Today, May Day, would have been my grandmother, Marta Socarras y San Martin’s 94th birthday. She was born in Havana in 1919 as the world witnessed the violent death of kingly empires and the birth of communism as a state philosophy. How odd it seems that an ideology that gripped workers and soldiers in Europe would one day take hold on a non-industrial island in the Caribbean. In many ways, communism was an accompaniment to my grandmother’s life. Born less than two years after the ten days that shook the world, my grandmother saw the entire arc of communism’s influence from a nascent and vulnerable state to an ideology that gripped much of the world and eventually took over her homeland and to its death whimpers as Russia and China abandoned it. I smile to think of what my grandmother would have thought of today’s heirs to communism- Chavez, Morales and Maduro. Payasos.
My grandmother lived an extraordinary life. Born to one of the great Latin American families– yes, that San Martin— with roots in the Americas with the first Spanish explorers, my grandmother had many advantages as a young woman in Cuba as many as a woman could have in early Twentieth Century Cuba. She graduated from the University of Havana with a law degree in 1941, about thirty years before U.S. schools regularly admitted women. Her diploma hangs on my office wall. She served as a district attorney in the provinces and carried a revolver on her rounds. Anyone who thought that they were messing with a defenseless female was in for a rude shock. Nonetheless, she was always a lady, horrified about the idea of leaving the house without lipstick. In 1959, she shared the jubilation of all Cubans when Batista was driven from power by these mysterious bearded men from the mountains. In fact, during the early days of the Revolution, the new regime held a parade. The column of tanks and soldiers moved down Calle 23, a major thoroughfare. When the tank carrying Fidel Castro and his leadership passed the home of my grandmother’s uncle, where the whole family had gathered to watch the parade, they lowered the tank’s gun and saluted the home of Manuel Costales, my great grand uncle and a major anti-Batista politician. Yet, when the nature of the revolution became clear, my family left Cuba one October, never again to stroll the Prado or the Malecon, or the beach at Varadero.
Instead, they settled into New Jersey and this was where my grandmother showed what she was made of. With an elderly mother, two young boys (my father and uncle), an infirm brother and a worthless husband (not my grandfather, her second husband. After him, she was done with husbands), my grandmother went to work at rebuilding her family and her life in el norte in October 1959. I always wonder how that first winter must have felt, although most Cuban women of her generation and station had mink coats for their shopping trips to New York. But living in New Jersey was a whole new life and nothing in her life in Cuba could have prepared her for the new challenges exile would present. Her education and pedigree meant little in the U.S., and all she had to rely upon was her own ganas, which she had in buckets. During the early years in the U.S, my grand uncle was often traveling with the U.S. government throughout Latin America discussing the Cuban revolution with intellectuals. My great grandmother was nearly eighty and my father and uncle were teenagers facing school in a new country and language. My grandmother was forty, my age, and had to reinvent herself. At that point, my family history turns from pedigree and privilege to struggle and striving. Fluent in English, my grandmother found work as a Spanish teacher at Verona High School and also taught Berlitz after school (“they had one chair- for the student”). White and educated, I can not say that my grandmother’s experience is the typical immigrant experience (as a friend says “Cubans get a green card and a parade in Miami when they come.”) However, the need to reinvent oneself to support a family, the need to pursue opportunity where it may lie, and to find shelter from persecution are universal themes of the immigrant story.
Like most immigrants, my grandmother worked her hands to the bone while supporting her sons, brother and mother. At one point, both my grand uncle and my great grandmother were simultaneously hospitalized with heart attacks and neither knew about the other. Imagine the strain that put on my grandmother. She put my father into the position to earn his Ph.D. and become an internationally celebrated scientist, which gave me the chance to do the work I do with immigrants. In an irony on par with my grandmother’s birth on May Day, I was the first family member born in the U.S., and I was born on July 26, the symbolic starting date of the Cuban Revolution. I don’t know whether that even registered at the time with my grandmother who was too busy flush with joy and excitement over her first grandchild. Always, family and love were more important than politics to my grandmother.
My grandmother outlived communism and has left a legacy of four grandchildren and three great grandchildren, who were lucky enough to share a little time on earth with her. I thought about putting a photo of my grandmother up in this blog, but she hated photos of herself. Like her immigrant life in America, she kept the focus off herself and gave her all to her family, who she carried on her back into this new world without Castros, Maos, Stalins and Ches.