I will always remember Thanksgiving week 2016 for the death of a wily Cuban—no, not Fidel Castro who died the day after Thanksgiving but of our friend Enrique, who died the day before Thanksgiving. Enrique was the man my wife Pat and I helped for many years and who “became” the central character of Citizen Cárdenas, Jesus “Gato” Cárdenas. Enrique’s last years were wrought with chronic illnesses, prompting him to tell us, “I would rather die in the streets than in a nursing home or hospital.” That didn’t happen; instead he died in his own home, a subsidized room, in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood. On Thanksgiving we remembered him, “thankful that he had been in our lives.”
Following readings, the question comes up, how much of Citizen Cárdenas is true? In my view, fiction and reality are intertwined about 50-50. The following extract has two chapters. The first Dearest Nephew II is a letter Gato received from his fictional Aunt Felicita. In the second, Gato responds to the letter, by asking Alexia and George to go to Cuba to visit her. In real life Enrique once suggested that Pat and I take him to Cuba—that never was going to happen. But in 1970, I did go to Cuba as part of the Venceremos Brigade, and wrote the letter that appears in Razing Cane to my co-workers at a Milwaukee factory. The letter in turn quotes Fidel Castro.
Dearest Nephew, After all these months, you don’t know what a relief it was to get a letter from you. Now it seems you were too busy preparing to move to your own home after that unfortunate burglary at the Cortez Arms. I’m sure you will be much happier and secure in your new building overlooking Humboldt Park. Read more. . . .
If Steve Cole had not written what became the Prologue, there would be no Citizen Cárdenas. When he first wrote it in 2004, he wrote not as a writing exercise, but as a thought exercise. Could he put himself in the shoes, in the mindset, of a friend, from their neighborhood, who he and his wife Pat had helped through a few crises. Everything about the man was different then Steve except their ages: ethnicity, education, life experiences, living circumstance, language.
Isn’t that the role of the storyteller, to be able to put him/herself in the shoes of their characters? In Citizen Cárdenas Steve does more than that. He tells the story through the different voices of its characters, chapter by chapter. The first few sentences of Prologue remain unchanged from Steve’s initial thought exercise:
I call him my “Dadi.” Of course, he not my father. I’m fifty-eight; he fifty-six. Actually I think I trick him. I call my real father, mi padre Cubano, “Papi.” Read more. . . .
From ancient times, the Greeks have valued hospitality or “filoxenia,” literally friend of the stranger or foreigner. The Greeks were among the first peoples outside of the Holy Land to accept Christianity, welcoming the Apostle messengers and their message including the Old Testament-rooted concept of “Welcoming the Stranger.”
“Filoxenia” is alive in Greece today on the Aegean islands like Lesbos, where villagers have aided hundreds of thousands Syrian refugees desperately and dangerously seeking to reach Europe. For their efforts, the islanders of Lesbos have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
In Holidays, Alexia and George Demas invite Jesus “Gato” Cárdenas to share Thanksgiving dinner with friends and George’s mother. Read the chapter and ask yourself, “Why?”
Call me old-fashioned, but to me the holidays are special. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter. They represent the most important aspects of our lives. Family, friends, and faith. Since Nick was born I’ve tried to follow the traditions of my family growing up. Church was a given, especially during Holy Week. Each holiday also had its traditional foods centered around the main course. Turkey at Thanksgiving, ham for Christmas, lamb on Easter. Read more. . . .