That Phone Call

Alfredo Prieto
Alfredo Prieto

I met Pepe Marchan some years ago at the University of Tulane in New Orleans, during an academic event that brought together a number of Cubans from both sides of the Florida Straits. Pepe had been brought to the United States during Operation Peter Pan in 1961, which involved taking thousands of children out of the country under the notion that parental rights over their children were about to be abolished in Cuba.

Not without a lot of effort, Pepe came to be a professor at a famous university in Cambridge where he now lives with his wife and three daughters, after spending the greater part of his life in Miami and New Jersey.

Perfectly bicultural, he defines himself as a crossover Cuban. He is an authentic fan of such Cuban dishes as “sleeping black beans”, roast pig and fried yellow plantains, as well as a lover of Havana Club Reserva Especial Rum. He smokes Cohiba Lanceros cigars, but only on the porch of his house, and he’s a fan of the “Muñequitos de Matanzas” a Cuban folklore group that I myself don’t like much.

Profane to the point of being politically incorrect, he constantly uses his hands while he speaks to emphasize each point of his discourse. Although technically he has no family in Cuba – his father and his mother left sometime after his departure, together with his two sisters – he used to come here once a year bringing a group of short-term students to receive classes on contemporary Cuban culture and society. Marchán would take advantage of his visit to attend the Havana Film Festival in December. He would also visit his two old aunts, his affectionate term for the two ebony colored ex-maids who remained living in his family’s mansion in the neighborhood called “El Víbora” since the time that everyone else left, and who are today its owners.

But after the announcement of the hardened measures towards Cuba in the summer of 2004, the license for his university was revoked. Days after the bad news he called me from his large three-story house on Greenough Avenue, a short distance from Harvard Square. Things were bad. The new restrictions that permitted visiting the island only once every three years, he told me, corresponded to a logic of punishment, as well as being antidemocratic and equally damaging to Cubans residing in the United States. He also said that they were sending a strong message from the Executive branch to the Congress, where the issue of freedom to travel to the Island had been gaining some proponents during the previous years, although it had never gotten very far.

In addition, he continued, they are violating the civil and constitutional rights of US citizens, as well as international agreements that the country had signed. In the end, he told me that if he wanted to return to Cuba he would have two options: travel illegally through a third country – Cancun, Montreal or Nassau – or else marry a male Cuban from the Isle, since Cambridge had just legalized gay marriage, a cause which he had supported from his position a professor.

“I’ll call you back later; I want to ask you something.” Minutes later the phone rang again. I picked it up, greeted him and then heard silence for a moment. “Alfre, my buddy, I’m going to ask you the question that the little mouse Raton Pérez asked the little cockroach Martina: Do you want to marry me? Carol, my wife, is totally in agreement with beginning the divorce paperwork. Marla, Margaret and Sophie, the girls, feel the same. How about your wife?”

“I’ll ask her,” I responded, “but in principle I believe that she too would be in agreement if it means we would have you with us for a time. It’s a pity that our wedding isn’t legally possible, because I don’t live in Cambridge.”