In 1960, Cuba was a chaotic country, as the world watched Fidel Castro rise to power and institute reforms in bringing the nation into Communism. The middle grade novel Farewell Cuba, Mi Isla by Alexandra Diaz (Paula Wiseman Books, September 2023) tells the story of the wealthy Victoria and her cousin Jackie during this time. As Victoria’s family escapes to Florida until it all “passes over,” Jackie remains an eye-witness to the rapid descent into Communism in Cuba. Moving from wealth and privilege, both cousins face a new reality.
Victoria’s family now must adjust to life in a cramped apartment as they struggle not just to make ends meet. Victoria dreams she can return to life as normal, where she rides her horse on the family estate and relies on her servants to support her. But what was intended to be just a two-week stay in Miami extends to months, and the determined Victoria learns new skills such as cooking and cleaning, things she never needed to worry about before. She witnesses racism for the first time and experiences the discrimination that comes to those who are “other.” In between these difficulties, she learns to navigate in an American middle school (a setting I wouldn’t want to wish on anyone to begin with). In addition, from being a well-paid engineer, Victoria’s father is thrust from being a well respected and highly paid engineer into the much more humbling job of construction.
In the meantime, back in Cuba, Jackie faces increasing changes as her progressive private school closes amid the government reforms and her family is no long able to get food and resources she once enjoyed. The strained living conditions cause family contention, and they wonder what could get worse. With even more frustration, the girls soon discover that letters are intercepted and censored by the government, and so even sharing the truth about their lives is impossible.
Farewell Cuba, Mi Isla captures a realistic glimpse into a historical refugee crisis as well as the descent into communism in a neighboring country. I enjoyed learning about the true events and the complicated reality that refugees faced then, and certainly they must face similar issues today as they face a new setting even while morning leaving their home. Just as Victoria’s family and Jackie faced discrimination and humbling circumstances, so to do modern immigrants and refugees today. But this story of humility, resilience, and adaptation and friendship is a testament to the possible spirit of survival even in difficult times.
Cuba’s revolution is not a historical situation I’ve seen much in middle grade fiction, although the impact of the Cuban diaspora has appeared in novels I’ve recently read. (I’m thinking of Merci Suarez in particular.) Farewell Cuba, Mi Isla provides a well written story with complex characters as a frame for this subject for a young reader.
I voluntarily read and reviewed an advance review copy of this book provided by the publisher via NetGalley. All thoughts and opinions are my own.