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Monday, June 28, 2021

Cuba in My Pocket: a refugee's tale of uncertainty & hope


Cuba in My Pocket, the middle grades historical fiction chapter book by award-winning author, Adrianna Cuevas, tells the story of 12 year old Cumba who, in 1961, is forced to flee Santa Clara for the U.S. in order to avoid being drafted into the military for Fidel Castro.  Based on the author's family history, the book is full of intimate details that can only be from the perspective of someone who lived it.  The story is one that should be shared with middle grade readers on up because it tells the important part of history, how governments impact people's lives, and the real accounts of people who risked it all in order to have a chance at a future for themselves and their families.  

Cumba's relationships with his family and friends in Cuba are the most memorable parts of the story.  They play dominoes, cook delicious meals, go looking for flowers and even discuss how their lives have changed after Fidel came to power.  Readers can continue with learning about these parts of Cuban history and culture by looking at photos and videos of Cuba prior to the 1960s and afterwards.  Cumba relies on the strength of these relationships to propel him towards the unknown in the U.S. and holds on to the promise of reuniting with them again.  

Cumba's journey to the U.S. is another important part of the story that readers will never forget. From his flight to Miami with another young girl traveling alone who doesn't understand the language or even how to put on a seat belt, they rely on the kindness of other passengers to guide them through.  Cumba's school experience in Miami is like being pulled into a rip tide because of the cacophony of noise, not being able to practice his English, and his teachers not making any attempts to help him.  This is especially gripping to me as a teacher.  Thankfully he does make an American friend who makes going to school more tolerable, but the PTSD that Cumba has as a result of living in a militaristic society, is keeping him from moving on.

The reader also learns about the role the Catholic Church had in taking in young children from Cuba and sending them to foster families across the U.S.  Cumba and his house-mates use the Catholic Welfare Services to help them locate their family and friends who were supposed to be coming to the U.S.  If readers want to continue learning about this part of history there are many resources that offer more glimpses into how the church supported Cuban immigrants.

When Cumba gets sent to a foster family in Key Largo his story does change for the better.  School is a complete change as his teachers help him learn the content through visuals and study tips.  He even reunites with a friend from Santa Clara and they bond over being the only Cubans in school.  Even when he gets bad news from home and feels helpless he knows he can rely on his friend to understand exactly what he's feeling: helpless and guilty.   Here they are enjoying life in Key Largo while their families are experiencing torture in Cuba.  I think other immigrants can relate to this feeling, too.  We are grateful for being able to be here in the U.S. but also have guilt that our family members are struggling in our home countries.   

I applaud Cuevas for writing this story and honoring her family's history.  The photos and glossary at the end of the book offer more details about the Spanish language and why she chose to write her father's story.  As an adult, I learned a lot about Cuba's history and how refugees were treated during this time.  It would be a good book for grades 4 and up. Here is the author talking about the book in her own words:

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