Pedro Pan kid, professor of theology at Yale and author of Waiting for Snow in Havana Carlos Eire:
September 25, 2005
In the Wake of the Storm, Rage and Redemption
By CARLOS EIRE
THE worst may not be over for most of the evacuees from New Orleans. And the best may lie ahead, too. Being uprooted suddenly and violently, and not knowing when you will be able to return – or even if there will be anything left to reclaim – is as awful a shock as life can dole out.
It can also be a great defining moment. A profound loss may scar you for life, but it can also free you from illusion and make you stronger. This is especially true in the case of children.
I speak from experience, for I am also an evacuee of sorts. When I was 11 years old, a great disaster blew me away from home and family, leaving me with an uncertain future, and a white-hot smoldering rage at the unfairness of it all, a rage that even to this day is mixed with a weird kind of glee.
I was one of 14,000 children airlifted out of Cuba between 1961 and 1962 as part of Operation Peter Pan. Our parents sent us to the United States to save us from a monstrously disastrous revolution, not knowing if they would ever see us again, and not knowing where we would end up. Most of us had no relatives or contacts in this country, so we were all scattered to the four winds, shuffled off to any foster home or institution that could take us in. Some of us never saw our parents again. All of us had to adjust, and most of us learned how to thrive on adversity.
Children know how to adapt much better than adults. Everyone knows that. Move a child to a foreign land, and the child will learn the new language almost instantly, without an accent. Place a child in new surroundings, and within weeks the child may call the new place home and play with new neighbors as with the oldest of friends.
Children tend to embrace pain and the paradoxical nature of existence with grace to spare. Loss is gain and gain is loss. No problem. I lost my house and all my friends, and miss it all in my very marrow, but I love all these strange new things. I hate them, too. And I deserve to be happy, no matter what.
Children are blessed with an inner compass that always points toward that true north the ancient Greeks called eudaemonia and we call happiness. They are also quite adept at burying their pain.
But no one stays a child for long. All children who adapt to wrenching losses have to confront the pain they buried sooner or later, along with the anger spawned by it.
If asked how I would counsel the children evacuated from New Orleans, many of whom have ended up here as our neighbors, I would say that they need no advice. That inner compass will guide most of them through this dark night. But I might slip each of them a message in an envelope, sealed with a bright red stamp that reads “Open When the Rage Begins to Surface.”
And what would the message say?
Embrace your rage. It is utterly justified. Nature dealt you a low blow, and your government made it worse. Your city deserved to have better levees, and in the richest nation on earth, you could have easily had them. Your leaders failed you at every turn, both before and after the storm, especially if you were among the poor. But embrace your survival, too, along with all of those surprising acts of kindness and all of the unexpected opportunities that came your way because of this disaster. Never forget that gain and loss are twins conjoined at the heart. You knew that as a child, and you know it still.
My predicament, though similar, is not quite the same. Forty-six years after it came ashore, the storm that sent me packing is still churning over the same spot, wrecking everything over and over, spewing out refugees constantly, with no end in sight.
There are now over 2 million of us Cubans scattered around the globe, waiting for the skies to clear, burying our dead in improbably odd resting places. Most of us consider ourselves very lucky and are profoundly thankful for the new lives we have found, even if we run into clueless dolts who wear Che T-shirts or dare to vacation amid the ruins we were forced to abandon.
Perhaps I should aim my advice at everyone who has watched Katrina from afar rather than at those who have suffered through it.
When you think of Katrina and its victims, keep in mind that exile is always a mixed blessing, and that those children blown away by this disaster will be sorting angrily through the ruins – and finding rough gems in the debris – for the rest of their lives.
Carlos Eire is the T. Lawrason Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University and the author of “Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy,” winner of the 2003 National Book Award for nonfiction. He lives in Guilford.