I first heard of Cuba when I read Assata Shakur’s memoir Assata: An Autobiography (Amazon| Indiebound) as a young Filipino immigrant. I had no knowledge of the country, only that there was a strict embargo in place, but I knew it had to be a good place, good enough to give refuge to a black revolutionary woman.
Over time, I started learning about Fidel Castro and the country’s history, from Spanish colonization to socialist revolution to its communist government. I learned about Raul, the Bay of Pigs Invasion. I learned about Che Guevarra. And then it hit me — back in high school in the Philippines, I used to rock a red shirt with the infamous Guerrillero Heroico, the revolutionary’s famed portrait. I remember being drawn to the man on the shirt, wondering who he was and what the reason was behind his piercing look. Turns out, that shirt was my first introduction to Cuba. With these things in mind, I dove right into The Mortifications: A Novel (Amazon | Indiebound) by Derek Palacio.
The story begins with the Mariel Boatlift, the emigration of Cuban immigrants to the United States back in the ’80s at the height of economic downturn. At the center of the story is a family: Uxbal, a father hellbent on continuing the revolution, his wife Soledad who wanted to leave for good and the twins, Ulises and Isabel who knew nothing about what was going on at that time except perhaps that they were about to be broken.
They settled in Connecticut, as opposed to other Cuban immigrants and exiles who stayed in Florida and created their own haven, Little Havana. Far away from everyone, the family of three tried to make sense of their new home. While Ulises escaped in his world of books and literature, Isabel suddenly turned towards the Church.