Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Another oak falls

"Hoy se ha caido otro roble en la selva del amargo exilio" is how I always thought that my father's eulogy would begin once he died.

"Today another oak falls in the jungle of bitter exile," began the eulogy for the man whose bloodlines my children and I carry on.

Florencio Campello Alonso died today at age 90 in Miami, the heart of the bitter Cuban Diaspora. Like many Cubans of his generation, he was the son of European immigrants to Cuba. His Galician parents left the scraggy mountains of northern Spain's ancient Celtic kingdom and in the first decade of the 1900s migrated to the new nation of Cuba upon its liberation from Spain.

Galicians have always been uneasy subjects of the Spanish crown, stubbornly hanging on to their ancient Celtic traditions, to their own language and to their bagpipes, so it is no historical surprise that they left their mountain homelands en-masse and headed to the new tropical paradise of Cuba, free from the heavy hand of the Spanish monarchy.

And thus it was never a surprise to me that my father was both a fighter against heavy-handed rulers, a lover of freedom, and one who was never afraid to re-start a life for the better, even if it involved discarding the old.

My father could have been one of the privileged few who currently rule atop the food chain of Cuba's Workers' Paradise. But instead of accepting the benefits of oppression, this most valiant of men chose the harsh path of right over wrong.

And he paid for it dearly (he spent years in Concentration Camps), but when he died, his soul was clean.

In his youth, my dad worked the brutal hours of the son of an immigrant who was slowly building a small financial empire in eastern Cuba. My father was pulled from school as soon as he learned to read and write, and like his two other brothers and eight sisters, he was expected to work and contribute to building a familial empire.

And he did, as my mother relates the stories of my father's childhood in the fields of eastern Cuba, a blond creole in a land of jingoist natives... he trying to out-Cuban the "real Cubans"... how he organized a labor union of the exploited Haitians who worked almost as slaves at the Los Canos Sugar Mill, how he joined a group of bearded rebels in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra in the fight against a tyrant, how he ran for the leadership of the Sugar Workers' Union and beat the Communists to the post, and how he spent years in a Castro Concentration Camp, jailed for the crime of refusing to join the Party, because he believed in Democracy and not Communism.

And because of that stubbornness, in the 1960s he was offered the bitter pill of exile, and this brave man decided to choose family... and left his birth place, and thus became another immigrant within two familial generations and brought his wife and child to another new land.

And it is to him that I owe the greatest gift that a father can give a son: the opportunity to grow in freedom in the greatest nation in the history of this planet.

It is because of my father's courage that I was raised in this country and not in a land bloodied by brutality and oppression.

It is because of my father's teachings that I was raised with the conviction that freedom is not free and never to be taken for granted; after all, he fought for freedom and then Castro, the man who inspired the fight, ended up being a worse dictator, eventually destroying all notions of freedom for all of his people.

It is because of my father that I was taught that every citizen owes his nation some form of service, and that's the main reason that I signed (at age 17) to serve in the US Navy.

It is because of my father that I despise anyone who hides behind the mask of victimism to excuse failures and shortcomings.

When our family arrived in New York in the 1960s, my father began to work in a factory three days after he landed at the airport; my mother (who came from a privileged Cuban family and had never worked a day in her life) found a job as a seamstress five days later. That pattern was repeated for decades as they worked their way in a new nation.

"We thought we'd be back within a few years," was the answer given to me when I once asked the question about leaving their birthplace. When that didn't materialize, they became fierce Americans in the "United States of Americans" sense... these were the "America None Better!" set of immigrants, and in my Dad's case, you better be ready to fight if you dissed the USA.

"Americans"!

Always a fighter he was... and always for the right reasons.

Cubans are archaic immigrants... we love this great nation because we recognize its singular and unique greatness; perhaps it is because our forebears had the same chance at greatness and blew it.

And my Dad loved this nation even more than he once loved Cuba... perhaps it is the genetic disposition of the serial immigrant. After all, his father had left his own ancient Celtic lands and kin for a new land... which he learned to love dearly.

My father always wanted to make sure that I knew that I was an "Americano" and not another forced-on label.

"Labels," he'd say, "are just a way to separate people."

By labels he meant "Hispanic" or "Latino" or anything with a "-" between two ethnic words.

I also remember as a kid in New York, when he bought a huge Hi-Fi record player-color-TV console... that thing was huge. He bought it "lay-away" and he'd pay $10 a week to the store and him and I would walk all the way from our house on Sackman Street to the store on Pitkin Avenue to make the payments every Saturday - he never missed a single payment, and that taught me a lesson.

It was soon playing my Dad's favorite music, which oddly enough was Mexican music (Cuban music was a close second)... and he knew all the words to every charro song.
Guadalajara en un llano, Mejico en una laguna...
Guadalajara en un llano, Mejico en una laguna...Me he de comer esa tunaMe he de comer esa tuna.... aunque me espine la mano.
That Jorge Negrete song... being shouted often on weekends at the top of his lungs from our apartment in a mostly Italian neighborhood in East New York in Brooklyn must have raised some eyebrows.

My dad and I watched Neil Armstrong land on the moon on that TV set... we also watched loads of Mets games... and in 1969 and 1972 went to Shea Stadium to see the Mets win in '69 and lose in '72. He really loved baseball and he really loved those Mets!

When I joined the Navy at age 17, my first duty station was USS SARATOGA, which at the time was stationed in Mayport in Florida, so my Dad decided to migrate south to Florida and moved to Miami... just to be close to me.

He and my mother spent the next 40 years in the same apartment while I was stationed all over the world.

When I visited him today in Miami, he looked good and freshly shaven... this is a good thing, as my father was a freak about hygiene... and that's a common "creole" trait.

The Hospice nurse almost teared up when I told her that my parents have been married for 60 years.

I looked at this old "gallego"... his skin as white as paper, his eyes as blue as the sky, and his head (once full of blond hair) as bald and shiny as the old Cuban sing song ("Mira la Luna, mira al Sol... mira la calva de ese.....") and I saw the generations of Neanderthals, Denisovans and Gallego Homo Sapiens that led to my bloodlines... the generations of fighters, of strugglers, and of tough guys who didn't take no for an answer and who made a better place for others. 

And I felt at peace and grateful.

And as my father died tonight, after an extubation,  all that I can think to say to him is "Thank you for your courage... from me, and from my children... and soon from their children. You opened a whole new world for them."

I love you Dad... Un Abrazo Fuerte! Thank you for your gifts to me and my children and it is no coincidence that you died on El Dia de Los Reyes.

3 comments:

tim tate said...

a beautiful tribute to an amazing father. he was lucky to have such a great son.

IreneCC74 said...

que bonito Lenny, y lo mejor que queda es el corazón lleno de amor y todas las cosas que lo llenan a uno de orgullo de sus viejos!

Guy Clinch said...

Really beautiful tribute, Lenny.