Cuban exiles trapped in emotional limbo
Is Castro dead or alive? Will there be change in Cuba? Now, an FIU
professor has given a name to the emotional seesaw that plagues many
Miami exiles -- unresolved mourning.
Posted on Sun, Feb. 24, 2008
BY LUISA YANEZ
At the Ferdinand Funeral Home and Crematory in Little Havana, family
after family gathers at the exile community's oldest parlor to pay their
respects to abuelo or abuela. The refrain is often one of regret: Fidel
Castro outlived their loved one.
For those Cubans left behind facing their own mortality, the yearning
for change on the island continues, and so does the toll of 49 years of
waiting for closure.
Now, Florida International University professor Eugenio Rothe has
identified a name for the unique psychological condition of so many
South Florida exiles: ``unresolved mourning.''
It's a term first coined by psychologist Sigmund Freud who used it to
describe someone who cannot come to grips with the death of a loved one.
Rothe, who has spent years studying the exile psyche, makes the case
that unresolved mourning is precisely the malaise faced by exiles who
live in a city where any news about Castro brings a flurry of hope that
he will die -- and they will regain a lost life.
Last week's bombshell about Castro's retirement was just the kind of
news Rothe suggests reopens wounds so many Cubans fight to bury.
Many members of what is now called ''the historic exile'' -- those
forced to leave in the 1960s as adults -- felt a wave of melancholy, as
they were reminded all over again of their loss and heartaches. It's all
part of the emotional bungee cord that snaps exiles throughout South
Florida at the hint of news about Castro and Cuba.
''For those older exiles, Cuba is like a dead person who somehow remains
half alive, like a zombie, because they have never completed their
mourning process of disconnecting and forming new bonds,'' said Rothe,
who will teach at FIU's new College of Medicine and has published
several articles and studies on the mental health of Cuban refugees.
Many exiles -- ''emotionally injured'' when their lives were derailed by
Castro's rise to power -- reside within this emotional limbo, said
Rothe, co-author of a paper on exile nostalgia which will soon be
published in the Journal of Immigrant & Refugee Studies. ''In Miami,
there is a constant reactivation of old wounds as exiles are bombarded
with major news events related to the island or Castro so they can never
completely let go,'' said Rothe, the son of Cuban exiles.
It was 12 years ago Sunday, for example, that the Cuban government shot
down two Brothers to the Rescue planes, killing four local fliers. No
one has been brought to justice, though U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
and Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart have called for a federal government
indictment of Raúl Castro, who as defense minister authorized the shooting.
In 2000, there was the bitter and drawn out battle between exiles and
Castro to keep Elián González with his Miami relatives. The boy, whose
mother drowned at sea attempting to escape Cuba, eventually was returned
to his father in Cuba.
And most recently, in June 2006, the announcement that an ailing Castro
was temporarily handing power to his brother Raúl, who Sunday is
expected to be named Cuba's next leader by the National Assembly.
All these events, Rothe said, have impacted the historic exiles'
recovery from the loss they experienced decades ago.
Rothe said that even the typical mourning process -- denial, anger,
bargaining, depression and acceptance -- is different for Cubans in
South Florida than it is for other Cubans because they are so
geographically close to their homeland.
''They have a relationship with Cuba that is never allowed to die,''
said Rothe, who added that exiles with feelings of unresolved mourning
are destined for disappointment.
''At first they enjoy the bittersweet feel of the nostalgia, but then
they are reminded that the past will never be again. Depression sets in
when they realize what they yearned for can never be again,'' Rothe
said. ``The old Cuba they knew is gone.''
The angst of unresolved mourning over Cuba, Rothe said, can be passed on
from generation to generation.
Beba Sosa, daughter of beloved Cuban senator Emilio Ochoa -- until last
year the last remaining signer of Cuba's historic 1940 constitution --
says during days like these, her father, who lived to be 99, is often on
her mind. ''He wanted to go back until the last minute of his life,''
``He would tell me that he knew he was too old to hold a political post,
but that he would like to offer advice to others.''
Near the end of his life, Sosa said: ``He hated that he would not live
to see the changes.''
For Raúl Martinez, the former mayor of Hialeah who is running for the
congressional seat now held by Lincoln Diaz-Balart, news of Castro's
resignation was bittersweet.
He immediately thought of his father, Chin, a staunch anti-Castro
fighter who died a year ago last week at 82.
Martinez watched his father readjust his life.
''My father came to Miami in April of 1960 thinking by that December
he'd be back home to roast his Nochebuena pork,'' Martinez said. ``He
like many older exiles didn't get to go back and see the old country
For some Cubans, even death provides no escape from the circle of
Fernando Caballero, owner of Ferdinand Funeral Home on Calle Ocho in
Little Havana, says he hears the same request from Cubans preparing a
loved one's burial.
''A family member will usually ask at some point if the body can be
taken back to Cuba -- once Fidel falls,'' Caballero said. ``With the
proper paperwork, the answer from us has always been yes. We'll help
take them back.''
Miami Herald staffer David Quinones contributed to this report.