Shared during Shabbat evening services at Beth Israel - Austin
during their "Welcoming the Stranger" MLK Weekend of events
To love a country as if you’ve lost one: 1968, my mother leaves Cuba for America, a scene I imagine as if standing in her place—one foot inside a plane destined for a country she knew only as a name, a color on a map, or glossy photos from drugstore magazines, her other foot anchored to the platform of her patria, her hand clutched around one suitcase, taking only what she needs most: hand colored photographs of her family, her wedding veil, the doorknob of her house, a jar of dirt from her backyard, goodbye letters she won’t open for years. The sorrowful drone of engines, one last, deep breath of familiar air she’ll take with her, one last glimpse at all she’d ever known: the palm trees wave goodbye as she steps onto the plane, the mountains shrink from her eyes as she lifts off into another life.
To love a country as if you’ve lost one: I hear her —once upon a time—reading picture books over my shoulder at bedtime, both of us learning English, sounding out words as strange as the talking animals and fair haired princesses in their pages. I taste her first attempts at macaroni-n-cheese (but with chorizo and peppers), and her shame over Thanksgiving turkeys always dry, but countered by her perfect pork pernil and garlic yuca. I smell the rain of those mornings huddled as one under one umbrella waiting for the bus to her ten-hour days at the cash register. At night, the zzz-zzz of her sewing her own blouses, quinceañera dresses for her grown nieces still in Cuba, guessing at their sizes, and the gowns she’d sell to neighbors to save for a rusty white sedan— no hubcaps, no air-conditioning, sweating all the way through our first vacation to Florida theme parks.
To love a country as if you’ve lost one: as if it were you on a plane departing from America forever, clouds closing like curtains on your country, the last scene in which you’re a madman scribbling the names of your favorite flowers, trees, and birds you’d never see again, your address and phone number you’d never use again,the color of your father’s eyes, your mother’s hair, terrified you could forget these.
To love a country as if I was my mother last spring hobbling, insisting I help her climb all the way up to the Capitol, as if she were here before you today instead of me, explaining her tears, cheeks pink as the cherry blossoms coloring the air that day when she stopped, turned to me, and said: You know, mi'jo, it isn’t where you’re born that matters, it’s where you choose to die—that’s your country.