How do we really ever understand another person and her struggles? How can we ever walk in another’s shoes? How can we truly tell another’s story without also telling our own?
I went back to Cuba this year because of my friend and colleague Margarita Muñiz. I made a promise not to forget her: To share her story and her legacy; to ensure that future educators knew of her fight for equitable and excellent bilingual education. Margarita’s story would be told through film with two colleagues. Veronica Wells graduated from BAA almost ten years ago and is now an independent film maker and actress. Blanca Bonilla, also an excellent documentary filmmaker, was one of my first theatre students over 35 years ago. She works as BAA’s Director of Admissions. We went to meet Margarita’s Cuban family. We wanted to better understand her upbringing, her sudden departure as a Peter Pan “orphan,” and the reality of Cuba today.
Yet I have returned to Boston feeling that Cuba told me a story about myself. A story of loss and love and friendships that ended too soon. I went to tell Margarita’s story, but Margarita’s story became mine.
Margarita was the principal of the Rafael Hernandez School in Boston for at least three decades. She became a community icon, in part, because of her fight to keep alive bilingual education in the 1970. The Hernandez, which was conceived and founded by a group of Puerto Rican activists, was one of the first bilingual schools in the United States. It quickly became one of the most popular and successful in the Boston Public Schools.
In 2011, just days before Margarita died after a long battle with cancer, the Boston Public Schools voted to found the first bilingual high school in Boston. In honor of Margarita’s many accomplishments, it was named: Margarita Muñiz Academy. Margarita gave herself to her school and her students and, in the best way she knew how, to her family. She was exacting, demanding and critical. She didn’t accept disagreement well from adults, yet she gave her students many opportunities to grow and learn and make mistakes. She could also be enormously kind, accepting and generous. As we learned in our travels, she missed her extended family with an aching poignancy that we hope to capture on the screen. Listening to her cousin read Margarita’s holiday cards made me wish desperately that history had not been so cruel. Margarita was not like some Cubans in the United States who had nothing good to say about the revolution. She rarely engaged in conversations bashing Cuba’s politics. Margarita just missed her family. Terribly.
Margarita’s gift to me was the opportunity to return to Cuba and discover her story in all of her complexities — good and bad. Ours was a journey filled with questions and confusions about what we were observing, listening or learning about.
In learning more about Margarita, Cuba helped me confront my own past and my own losses. I had not expected that. Perhaps that is how Margarita was generous with me. Cuba shone a light on my belief that we are all tied together in this life and in this world. We are here on this earth for such a short time to take care and honor it and learn from others. To act with kindness and generosity at the same time. Not always easy.
Cuba was kind and generous to us. And enormously complex. Margarita gave me the gift of Steve Blossom, friend and co-trustee of her estate. He allowed us to tell Margarita’s story. Veronica and Blanca brought extraordinary sensibilities to the work. The trip would not have been possible without their film-making abilities and depth of compassion and understanding. They helped me understand what makes a story compelling, even when painful. Both of them understood the range of emotions I felt as I met Margarita’s family and interviewed them. Gently and carefully they peeled back the layers of Margarita’s life through their questions and camera shots.
Cuba told me that my story IS the story of the many friends I have loved and lost. Cuba reminded me about the importance of family and the wonderful and loving family that I have. I ached to return home. All three of us did. We compared our own family stories and learned of one another’s passions and idiosyncrasies. We laughed together.
We also learned the beauty of being DISCONNECTED from cellphones and computers since Cuba has little internet and it is costly. We listened and connected to ourselves and others instead. No texts or news to distract us. We knew little of the outside world. Still, the Cuban people passionately desire to be part of the world wide web and to learn and communicate freely.
We made friends. Wonderful friends who were also interested in Margarita’s story, and in us. They processed the many layers with us—explaining why a family would send their daughter to an orphanage in Louisiana thinking they would never see her again. Our Cuban friends helped us understand why Margarita might have presented herself as much more upper class than she actually was. And Margarita’s family helped us understand the many connections between Margarita’s family of birth in Cienfuegos and the Claflins, her “adopted” family in Boston, specifically Belmont. The Claflin family owned the sugar plantation where Margarita’s family worked and where she grew up.
It was the Claflins who eventually helped Margarita’s parents leave Cuba and be re-united with their daughter, Margarita, who had spent about five years in a Catholic orphanage and school in Louisiana. The Peter Pan program, run by the Catholic church and probably the CIA as well, ferreted young children like Margarita out of Cuba and placed them in Catholic orphanages across the United States to “save” them from the “savages” of Communism. Most parents believed that they would never again see their children; hence they called them “Peter Pan orphans.”
We met the historian, Nancy, from the hamlet of Soledad, location of the sugar plantation “big house.” The many connections between Boston and Cienfuegos still support a warm sister-city sense, even though worlds apart and with the passage of almost 70 years. We learned so much from these people: Margarita was given an award at BU as the alumna of the year in 2007. Her mother worked in the registrar’s office at BU, many years after working as the governess for the Claflin children in Cuba.
The music, the dance and other arts are of enormously high quality. We saw a fabulous performance of the National Ballet, yet noted with dismay the very few Afro-Cuban dancers. We met Alicia Alonso, founder of the National Ballet and still the company’s director at 94. She is legally blind. In fact, she danced for many years blind. She comes to work every day and all decisions still go through her.
For eight days we tried to learn the story of a complex and complicated Margarita from an even more complex and complicated nation. We walked through streets of Havana that felt like a movie set from the 1950s. We rode in cars older than I am; we met taxi drivers with doctoral degrees in history and engineering.
We heard about Cuba as an upside down pyramid. Nothing quite makes sense viewed through our American capitalist lens. We listened to musicians made famous by the Buena Vista Social Club CD and movie. We danced to music in alley-ways and clubs. We laughed; we cried; we learned that the best way to know yourself is to learn about others. I returned to my home humbled by the experience of learning about Margarita. I returned buoyed by the possibilities that Cuba is on the brink of positive change. I have returned grateful for new and deepened friendships with Veronica and Blanca, and the chance to reminisce about the many friends that exist only as memories, albeit beautiful ones.
To my travel companions and film makers, Veronica and Blanca, whose energy and humor made this journey to Cuba an unforgettable experience. Gracias a todos. Especialamente a Cuba.
Connections of love and loss and friendship
Margarita lives in my memory with other cherished friends. Finding out about Margarita’s life caused me to relive parts of my own life. Margarita reminded me of other friendships, of lives cut short too quickly.
Margarita’s commitment to social justice is like that of Abbie Schirmer, my colleague and friend from many years at Fenway and in Boston Teacher Union (BTU) work. I miss Abbie every day. She helped me organize that first solidarity trip to Cuba in 1979 even though she never went with us. She, too, fought daily for students to reach their dreams, often against a backdrop of family and community difficulties. Abbie was a fighter, like Margarita. You wanted her on your team, always!
Margarita’s love of family reminded me of Amy Waldman, my best friend from college who later married Felix Vilaplana. Felix left Cuba in 1980 among what became known as the Marieltos—the Cubans who left by boats from the town of Mariel. Amy, with whom I shared almost everything, died too young and left behind Felix and two beautiful children—Maya and Talia. I have the privilege of being Maya’s madrina. Amy was a connecter and a fierce advocate for family, and when she was living she traveled to Cuba to meet all of Felix’s family. She especially loved his sister Maria Antonia whom we got to meet. Like me, Maria was a principal and a teacher. Maria told me how it was due to Amy that so many of her family re-connected.
Margarita’s dignity and determination as she confronted her cancer reminded me of Emily, my friend from high school, who so bravely fought leukemia. Emily spoke before medical school classrooms about the stages of denial and then acceptance as her death became imminent. Emily, with her long dark hair and dark eyes, spoke before the publication of the Elizabeth Kübler-Ross book “On Death and Dying.” Emily wanted young people in the medical profession to know the beauty in death. She, too, wanted her story told, her twenty-one years remembered and to leave something to help others. So she gave talks whenever and wherever she could. I was spellbound by this and angry. I wanted my friend alive and not so accepting of her death. It felt unfair.
Margarita was similar to Deidre, a colleague from BAA, whom I had the privilege of knowing for nine years as she worked on issues of access and equity for our students. She was deeply committed to creating the conditions for a strong student government and for student decision making about issues related to language of origin, race and gender. Deidre took students to conferences, to college visits, to work internships. She repeatedly found ways to provide access to unique opportunities for all of her students. She gave herself to their growth and development. Deidre came alive even more after her death as I helped prepare for her final celebration and memorial.
To Abbie, Amy, Emily, Deidre and Margarita, I thank you for the gifts you shared along the way. I am humbled to have shared time with each of you.