As we pass Latigo Canyon the cliffs press our road against the ocean. The sky is deep blue except for a few gray clouds that hover, like moths, around the horizon. On this piece of Earth, the air alternates between the aroma of eucalyptus trees and the scent of the salt water, and if we were walking, we could probably smell the grass and the oaks as well. Thomas is telling me that he asks these questions because he has always been intrigued by my history but he wasn’t sure if I thought it was important to my work. Then he says that he wants to talk about my childhood in Cuba.
I: Just what comes to mind?
He: Yes, whatever comes to your mind. Whatever you remember.
What’s real and what’s imaginary?
I: Mine was, and still is, an unusual family. My grandfather on my mother’s side had been an orphan. He put himself through dental school at a time when that was almost impossible. When he graduated, he traveled through the Cuban countryside on a horse and provided services to the people who couldn’t get to a dentist in the city. In a few years, he raised enough money to open his own clinic. After that he built his wealth by buying land, so my mother was raised in relative affluence. My father, on the other hand, had lost his father when he was three and had worked most of his life on a sugar cane plantation. His family was poor. This class difference plagued my parents’ relationship for most of my life but eventually they came to terms with each other.
I was the first grandchild in the family and the first generation born after the revolution. Cuba was a changing country then, caught between the past and the present. Everyone we knew lived that duality. Most of our appliances were made from old parts, as well as the cars and the furniture. Other dualities also existed like the way I received great medical attention for my asthma but we couldn’t get medicines.
Cuba comes back to me like the inside of a camera, inundated with light and then dark again.
I: In first grade I was called “girl” because my skin was fair and my lips were very red. I really disliked these qualities in myself. I also disliked that I was sensitive. It seemed like a weakness.
Two hundred yards in front of our truck, workers are busy pouring cement and burying steel anchors to build a retaining wall. Above this step pyramid of concrete and soil sits the contemporary Sphinx—the Great Estate. They are getting paid to save this hill from erosion and earthquakes, but their work is temporary. Sooner or later the house will break free of its harness and roll down the mountain. That is the way of coastal living in California; everything on this hill is condemned to rubble.
The conversation is bothering me. It is hard to speak of my memories without sounding nostalgic. Why can't I speak of my past as facts?
I: One afternoon, I came from school and found the three ducklings that my mother had given me, dead at the bottom of a deep hole in my neighbor’s yard.
When the two older kids appeared I had been standing by the edge of the hole for a long time looking at the three small and broken lumps on the rust-orange mud six or ten feet below my orthopedic shoes. They told me with defiance that they had killed the ducklings and I stared at them in disbelief. The bigger kid grabbed a photograph from my hand, a small passport photo that my teacher had given me of her daughter, then took his penis out of his pants and rubbed it on the picture. I stared as the wrinkled purplish head smeared on the little girl’s smile, nose and hair, I remember thinking about the girl and my teacher and how I should have taken better care of the picture. I carried the anger of that day for weeks.
He: Only for weeks?
I: A few weeks later I lifted a whitish rock from my yard, to see how far I could throw it, when in a flash, a big hairy spider hiding underneath crawled up my arm and jumped onto my face. After a moment of paralysis, I ran inside the house and told my parents. My father grabbed me by the hand and took me back to the yard. He stood by me until I lifted each rock. There must have been fifty or seventy rocks. After the last one, I felt that something in me had changed. I definitely felt different, although it is hard to say if something went terribly wrong or very well that night.
It’s odd that these stories are centered on my home because I spent most of my time at my grandparents’ house in the rural town of Palos.
Their house was built by many people over a long period of time and its only unifying element was a series of airy courtyards. In contrast with the lightness of these, the heart of the house, the living room, was always empty and dark. I passed by it quickly. Once or twice, strengthened by my grandmother’s presence in the family room, I ventured into it. But my explorations were limited to the outskirts. My grandfather had a large bird collection encircling the red patio that led to his dental office. He had hundreds of birds, mostly singing birds. I too sang in that house—I sang to his patients in the waiting room.
He: Was it your idea or his for you to sing for people with toothaches?
I: I think it was mutual—a conspiracy.
He: And you also spent a lot of time in a shark-fishing town.
I: Yes. My mother was told that the southern sea would be good for my asthma so she and I spent a great deal of time in the tiny Caribbean town of Caimito, where my grandparents had a vacation home. The place was nothing lavish, a typical fishing-town shack built before the Revolution, right on the clay shore and surrounded by tall pines. Inside, the wood walls were grayed and impregnated with the smell of years of salty air, even the bed and the sheets tasted like the ocean. I spent the days in Caimito collecting crabs and dead sharks. From time to time a female shark would be caught with her babies inside. I put a few of them in a jar, but they never survived.
We were both quietly looking at the road. I think Thomas is considering asking more about the family, but he knows that family is always a delicate subject.
I remember swimming with nurse sharks in the warm water. My cousin Tomy was a much better swimmer than I was. He used to get under the water and try to touch the sharks. Not wanting to be outdone, I would lift jellyfish with my hands and place them on the palm-wood dock. At noon, my mother would call us to eat. Food never tasted better than when I came out of that ocean.
He: When you emigrated, you must have been aware of leaving the ocean, those houses and the family behind. The departure…what did it mean to you?
I: We left for Spain when I was eight but we knew we were going to leave a few years before that. The government granted my father his exit first. After he left we corresponded through the mail. That period of imminent departure was difficult and made every moment precious, especially for the adults.
Why do I say "that period of imminent departure"? What does that mean? That time of crying, dishes left full of food on the table, giving engagement rings away, "these shoes will fit Julio," losing the house, losing the pictures, losing the baby teeth, "you’ll come back and visit me," "yes, I promise," "then take the soldaditos with you."
I was trained for the future, which is not saying much.
I: I sent my father drawings of big boats bearing Spanish flags. I didn’t understand that our migration was permanent. I thought we were going to come back after a while.
He: When did you realize that you were never going back to Cuba?
I: On the plane. My mother was crying and I asked her why. She said she was fine and that we would be back soon. I knew then that we’d never return.
He: Did you find what you were expecting in Spain?
The smells of fruits came through the open door of the plane when we landed in Madrid. I took a step down and inhaled the air saturated with apples and pears. As I held the handrails people around me kissed the landing strip. The steel stairs reflected the rays of the afternoon sun.
I: No, Spain was a depressed country, still under Franco and unfriendly to foreigners. My father had started a construction business that was not going well. We lived in a poor area of Madrid called Lavapies, in a storage room with sagging floors, no heat and no bathtub. The place smelled of mildew, metal, and cork.
He: Was it difficult to make Madrid your home?
I: I think I did okay but it was hard to have friends because we kept moving between Madrid and Barcelona. Before the storage room we lived in a hostel and a low-income project. Until this trip I had not remembered the hostel. We spent so much time playing cards with the old people there that my brother and I became very good players. Spain was hard but sprinkled with the sort of treats that we didn’t have in Cuba, like chocolate-covered donuts, soccer cards and chewing gum.
For kids, dreams are in direct proportion with reality. When I was still in Cuba, my aunt asked me what I would like for her to send me from abroad. I thought for a few days and I said black balloons. I couldn’t imagine a rarer gift.
I wish that I hadn’t wasted so much time. Each name I say brings unfinished business.
I would like the chance to go back and handle a few things better than I did. I have heard that some people don’t have these feelings.
I long for those years because I am unable to possess my childhood as my own in the way that my mother owns Spain. She turns on a faucet in my California home and says, "just like in Spain where the water is cold." What I own of my childhood has very few facts like the temperature of the water. My past is a group of stamps loose in a drawer.
We come to the old Malibu pier and the whitewashed façade of Alice’s restaurant. On a green patch of grass by the Adamson’s House dozens of ravens are shaking off the last bit of sleep from the morning.
He: Were you going to school?
I: Yes. I wasn’t a very good student. I couldn’t concentrate because I was dreamy and restless. The teacher would send me to the corner of the classroom for punishment at least once a week.
I think I leaped from a cliff when we left Cuba and the fall, which took twenty years, shrunk my capacity to focus on the present. I think this is true of my whole family. I went to school but I was never really there.
He: Have you stopped falling?
I: It feels different now.
He: What were your parents doing then?
I: My parents had a lot of regret and sadness about Cuba, the past and the people that we left behind. I was more conscious of their pain than of my own.
I am looking at the cliffs that rise beside the road, imagining families falling from them. The parents tumble first, with suitcases in their hands, and then the little ones, still holding dolls and toy soldiers as they bump downward through the clusters of chaparral.
He: It must have been hard for a young boy to assimilate all this pain. Did you have a happy childhood?
I: My friends and I didn’t know of kids with better situations; television wasn’t big in the neighborhood. We went on collecting cardboard and papers to sell, making caps for the milk company, playing soccer and exchanging comic books. As I got older, sadness crept in.
Thomas touches the side of his door softly and gathers together his notes and tape recorder and bag of biscuits to make a little pile between us.
He: Do you think that identifying ideas like pain or loss in the work of an artist is useful?
I: Not for me. I look for what’s unique in an artwork. Many people think it’s useful to categorize but it’s a terrible error.
He: Why terrible?
I: Life is a ceaseless flux. Always becoming. Categories are illusions.
He: You have said many times publicly you aren’t particularly interested in culture, but this statement can lead to a lot of misunderstandings. It has confused me.
I: I’m interested in culture and our conversation bears its imprint. But I’m not interested in Culture, the big collective, as a subject matter, nor am I interested in classifying culture. I particularly dislike the part of popular culture that revolves around gossip. This voyeurism is typical of television but it has also become entrenched into the art psyche.
He: I think that your lack of interest in culture as a subject matter is a key part of understanding your work. Ortega y Gasset’s said that an artist could be best understood by the themes that they have not painted.
I: Culture is not specific enough to stir feelings in me. While questions of popular choices, influences and fashion can be interesting, I don’t think my work is the forum to address them.
He: Why not?
I: There are other things that preoccupy me with more urgency.
I think Thomas is frustrated with my responses. He wants more, he appears to believe in my answers more than me. I have tried to learn from him to trust words and people but it is not easy. A finer mind would be difficult to find, that part is true. But what kind of person believes in mystical truths and thinks talking will get him closer to them?
He: I’m surprised that despite the cultural shocks that you have experienced I haven’t heard you speak more of multiculturalism, which ensures that you can keep your identity and take pride in your ancestry. Isn’t that fundamental to your mission?
I: I don’t know what to say. Kristeva has some insights, but the more common view of culture as a hub from which to negotiate the world is too static for me.
He: So you wouldn’t embrace a view that celebrates your heritage as an offering to the larger pot of humanity.
I: Whatever I have to offer is not fixed. It can’t be collected in the word “Cuban” or even “Hispanic” or “Westerner”. I cannot even hold it myself. So I don’t try to find who I am in the mirror of culture. That mirror distorts, especially when it has been clouded by nationalism.
He: Enrique, can’t culture be a home, a support system that connects you to where you come from?
I: When it’s guarded and chauvinistic it only leads to alienation and separation. It’s not the way I want to live my life.
He: And if someone dismisses your work as Latin or Catholic? How would you respond?
I: The best response would be to avoid stereotypical claims of my own.
Through the metal blinds of my house I can see the skinny legs and black leather shoes of my father on top of a ladder. I can see his arm holding a wood cutout of the Nativity. And to my left, on the kitchen counter, three boxes of nougat, cider and grapes.
Twenty feet from the truck, two doves are chasing a blue jay. There is a great tumult: chirping, crying, and flying up and down. The jay must have taken their egg. Finally, the whole thing is over and the jay flies away, remorseless. I look over and Thomas is looking up.
He: Is it hard to understand why someone may retreat to their heritage for security?
I: No, it’s easy to understand, but to find oneself in a set of collective traits is a delusion.
He: This leads me to think that to follow your own inner development you probably have abandoned many beliefs. Which one has been the most difficult to give up?
I: The illusion that you and I will be here tomorrow.
He: Do you live a freer life without this illusion?
I: I don’t think so. A more honest life, maybe. Illusions are alluring and sheltering; they stop us from wandering. I have tried to live and think without the aid of an ideology or a religion. I don’t have a set of rules that tell me what to do, no assigned moral code, no meaning other than the one I give things, and no haven in which to hide from doubt and pain.
He: Maybe art is a place where you can be seduced into continuing on, a place to hide from a pessimistic view of life.
Does he mean a delusion of sorts?
I: No. I see art as a place where pain and loss can be transformed—a place where action can begin.
He: Your works, especially your early works, suggest pain. People have picked up on this and many have written of despair, exile, abuse, loss and longing as the basis of your work. Is this accurate?
I: When I was younger I wanted pain to redeem me, but I no longer want that. I realized that what I was looking for was not in the pain. Our reaction to pain often layers a veil over reality and our only chance for freedom is to lift the veil.
He: To forget the pain?
I: The opposite—to take life as it is. To shed light in those areas that lie under the haze of pain.
Words are easy. I should turn on the radio.
We stop at a gas station in the dusty coastal farming community of Oxnard. I go inside to pay. The place is empty except for a pockmarked Indian or Pakistani attendant leafing through a TV Guide. He takes my bill and gives me my change without looking up. The magazine is kept open with a wrench on a Dolly Parton article. I can’t decide whether to thank him for his silence or to be upset about it. When I get back in the car Thomas’s face has no trace of irony or suffering. His hand is in the bag of biscuits.
He told me a while back that value and meaning cannot be found in this world. This was offered as a response to my question about his lifestyle. A sensitive, intense and brilliant man, Thomas is a former Franciscan who lives the simple and self-sufficient life that I wish for myself. Now I am going to venture to ask again about his life.
I: Thomas, why did you buy the avocado farm?
He: I’ve had lots of different jobs in my life but one thing has always remained the same, I love the land and working with my hands. When I left the order I looked for a small orchard that would provide me with a modest living and a place to meditate and write. Avocado seemed like the logical choice since it’s a good paying crop and easy to care for by yourself. I looked around for a few months but everything was too expensive until a friend from San Clemente showed me a small orchard that needed work but was affordable.
The avocado is a very good tree. All you have to do is turn the water off and on and feed it some nutrients from time to time, no pruning and trimming as with citrus and other fruit crops, no plowing, preparing the ground, and weeding, as with row crops. Avocados are also very forgiving. They don’t begin to ripen until you pick them, so there’s no panic four- to six-week harvest window as with other crops. With the Hass avocado especially, that means the harvest season extends all the way from December until October or November, depending on the year. That’s almost eleven months, which means that I can pick two hundred pounds of avocados a week and take them to the markets at my leisure.
I: What made you leave the Franciscans?
He: I found that I was too vain and I stopped believing in my own devotion.
I: Would you go back?
He: No. It was a good part of my life but it’s over now. I’m happy doing what I am doing.
I: Do you think of yourself as an exile?
He: I’m a British expatriate, which I think is very different. I always thought I would return to Yorkshire but after these many years it has become difficult to go back. Your situation is not the same as mine but both of us have been transformed by living abroad for so long.
I: But isn’t a monastic life a form of exile?
He: I suppose you can think of it that way, but I always saw it as a way to embrace life more fully.
I: When I was younger I found religion alienating.
He: The cultural or the spiritual component of it?
I: Back then I thought that spirituality was oppressive. Now, I think that what really bothered me was my community’s superficial and insincere spirituality. This led me to a mild rebellion against goodness. I would incite other kids into dangerous games, fights, walking on quicksand and so on. At the end of a busy day of trouble-making, I would retire to my room to find my place through books.
He: Did you mind that? I mean, it sounds as if you were living a double life.
I: I did for a long time. I was always looking for that moment when life would start to make sense. I felt that I was missing something that allowed other people to see the world of books and the real world as one.
He: You mentioned in an interview that you understood what your exile meant to other people before you understood what it meant to you.
To my left, the leaves of an olive tree flicker silver and green as the morning breeze ruffles each branch. Above the tree, a white crane navigates the air currents by making tiny corrections to its wings and feathers. I would like to know how he would answer Thomas’s question.
I: I still don’t understand what my exile means: how it affected who I am and what I want. My exile makes me a stranger to myself, a suspicious foreigner.
Then I imagine the question: who is the man that kisses my wife and speaks with Caribbean roundness the sharp tongue of the North?
I: I always drew. I had great fun drawing ships and soldiers. But exile, poverty and disillusionment shifted art from something I did for pleasure to something that I did out of need. I think I sought art to organize what was happening.
He: As a way of ordering experience? Is that also what led you to the study of physics, and nearly a career in a lab coat?
I: Yes, in art, I confronted my life and tried to process it, and in physics, I tried to detach myself from my life and find a purer place, a place that was less complicated and less compromised. So at the beginning, art was like a dustpan I used to collect all of the dirt and grime of my life, and physics was the clean outfit that I wore after doing all the cleaning.
He: Looking back at those years, do you see that way of viewing art as sad?
I: Art was what I needed it to be.
Sadness does come in retrospect; some things should not be viewed from afar.
He: You were an apprentice to a painter. Was he aware of what was happening with you?
I: I think so. In his studio I had specific assignments and fixed exercises and studies, but he saw my other works and I’m sure he could appreciate what was going on. I think he understood me because he had some torments of his own. But his way of looking at art seemed rigorous at a time when mine wasn’t. He was a disciplined teacher who came from another time, a time that was more refined and slower. For better or for worse, he introduced me to the idea that art went beyond rendering or my desire for redemption.
He: Was redemption even possible through art at that time?
I: I think I survived, in part, because of my childhood drawings. That’s redemption.
He: Is redemption too big of a word?
I: No. I don’t think it is.
I am thinking of the pastel of the great adventure: the man swimming towards the shore while the big shark is closing in. Did I paint that when I was in Spain? I should look at that pastel when I get back to Los Angeles.
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