonely.

In Spain, you see Dino looking out from the shadows of a stone building as his grandmother looks anxiously around her, and later in New York, you see Dino trudge down a windy street looking at the sidewalk, as snowflakes fall, papers fly through the air and drivers shake their fists at each other.

Any reader who's ever felt a deep sense of belonging, then been forced to leave all that he knows behind will immediately relate to Dino, even if he or she has nothing else in common with him.

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