Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Memoir of a Cuban Childhood

By Ann Peterpaul

SEPTEMBER 7, 1999: 

Blessed By Thunder: Memoir of a Cuban Girlhood by Flor Fernandez Barrios (Seal Press, hardcover, $22.95)

This is an unsentimental, bare-boned memoir of a young girl in the early days of Fidel Castro's regime. Barrios doesn't have one positive thing to say about the Cuban revolution. She and her upper middle-class family lost everything. They were torn from their beloved Cuban soil, began life anew in this country and in the process metamorphosed into very different people.

The first 10 years of Barrios' life in Cuba, when she was called Teresa (her middle name), were practically idyllic. She was immersed in the cocoon-like embrace of a very loving and supportive family. Carmen, her nanny and housekeeper, was like another mother. She taught Teresa about the Afro-Cuban religion and how to call upon orishas or deities for protection. The grandmothers played crucial roles; not only were they strong, but full of the wisdom that comes from people inextricably tied to the land, to animals, to nature. Grandmother Patricia was a curandera or healer whose intensely loving ways in treating the sick in body or spirit contrasts with traditional Western medicine.

When Castro gains power, the comfortable life of the Barrios family comes to a screeching halt. Everything is rationed; Teresa's mother spends her time in endless lines; her father is sent to a workcamp; the grandparents lose everything because of the Agrarian Reform. Life is unbearable.

At age 10, Teresa and her classmates are forced to work in a tobacco field in Castro's "school goes to the country" program. The girls live in barracks under primitive conditions, do brutal labor, and suffer through endless indoctrination. Teresa makes very good friends, but is berated by others because her family is among those who have applied for permission to leave Cuba. Such people were called gusanos or worms.

Teresa's family is eventually granted permission to leave the island. The farewells to the family and friends, most of whom they will never see again, are heartwrenching. To leave Cuba forever -- their home, their roots, in essence their spirit -- is a renunciation of immeasurable proportions. This is a masterfully told story of unforgettable people, of the rich Cuban culture, and of endurance.

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