17 Dec / Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings by Margarita Engle
Exactly a year ago today, POTUS and Cuba’s President Raúl Castro announced a joint agreement reestablishing relations between two countries that have maintained a complicated half-century plus of separation. Released December 17, 2014, the official Cuba Policy Changes have made the island nation quite the destination of choice – not just for the curious thrill-seekers and explorers – but most deservedly for those Americans of Cuban descent who have been too long estranged from their roots, culture, and especially families.
Award-winning author and poet Margarita Engle has long been writing about her Cuban connections in multiple titles: Cuba’s legacy of slavery in The Poet Slave of Cuba, Cuba and the Holocaust in Tropical Secrets. Most notably, her The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom made Engle the first Latina to receive a Newbery Honor.
Last August, Engle published her own personal story for the first time: “I never thought I would be brave enough to write about my life as a Cuban American child growing up in the United States during the hostilities of the Cold War,” she explains in her “Author’s Note.” But courage produces this resonating journey of Engle’s “true story of [her] first fourteen years,” made even more timely by the news from around the world of ongoing displacements of victims, survivors, refugees desperate to start lives elsewhere. Engle herself opens her memoir with a dedication to “the estimated ten million people who are currently stateless as the result of conflicts all over the world.”
On Valentine’s Day of 1947, Engle’s peripatetic American artist father fell in love at first sight with her Cuban art student mother at the Museo Romántico while “breathing the enchanted air of Trinidad de Cuba.” They married, bringing forth two Cuban Californian daughters: older-by-two-years “Magdelena Madalyn Mad,” and Margarita. For most of her first decade, Margarita lives in two cultures, traveling on two wings, between her “mother’s small isla/island … [and her] father’s big ciudad/city” of Los Angeles. “It really is possible to feel / like two people / at the same time, / when your parents / grandparents / memories / words / come from two / different / worlds.”
Her sister survives polio, they move houses in California, they see their American relatives almost weekly. The sisters visit extended family in Cuba, ride horses, joyfully run between two houses that belong to a grandmother and the grandmother’s own mother. But then the island journeys end in 1960, and Margarita comes of age trying to understand who she is in an “almost-war” that leaves her mother stateless, her family separated, and her own self uncertain. What saves her is hope: “All I know about the future / is that it will be beautiful.”
Written as a searching, haunting narrative-in-verse, Engle’s young life emerges in bursts of wonder and insight in poems filled with memories and dreams. Just as she uses her own experiences of wandering borders with her parents and her sister, she transports readers with her words: “Travel is a magical experience. Travel opens the heart and challenges the mind. Travel gives us an opportunity to see how others live, whether they are relatives or strangers. Travel teaches compassion.”
Join the journey: Engle’s memoir is quite the welcome non-myopic, anti-xenophobia guide indeed.
Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult