Sunday, March 18, 2007

Columbus' Compass

A father’s dangerous journey from Cuba succeeded contra viento y marea

By Dolores Prida

In the summer of 1960, my father left Cuba in a rickety boat with 10 other people. It was supposed to be a short trip—90 miles or so to the Florida Keys—the same direct route that, in the years to come, hundreds of thousands of his countrymen would also take, leaving behind the turmoil of la revolución.
Yet, the journey was far from short or direct. The old compass he took along kept changing its mind as to where true north lied. After being lost at sea for almost a week, they finally came on shore halfway up the Florida peninsula.
For years, my father kept that compass, lovingly wrapped in an old t-shirt, at the bottom of his calzoncillo drawer. Maybe as a private, intimate reminder of the most macho thing he ever did in his life. Or perhaps as a good luck charm that, to compensate for its scientific inaccuracy, miraculously saved him from sailing straight into the Bermuda Triangle or the jaws of a hungry tiburón.
I always wanted that old, rusty brújula, which, because of its unknown origins and serendipitous guidance, I jokingly called “Columbus’ compass.” Yet, knowing what it meant to him, I never dared ask for it.
I wanted it not just because it was a great conversation piece about my father, the hero, or the anecdotal role it played in my becoming an American.
I came to see the compass as a symbol of the determination, grittiness and endurance of all who leave their homeland to seek a new life on foreign shores—solid proof that when you really want to get somewhere no amount of setbacks, miscalculation and misdirection can throw you off course.
My father was no Captain Courageous. His savvy about the ways of the sea was confined to weekend fishing trips among the mangroves surrounding our small town of Caibarién, in Las Villas province.
He was a charming, funny, silver-tongued salesman. As a young man, he was so successful in his first job as a traveling lamp salesman that, according to family lore, he once managed to sell two lamps to a peasant family that had no electricity in their thatched-roof bohío.
Yet, at age 45, he had the courage to navigate through rougher seas and start life anew. At the beginning his silver tongue was no help because he didn’t speak a word of English.
He de-veined shrimp and carted lobster crates in Florida, then moved to New York City where he worked two factory jobs and developed the calluses his elegant hands never knew before. When my mother, my two sisters and I joined him a year later, he had a fully furnished apartment ready to receive us in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
With time, he learned English and was able to go back to being a salesman at Don Manuel Store, his own small “clothing bodega” in Brooklyn Heights. He was a good salesman but a terrible manager. He never made any real money. I don’t think he knew how. But he knew how to enjoy the best of life—especially good food.
He became an American citizen and dutifully voted in every single election. He learned to drive at age 50 and always considered one of his greatest achievements that he never had an accident nor received a traffic ticket of any kind.
When he retired over 20 years ago, after my mother passed away, he want back to Miami to indulge in his passion for fishing. But he soon realized that, for a healthy 70-year-old there’s more to life than fishing, and he regretted retiring so “early.” Then he went for a different kind of fishing and caught a wonderful, devoted new wife who gave him a new lease on life that lasted for two decades.
Don Manuel, my dear lobo de mar, passed away on October 7 in Hialeah, Florida. He was 91 years old. His beloved Columbus’ compass has traveled northward again and now sits on a shelf in my house in East Harlem. It’s there to remind me of his journey. And mine. And where true north lies.

Published in the New York Daily News Viva section
November 15, 2001

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