The story that informs my obsession with the Cuban moving image is deeply personal, though it’s certainly not private. If anything, it is frequently uttered during chance encounters that give way to frank conversation, or as a parlor trick when those in the room have grown too comfortable with the idea of me as a well-adjusted, all-American woman:
My father arrived in Florida on a dinghy in the early 1980s. Almost immediately, he was indefinitely detained. While held in California, he met my mother, a prison ministry lady; she followed him from institution to institution, state to state, even as he stared down deportation in 1987. It was at that point that my father, with a handful of co-conspirators with nothing left to lose, set fire to the overcrowded penitentiary in Atlanta where they were held. Overwhelmed, Georgia’s own President Carter permitted him — and a great many other Cuban refugees held in the state’s capitol city — to remain in the States. I was born the year after his release.
More often than not, this intense genealogical anecdote yolks me to the present in lieu of the past. I, for example, have never had to interrogate the ethics of rioting. Simply, I breathe, love, and write because someone lit a match. Nor do I have to thumb-twiddle over the merits of the monuments that no longer serve us.
Built with granite from neighboring Stone Mountain — the largest monument to the Confederacy in the world — Atlanta Penitentiary’s Roman Doric columns were erected by Representative Leonidas F. Livingston, a former Confederate fighter. As many have noted, a prison itself is a monument to white supremacy. And this one, created by Reconstruction economics and sustained by Jim Crow policies, holds particularly high rank; higher, perhaps, than the mountain that birthed her.
On the rare occasion that I do look back — wishing to wrap my hands around my father’s cell bars and assure him that freedom is on its way, or hoping to unearth some intimate detail of what precisely happened on those eleven tense holiday season days in 1987 — it takes great effort to discover something new. The Atlanta Penitentiary Riots were so effective and large-scale that it makes sense that no major institution, and particularly the U.S. government, wishes to speak of them. Much to my pleasure, the moving image is the outlier; sparse, usually open-source, yet always illuminating.
Despite the haze of familial folklore, there is a photo of my mother during the Riots to which I have been privy since childhood, though absent much context. She is a bottle blonde amid a group of Cuban mothers and children hoping to access a glimpse of their lovers and fathers on the penitentiary rooftop. Detainees flung bedsheets down the edifice that bore scrawled messages, many of which boasted impeccable English: Por ejemplo, WE ARE NOT COMMUNIST. WE DO NOT ACCEPT DEPORTATION TO CUBA.
This year, my seventy-nine year-old mother — who still resides in Georgia — and I reconnected as the pandemic curbed life as we knew it. Unprompted and out of the blue, she divulged that my father’s own bed sheet signage read LOVE CONQUERS ALL. As with any truth one covets, the seeker must know where to look and when. I have seldom asked my mother for details, lest I have more mental health quandaries tethered to her than I do already. Yet sometimes, one will drop from her mouth; a fruta bomba seed that I will palm over and over until my wrists ache.
The uprisers had also obtained a bullhorn to bellow messages down to their loved ones below. As Christmas drew near, they erected a tree, complete with lights. I do not know how they acquired this, either, but we Cubans have a term for ingenuity brought on by scarcity: Resolver.
Resolver is the reason why almendrones, beloved by tourists and relying on liter soda bottles as gasoline tanks, still run. It’s why the Revolution, sparked by a small group of radicals in the mountains, was won in 1959. It’s why Cubans, economically stymied by their own political establishment as much as they are foreign countries who want to own them, continue to eke out meaningful lives.
It’s why my father had a bloody Christmas tree despite being in a cage.
In the photo, my mother wears earmuffs. None of the other women below do. Years later, in probing the margins of the historical artifacts I was given and sidling them up against the other resources I’d painstakingly unearthed, I learned it was 58 degrees Fahrenheit in Atlanta on the day the photo was taken. A new question presented itself: Did my mother don the earmuffs because she is slight and chills quicker, or did she wear them to subdue the sounds of sirens, chants, and heightened emotion? Was this a temperate or emotional choice?
I know what it’s like to be brave enough to face chaos while being deeply unnerved by its symphony.
Watching one’s history belatedly unfurl before her is akin to watching a film for critical purposes: There are first watches for all. There are second watches for the considerate. There are third watches for the scrupulous. There are fourth watches for the obsessive. There are cultural backdrops. Anyone who has attended a protest this summer has been initiated in the mise-en-scène of revolution, the complex yet thankless scaffolding of community organizing; how bodies are organized in our streets after much deliberation and with much intention. And, of course, one must always ask — even and especially with the most respected of verite images — what was left on the cutting room floor, and why.
In this intensely doubled effort, I first encountered the newsreel footage via the time-tested archive of the masses: YouTube. It has taken years of viewing a clip of WPLG-TV Miami news anchor Ileana Varela to realize the weight on her own shoulders as she reports from a smoldering Atlanta Penitentiary. Though Varela’s reportage career would span 25 years, she was only two years into the newsroom when the Riots began. She too is Cuban, and the moment meant enough for her to upload it to her personal YouTube channel.
Over the course of this precious 2:15 clip, we are privy to the details of the ongoing negotiations between the 1,400 detainees and Federal officials. We see the prison at dusk and we see it in broad daylight. The fires set in four buildings of the prison, Ileana reports, are gradually burning themselves out. We see injured Cubans with tattoos as proliferate as my father’s. We hear that accent which, to this day, I am unable to compare to anything but Southern African-American vernacular; consonants being discarded freely, importantly.
1:37 in, a face on many of our minds appears; a bit younger but certainly no less wise than he was in his final days. “We’ve been saying to the Bureau of Prisons and INS that any time you lock up people for this long period of time without any idea of when they are going to be released, you are sowing the seeds of frustration and discontent,” the late, great Representative John Lewis impresses upon Ileana from below where people, my muffed-up mother potentially included, await an unorthodox verdict from within those granite walls. John not only pushed for the release of Cuban detainees; but doing away with prisons altogether. It’s overwhelming to exist, in part, due to one man’s tireless campaigning, but here we are. Thank you, Sir.
A separate 1987 clip from PBS’ respected long-running signature news magazine, NewsHour, is more generous in length. At 13:41, this segment was published to YouTube by The Federation for American Immigration Reform; a nonprofit organization that deserves credit for keeping this history, uncannily resonant today, eternally alive. Conversations are held with red tape pushers, Immigration and Naturalization Service peons; the good guys and bad guys of bureaucracy (mostly bad); detainees who have not seen their families for an unfathomable length of time; the families who miss them terribly. Conversations are held around the monument that is the Atlanta Penitentiary, and the irony that it was in the 1970s, the building was in such dire condition that it was weighed being shuttered. History is a swirl of circumstances, and one flawed decision can easily leave hundreds of thousands imperiled.
Most imperatively, more empathy can be found in this collection of publicly-produced segments than the one crafted by the corporate media affiliate. What we witness is not emotion that eclipses journalism, but journalism that is intent on telling a story from all sides. This is what reportage should, in my opinion, always look like: an exercise in crafting a human interest story for the varied populations that comprise an audience rather than the advertisers on whom major media outlets so heavily rely. Without wholly endorsing the Cuban Revolution’s outcome, it is worthwhile to mention that the country, lacking capitalism, also lacks western advertising.
Uploaded to YouTube multiple times over the past fifteen years, Estela Bravo’s The Cuban Excludables (1997) is an hour-long nonfiction film that is difficult to stomach in more ways than one. Its first shots entail Marielitos, held in American jails for fifteen years-plus, being returned to the country they once fled in shackles. Necessarily plagued by the talking head syndrome of modestly budgeted human rights documentaries, the blight of the Cuban refugee crisis on American history is put on full display here. We are privy to story after story of carceral brutality, the crushing weight of our country on the dreams of others, and the maddening nature of an indefinite stay in a cage.
Earlier, I wrote of the cutting room floors of cinema verite — to always ask what has been documented, but left out. Querida lectora, I hope this is a question that you will demand of me, as so much here has been omitted for the sake of coherence and grace. It will be my pleasure to share with you every scrap of truth and half-truth I’ve ever come across. The one that feels pertinent to mention in this final moment. I have told you how my father arrived in my fraught and fickle country; now, I will tell you how he departed.
Remember: There are a thousand stories within every movie.
In 2015, my father sent my family a letter from Camaguey, a far-flung Cuban state that is largely pastoral; a far cry from the Havana Vieja and Varadero in which visitors to the island delight. ICE had deported him, he wrote in pencil, all of his letters capitalized, yet done so silkily, effeminately, as is custom for Cuban men. The epistle’s large alphabet was not a grief-stricken yell, but a sob, the sort my father would emit during my childhood when the reality of America conspired with the memory of Cuba. It is easy to feel ambivalent about Fidel Castro’s death when one has heard a grown man of towering, John Henry-type prominence drunkenly burst into tears about the nation’s storied leader turned misguided Marxist bro idol.
The year my country obtained full recognition under the law for queer women like myself (should we wish to be recognized), this country expelled my father while selling graphic t-shirts espousing a message incensingly similar to that once etched on his bedsheet: Love is love. Despite us boasting an adored liberal president with a culture vulture tendency. Despite the continued presence of Wet Foot, Dry Foot, the policy which enabled my father to remain in the United States. It should have been enough that he had a daughter, enraptured by these unknown stories, residing in this nation. A daughter should always be enough; too much, even.
In subsequent years, I have never wept for Cuba; at least where my father is concerned. If I have found him here amid America’s filmic rubble, I can find him anywhere.
Written by Sarah Fonseca