Jose Yglesias talks with Studs Terkel
BROADCAST: 1967 | DURATION: 01:00:28
Discussing the books "The Goodbye Land" "Orderly Life" and "In the Fist of the Revolution" and interviewing the author Jose Yglesias.
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Jose Yglesias "Come back for I swear to you that at the foot of every stream and fount of clear water where once your face, your face was shown and in every old wall which lent you shade when you were young and ceaselessly played, I swear and say to you that there are still mysterious spirits who call for you so hurt and loving, in so deep and sad an accent, they make our air unhappier to breathe."
Studs Terkel This is a verse of Rosalia de Castro. I take it she is probably the bard of this region in northern Spain in the province of Galicia. The reader is Jose Yglesias, who is a marvelous writer. Mr. Yglesias, the book "Goodbye Land" came out several years ago published by Pantheon is a quest--perhaps this could be the basis of our conversation with Jose, but his new book is a novel, and a very excellent one called "An Orderly Life". We'll talk about that and in between is a fascinating one, part of a series that Pantheon put out, his adventures, observations of Cuba today called "In the Fist of the Revolution". So we'll sort of be talking about all three books and your work. You, yourself, Jose, I was thinking, the little verse you read from Rosalia de Castro has a meaning to you. This is from "The Goodbye Land".
Jose Yglesias Yes, yes. Rosalia de Castro was very concerned with that little province in northeastern Spain that has sent out, you know, people all over the world because it cannot feed its own people. And Gallegos, Galicians, have populated all of South America and have traveled--you find them everywhere. She in her poetry was a kind of siren, you know, calling them back, come back to this land which is so dear to us, these green fields and streams.
Studs Terkel It's a special meaning to you because she called back your father. This book, "The Goodbye Land", by the way, portions of which appeared several years ago in "The New Yorker", is one of the most beautiful books I've read. I'm thinking of the old Soviet writer Konstantin Paustovsky in "Story of a Life". That same feeling. Your father, this is a memory now, your father went back to this hometown,
Jose Yglesias Yes, he had. He had gotten sick in Florida and after he had tried every kind of doctor and had gone to Havana, there, too, to the hospitals, he thought that if he could go back to Galicia, you know, and go back to that little farm country town where he was born and breathe that air that he'd get well again.
Studs Terkel You, you had been living in Tampa for a little while. Your father lived in Havana and then in Tampa, we'll talk about Tampa and your boyhood. But then something drew you, you wanted to know, you and your mother and sister were here, and your father went back to his mother--
Jose Yglesias Yes, he was never able to return because he got sick again and he overstayed his time abroad, he was an alien, and he was never able to get back to the States and he died a few years later in this little town. I didn't know that I had any relatives left in Galicia when I was in Spain, and I had promised my mother and sister and I had sort of promised myself, too, to go to Galicia and look him up, and I did at the end of the trip. I thought that, you know, there might be somebody who would remember him, remember that whole incident, tell me a little bit about it. What happened was that I found a whole group of cousins whom I had never expected to find. And I had a kind of glorious reunion with them which was also a very painful one. It was sort of painful for them and painful for me, and I left eventually quite happy with the experience, though while I was there it was a painful
Studs Terkel But I'm thinking that the book, it's beautiful, perhaps you can read from different portions of it, because it's a natural for reading out loud, and I'm aware that you read it out loud in, you know, in reading for the blind. The adventure, your odyssey, it's really finding your own origin, too. And the people you found, it was almost, as a little suspense touch to it, too. Where was your father? Where did he go? Why did you not hear from your grandmother, his mother? And this is the story of the people you met. And so begins your adventure. You and your wife and son went, and begins this adventure. It's fantastic. I'm thinking of--first, the fact you were an American, and it's Franco's Spain and the Civil Guard there were sort of, at first there's a feeling of obeisance to you, that you yourself did not want, you were fighting this aspect.
Jose Yglesias All of our, you know, the community that I came from in Tampa, Ybor City, which is the Latin community, was during the Spanish Civil War, 100 percent behind the republic. It was a very ardently Republican community. As a matter of fact, people used to give up a percentage of their weekly salary to the republic. And it was very strange to, you know, go to Franco's Spain and then to find myself in Galicia which was the first province to fall to Franco, and then to discover that a couple of my cousins that fought in Franco's army. Yet like almost all Spaniards, they seem sort of uncontaminated by, you know, the following his ideology. They'd been living the way they'd been living for centuries in that that little farming town of Miamon, the wagons, the wheels for these carts had been hewn out by hand, you know, the kind of thing I suppose that an antique shop in New York would, you know, give its eye teeth for. But the people there were extraordinary because they were very--they were both primitive and very loving and very wary of strangers. I found that I must have caused them some worry at the beginning because they might have thought that I'd come back to claim my land. So I mean, I didn't think, I didn't know I had and would never of course have claimed it [anyway?].
Studs Terkel This turned out to be something of a little twist in this book, you had no idea at first there was a feeling of guilt that you and your family were contributing some money to your old grandmother and your father was ill, was dying, went back, you know, the whole family heir would, and you came to find out why, what, and then all sorts of revelations occur. The little hunchback of a cousin, Asuncion--
Jose Yglesias Yes.
Studs Terkel She was saying, "Well, maybe your grandmother," whom you describe as a Mother Courage. She's a figure, though she's never, doesn't appear in the book, she's talked about, she's a very strong
Jose Yglesias Yes. Some twenty years after her death they were still talking about her as if she were alive and she had been apparently a hardworking woman who lived until her eighties, and the little hunchback Asuncion was the first one to give me some idea that everything hadn't been the way I had thought. She had said, "She did not write to you again after your father's death because she was afraid that you and your mother and your sister would come and be a charge to her." The strange thing about this was that we were, we always felt very guilty about the fact that we had been able to send so little money. We were very poor people ourselves, to my grandmother, that is, my mother would send, say, $15 a month for a while and then during the Depression, then it became very infrequent, but I found out that $15 a month was and is to this day quite a bit of money in Galicia. And this was probably of great help to the old lady, and as you know in the book, I slowly find out that she had bought other lands and that she had looked out after two other grandchildren that she had and that I didn't know, my cousins. They were her daughter's children, and in Galicia land is what you give your children. If you cannot give your children a little plot of land, they are poor unfortunates indeed. And so this land was for them. She gave it to them and this was the land that my cousins perhaps at first feared that I had come to claim.
Studs Terkel We'll come to your cousins individually. This, too, is quite beautiful, because for a time in reading it, we're not quite certain whether Jose Yglesias is going to find, is it the right people? Is it there? Was there a mistake? You know, you ask that question too. And bit by bit, the photograph--well, perhaps you could read that part where you recognize your father's photograph and that one later
Jose Yglesias Yes. It took, we reached that little town, and someone led us to a house where there was, they said--she said an old man who might remember my father and my grandmother, and this old man turned out to be my father's cousin, first cousin, or as they say in Galicia, carnal cousin. It took a while, though, we were there almost three- quarters of an hour, and they didn't seem to remember. They didn't really seem to remember in the way where, in the way you could check. Sometimes I thought that, perhaps they were just telling me things that they thought would please me, which is something very frequently find among amongst Latins, that they will answer you in the way they think will please you rather than what's the objective truth. However, the moment did come when one of them came out with a photograph of my father that I had never seen but which was clearly
Studs Terkel You know, and really, it's something I think, perhaps you should read because the writing is quite beautiful, quite moving. But bit by bit you find that you discuss and also the question of pride, you're aware always the poverty and the pride, and here you were, the writer, the American, you know, and you had--and of course the food, the hospitality, all this. But I think on page 98 somewhere, there's several references here. And when you come across the photograph, it's beautiful, but always you were aware, too, that there's a certain ritual, isn't there, a certain honor, a certain?
Jose Yglesias Oh, yes. Oh, yes. The little hunchback Asuncion in the middle of the meal showed that that beautiful wheat bread that they were serving me was not their daily bread at all, and she brought out a husk of a piece of cornbread and she said, "This is what we eat all year 'round."
Jose Yglesias The son of my father's carnal cousin who came in from the fields, they sent for him, and he said, "I have a cousin of our"--I'm sorry, "a photograph of our mutual cousin in Havana," which was something we had discovered just a moment before, and he went into the house which is an ancient old stone house, and came back with presumably this cousin's photograph. Instead, he handed me the photograph which had been sent from Havana by my father when he was probably 17, young man, to an aunt of his and which had been kept ever since. And he said, "This is Aunt Dolores' son." And it was my father.
Jose Yglesias "'This is the son of Aunt Dolores,' he said. I had never seen that photograph, but I knew the man. He was my father. I leaned over the photograph a moment, controlling an indescribable longing to kiss it, and heard my wife call out loud, 'It's your father. It's exactly like him.' When I looked up, all their faces looked back at me eagerly. 'Cousins!' I yelled it to keep from crying, and went from one to the others, kissing them, leaning low to kiss the little hunchback. 'I am Asuncion, Asuncion,' she said, and I turned to the woman who had first taken us into the house and said, 'And you are?' 'Ana,' she said, and the tears welled over and ran down her cheeks. Carlos Andedo put each of his enormous hands on my shoulders and said, 'Cousin.'"
Jose Yglesias Yes! At about the age of five. No, a little younger than that, because it was when he had first gone to Spain and she--my mother took my sister and me to the photographers, you know how you did that those days, on very great occasions you had a photograph taken, and we were seated in front of the camera and a man with a hood, you know, and I was wearing a little sailor uniform.
Studs Terkel Before you met your--the kingpin of all, the leader of all the cousins, Claudio. When you met him, there were others, but there was a woman who was your father's friend, your father's woman who took care of him in the latter days, and that's a terribly--Amparo--
Jose Yglesias Noceda.
Jose Yglesias Oh, yes. The whole town had been alerted all the cousins were gathering together, and I was to meet my cousin Claudio, who was the as you said the kingpin of the family who had done well, had worked very hard, got a lot of land, had a little tavern, and we went to the tavern first and just before we got to the tavern, oh, just a few minutes before looking at the little hut that still exists where my father was born, the other cousins put their arms around me and told me that I was going to meet Amparo, and I said, "Who is she? And they said she was your father's woman when she came, when he came back to Spain. I was very moved and I was very pleased because it changed for me the picture of my father's last years, which I thought were lonely, totally unhappy, with no one of his own. And in the tavern, when we were greeting everyone, I saw her, and she was standing watching me. Obviously she knew who I was.
Studs Terkel Sure.
Jose Yglesias "There were no chairs in the tavern, only a bench and table and some piled-up boxes, and they were still trying to convince me to sit down with my wife on a bench when I noticed an elderly woman standing just inside the door quietly watching. She wore a blue skirt down to her ankles, a long-sleeved man's shirt of a striped print, and a kerchief of the same material as her skirt. She had the straight-shouldered posture of Galician women, and although she smiled and looked directly at me, she made no claim for attention, seeming only a shy observer. Carlos Andedo touched my elbow. 'There is Amparo Noceda,' he said, and waved a hand at her. 'Amparo Noceda,' I said, and went toward her. She held out her hand and looked down. I took her hand and then embraced her, and was surprised that for all her ruddy complexion, her strong large face and straight body, she felt so slight and up close was so small. I kissed her on her cheek and she looked up at me smiling, her eyes full of tears. I kept her hand in mine, and she struggled to say something but did not manage it. I had the feeling that everyone in the tavern was talking and exclaiming, but when I turned to introduce her to my wife and son, I saw that everyone was quietly watching. 'Come,' I said to her. 'I want to take your picture,' and led her outside to the lane. No one followed us, not even the curious children. I embraced her again, and she simply smiled and nodded and let the tears roll down her cheeks. 'You stay there,' I said, and stepped back. She straightened her shoulders and looked at me quizzically. Through the viewer I noticed the glint of light on her shirt. It came from a small safety pin which held her shirt together where a button had fallen off. When I took her hand again, she first spoke. 'You are very tall,' she said, and her voice was low and husky like an old actress'. 'Amparo, do you remember my father?' I said. 'Sir'--'No, not sir,' I said, and then repeated my question. She put one hand over her mouth to keep from crying and nodded her head so vigorously that her tears sprinkled over her skirt and on her hands in mine. I asked her how old she was, and she controlled herself and smiled. 'I am 68 or 69. One of the two.' She kept her sad gray-green eyes on me, her head slight shyly cocked, and a slight appealing smile never left her lips. I said, 'Amparo, I want to thank you for taking care of him.' She looked down and nodded very fast, as if she were consenting to a request. 'Your father,' she said, 'was a very fine man.' She kept nodding and looking into my face, both looking for traces of my father and waiting to be of service. A thousand things seemed to occur to her, and unable to give them speech, she communicated them with each emphatic nod and the tears which flooded her eyes. I was as tongue-tied as she. I had long ago learned a set of manners which did not allow for this situation, which by omission of such a possibility taught me it must be avoided. But Galicia had begun to teach me its own code, and if like Amparo I could think of nothing to say, I could nod and smile with her and lean down and embrace her and kiss her again. Yet the release of tears of which she was so easily capable, would not come. This last bastion of manly good manners would not yield, no matter how much I shared with Amparo as we walked back into the tavern, the aching joy of a happy ending to my father's suffering."
Studs Terkel Of course, several thoughts come to mind and that beautiful passage and throughout the book is filled with these insights and we'll come to that in a moment. One is the--they respected. There was something private here, and all your other cousins knew that between you and Amparo, that was your father, and they respected that, that this respect.
Studs Terkel And the other is there is a question of a photograph, taking a picture. That was--your being there, now see, I think we have to point out that Jose Yglesias himself is a key factor, not only as the writer of the book, but as a figure in the book. Your own--if I could say this, your own sensitivity of their thoughts and feelings recurs throughout, and it was an eventful--your being there, as they said, was a great event. It was an event, wasn't it?
Jose Yglesias Oh, yes. To come to that, to Miamon, so far off, you know, with no roads, no paved roads, of course, nothing like this but not even gravel roads. For this cousin to come from America, obviously a millionaire to them. And just simply the whole wonder of it, that I should show up, you know, that I should have found them.
Jose Yglesias Oh, yes. Oh, yes. To take a photo, to have your photograph taken is a great honor. And when the roll was over, there was this terrible exclamation, you know, that went 'round the room. "Ahhh. It's over. No more pictures can be taken."
Jose Yglesias He was very shy. Well, one of the things we haven't mentioned is that I discovered when I was in the town that my father's sister, who was younger than he, was actually illegitimate, was born after my grandfather's death, and the same thing occurred in the next generation. My cousin Claudio was legitimate, but his younger brother was not. And it's this younger brother who has worked very hard in Venezuela, has started a little tavern in the city of Santiago de Compostela, a beautiful medieval town, incidentally, and he carries the burden of this inheritance at the same time that he is very Galician in a way. That is, he's stolid, extremely hardworking, does not quickly show his emotions, and his reception of me was just startled. He had no idea that I existed, either. But in time it changed. He was not the, he's not the open expressive man, you know, man that you--well, the women are. The Galician women, you know, immediately take you into their arms and love you.
Studs Terkel But before that, I want to ask you about the town, Santiago de Compostela, that marvelous description of the cathedral there and the sextons in the cathedral in the [moon? moment?] there's a great description. But you say, suppose you describe Galicia, you say there more--this is the northern Spain.
Jose Yglesias Yes, it's northwestern Spain. It's north of Portugal, south of Asturias, it's very green and lush. And all the Irish, incidentally, after the book was published I heard a lot from Irish- Americans to tell me it's like Ireland, and the people are like the peasants of Ireland, they said. Very lush, very green, but it is not as fertile as it looks, and it's mountainous, hilly, the land is not very fertile. People own little tiny plots. It's barely enough to feed anyone. And the men go away to work abroad on ships.
Jose Yglesias Now, yes. Now in West Germany so many--you see, as a matter of fact, or I saw then that it was mainly the women working in the fields. This has always been true. In the past they used to go to Madrid. For example, all the porters in the railroad stations in Madrid, all the street cleaners are usually Gallegos, Galicians.
Jose Yglesias Oh, very much so, you know. In southern Spain are the Andalucíans, a very happy, open, it's a different kind of people. The Galician is very soulful, hard to get to, very poetic, not openly gay except in the romedias there, the yearly
Jose Yglesias Oh, immediately, because she--when she was two years old, her father went abroad to work and she went--he went to the Americas and he ended up in the United States, which as they said to me, is north of Cuba. She had never seen her father again, and she had once heard that he worked at what she called La Casa Ford, and she hoped that I would look for him and find him for her, you know. At the same time, she was in town because her husband was working on the streets fixing the old marvelous granite block streets of Santiago, and she was sitting in my cousin's little tavern, and she immediately told me her story, just as she told me, you know, all the stories of the adventures of her family. They were a very scrappy family, she herself was.
Jose Yglesias Yes, there was a court case in which she defended her husband and she injured a man, or rather hit him rather hard. She was brought up on charges, but won the case. So the law students of the University of Santiago de Compostela who had loved her actions in court used to call her "the lawyer."
Studs Terkel Santiago de Compostela, where your cousin has his tavern, this is known for the cathedral there. There's a great description here of the ritual there at the cathedral, if I could find that, when they--
Jose Yglesias Since the Middle Ages, you know. Santiago de Compostela used to be after Rome the most important Catholic shrine in Europe. And, you know, Richard the Lionhearted walked all his way to Santiago de Compostela because supposedly the corpse of St. James is there in the crypt in the cathedral. And every really high holy occasion they bring out the incense burner which is called the "botafumeiro" and we were there on the summer of the Holy Year, which meant there were so many pilgrims that there was almost one important High Mass each day, at the end of which the "botafumeiro" would be swung, which has absolutely not a thing to do with the Catholic religion, but which is a national custom there. We walked into the cathedral the first--I walked into the cathedral the first time right in the middle of this, when they were about to swing the "botafumeiro" and they were, and a priest up at the lectern was singing the anthem to St. James. It goes this way in the book, shall I read that? "Billows of incense floated down to us from the censer as it swung across the block-long transept and gained altitude in time to the music. The censer was some three or four feet tall and was tied to a thick rope which reached all the way up some five stories high to the cupola above the main altar. The rope came down again in front of the altar in many strands, all tied to a ring of wood some five feet in diameter. Six men in deep red robes held onto this wide ring, turning and rising with it. They seemed to be commanded by the ring, not operating the swinging of the censer, for their feet rose off the ground and they twirled with the ring like puppets. We stood out of the censer's way, pressed against the columns of the transept, and watched it swing down from the other end of the transept, almost sweep the floor in front of the altar, and emitting flames in its rush, climb over our heads to the ceiling, as the hymn reached its climax.
Jose Yglesias The cathedral? A marvelous, enormous place with no pews. People stood and knelt on these marble floors. Its entrance has a portico which is called the Gloria portico, with some of the most magnificent sculptured bas relief that you can find in Europe. Master Mateo did it, and there is a little figure carved in stone of the Master Mateo who did--who was the sculptor of the Gloria portico, and people as they walk by it turn down and put their forehead to his head, because they--the superstition is that some of his intelligence will flow into you.
Studs Terkel Jose Yglesias, I'm speaking with Yglesias about one of his several books, this is "The Goodbye Land", that is not just an odyssey of someone seeking the beginnings of himself, of his people, where his father went to die, where he was born. Where his father--you, of course, were here.
Jose Yglesias Yes.
Studs Terkel We're coming back to that in a moment, to Ybor City in Tampa, your memories as a kid there. But also your descriptions in meeting these people. You say the Irish found similarity not only because of the greenery, but because of the ebullience of the people, where they--not being afraid to show.
Jose Yglesias And you know, they're very poetic kind of people. They also have great fiestas, they have romerias, throughout the summer when the saint's day of each town, then they have a romeria, which is something you know, will last for two days. People drink and sing and dance, they're up all night, and of course they play the bagpipes, they're Celts, after all.
Jose Yglesias That's right. It's part of Tampa. We call it Ybor City, that section, that Latin section. I used to hear the bagpipes being played on Sunday at the cafes, and these were both the Asturians and the Gallegos who would play it, and I always thought that the bagpipe was a Spanish musical instrument. To my astonishment, I found out that the Scots also had bagpipes.
Studs Terkel I wonder, in looking back, I know now that a current project [pause in recording] of yours in which you're writing a sort of informal history of your own observations of the Latin-American people. Aren't you, right now?
Jose Yglesias Yes, I have on my mother's side a very interesting pair of grandparents who had both been born in Cuba and who came to Tampa in the 1880s when the cigar industry was first started there. I want to do sort of their story and the story of cigar makers in Tampa.
Studs Terkel Jose Yglesias has done this, his first book was "Awake in Ybor City", that was his novel, then came "The Goodbye Land", and in a moment, perhaps, we can talk about "In the Fist of the Revolution", which is his visit to Cuba today, and perhaps your observations and the informality of it. And then a novel that, perhaps, concerns what you might have been, too, since you were working pharmaceutical industry in your novel called "An Orderly Life".
Jose Yglesias I must say, Studs, that I don't seem to be able to write about any subject that doesn't have to do somehow with the Spanish or with the Cubans and some connection with Ybor City in Tampa, Florida. I don't--maybe I'll attempt something different, but I have to have that as a kind of touchstone, I think.
Studs Terkel So when you were in Galicia to the town Miamon, where your father finally was buried where he was born and where your grandmother was, where your cousins were, in a sense that was the beginning of Ybor City for you, from there, the scenes of
Jose Yglesias Yes, yes. It was--it's strange about those little towns in northern Spain that, you know, have sent so many people to populate. I went to a little town in Asturias, too, I think I tell about at the beginning of the book in which--oh, it was even smaller than Miamon. It had very few little houses grouped around farms, and from this little town in Asturias, oh, there were at least 200 descendants in Ybor City from this little place.
Studs Terkel You can't leave "The Goodbye Land" just yet without Claudio and the farewells, of course. Claudio, now finally, you say you must meet him, and you did. And he was a big man--and again, he was very emotional. And he cried--of course, there were tears all
Jose Yglesias Yes. I must say, it was, it was a lot of the time people just simply cried because they were happy, too. You know, that would bring tears to them. The--I think it's, I called it "The Goodbye Land" in the book because it's a province, I think, Galicia, in which they are experts at greetings and at farewells, and they have had to say so many farewells in their day, bitter ones, even that marvelous earthy peasant woman you remember did say goodbye to her own mother, and I found her story terribly moving. She ended up by kneeling on the floor and kissing her feet.
Studs Terkel But before, there were several goodbyes for you and your wife and son, they couldn't just quite leave you. Obviously, your coming there was memorable to them. It meant, it was not only a break from the routine, but somebody from another land that was part of them had come. Also thought you were a writer, that--
Jose Yglesias Yes, they were both terribly impressed with me so that they thought, perhaps they couldn't be intimate at the same time that they supplied me with the quickest intimacy I have ever found in my life. And whatever questions I had, you know, that were unanswered finally about my grandmother and my father, I really didn't care about anymore because their greeting to me, you know, their feelings were so marvelous that it overcame everything else.
Jose Yglesias Yes.
Jose Yglesias Yes. It was a very--actually, I was very happy to find the place. It was a nice asylum that he was at. It had--well, of course, wherever you're in Galicia it had this glorious view overlooking a valley.
Studs Terkel But the fair [weather?]. Then you had, naturally, you brought gifts for everyone there, but they could not just accept the gifts without, it came as a great surprise without the reciprocity. When they came--you said goodbye and there were tears, they were clinging to you, and there's one spot I howled, because it was beautiful, when you were going to pay the fare and they wouldn't let you pay the fare, and everyone grabbed you and held you.
Jose Yglesias Yes, for my son Rafaeł they brought him a bagpipe. As a matter of fact, as you said there were many farewells, first from Santiago, and we were leaving for Vigo where our ship was going to leave from, and they loaded us with so many
Jose Yglesias Yes. They showed up at the hotel with us, and then in Vigo they showed up again with many more gifts again, and we had one marvelous final picnic on a little beach in the bay, for which they had also as they said brought a "bite." This bite turned out to be enormous amounts of foods and gallons of wine, and we spent a beautiful last afternoon
Studs Terkel There was a marvelous scene there, by the way, when you took Asuncion to the restaurant, someone, and there was a question, you know, these are farm, simple people. At the same time, there was a dignity, even though--
Jose Yglesias Yes.
Jose Yglesias Yes.
Studs Terkel Nonetheless.
Jose Yglesias Yes. She was both critical of the food and acted as if the service was only right. At the same time that there were certain things that she couldn't eat, seafood for example, she wasn't accustomed to and could not eat it.
Jose Yglesias Yes. She is really the great Romantic woman, part of the 19th century of Spain. But I had not really read very much of her, just a few things are available anthologies. What got me very interested was that she was so typically Galician, that she too was an illegitimate child. She--I felt, you know, that what's in her poetry is so much the experience of that people, that that is why she, you know, to them is a figure of song and verse, every peasant knows who Rosalia is. There are statues to her everywhere. And she had had a very terrible and, you know, life and she had been the son (sic) of an upper-class girl, but illegitimate, and her mother didn't claim her until she was about eight. But she lived in one of those little aldeas, one of those little towns in the countryside, and was very close to people, she wrote very beautiful, lyrical poetry and all of it about Gallegos and Galicia, which they feel as a little nation apart, you know, there is a Galician language. It's a kind of medieval Portuguese, and some of her poetry is in Galician.
Studs Terkel Somewhere in this conversation, this program, perhaps at the end of it, we'll play "La Llorona", the weeping one, I think there's a record of it that we have. Perhaps the farewell, you can talk about "In the Fist of the Revolution", which in a sense is related to the book that, "The Goodbye Land".
Jose Yglesias "Romeria."
Jose Yglesias For me. That's really what they did. I did a little bit of the Lindy, mainly, but the last farewell was at the railroad station. When I went with them to the railroad station in Vigo they had traveled since, oh, three, four in the morning to come to Vigo just to spend an afternoon with me, and at the railroad station when the, they were at the last car and when the little viewing platform when they said farewell, and they were all crying. And this is the last paragraph in "Last Farewell": "I saw them become small before my eyes, and I took out my handkerchief and waved it each time Claudio waved his, then I wiped my face with it, happy to have cried. Happy I had not asked them any questions. Happy their presence was enough. Sometimes, of course, I wonder. I speculate again about the past Claudio and I inherited, and I feel once more that hurt which makes me think I am going mad. It is then I treasure that last goodbye like a talisman. Their tears and mine make everything right. In this terrible land of necessity, I need to believe in human goodness supervenes.
Jose Yglesias Yes. Yes. It was an experience I was very happy to have lived through and, of course, when I came back to the States, I lived it through again for my whole family, all of whom I had to tell every moment of my time there.
Studs Terkel Down
Jose Yglesias Yes,
Studs Terkel It is in your second, or this third book, but the book that followed "Goodbye Land" is now available, "In the Fist of the Revolution: Life in a Cuban Country Town" (sic), this is part of a series thought of by the editor of Pantheon, Andre Schiffrin, it began with Jan Myrdal's "Report from a Chinese Village", and my work, "Division Street: America", and there's a marvelous book by a young English writer, Roland (sic) Blythe, there's a young West German writer, and Jose's book, so it was natural, of course, that you do it. This came--so, suppose you begin this--immediately people say, "Cuba! Castro!" Your adventures. It's a very informal book. There was almost an improvisational nature to your writing in doing it as though the country itself has an improvisational nature.
Jose Yglesias I feel that, you know, if you go anywhere and without a plan you just walk into a place, something always happens if there are people there, and I, you know, knowing Cubans I knew something would happen or certainly that they would tell me what was happening. And, so, I had really little worry when I went. My main worry was this terrible burden of following in your footsteps, of having, you know, doing a book that would be compared with "Division Street".
Studs Terkel When we start about Cuba, even before you have a little introduction, how you came about, you start this bus trip. And it's funny. I mean, it's supposing, it's very important, there's--you chose a certain town. Mayari.
Jose Yglesias Yes.
Jose Yglesias Well, I had been in 1960, I had been in Cuba. I'd been with Warren Miller, who incidentally wrote a very good book about that month that we spent together in Cuba, called "90 Miles from Home", and we were in Mayari, we were on the way, actually to Nicaro, which is where the nickel mines and the processing plant that our government had set up there during the Second World War were situated. And that had been nationalized some six months before and we wanted to see where were they operating. We went by Jeep from the nearest big city, with Holguin, and that's about two and a half hours away from Nicaro. And we stopped in Mayari to have lunch. It seemed like a cute town. It's like a Western town, you know, it's really like an American Western town. Then we went on to Nicaro, we got arrested because we had no identification with us. You know, no letter from the army saying you can come in. At that time, the nickel plant was guarded, there was a gate at which you had to show either a pass or identification. And, so, we were arrested by a young lieutenant in the army, whose way of arresting us was to take a long, such a long way 'round that he took, he really gave us a tour of the whole place before he took us back to the nearest town of Mayari and to there check our identification with Holguin. During that time in Mayari we were in the military headquarters, etc. and we were beautifully treated. We had a lovely time with them, you know, playing with their guns. All the soldiers were giving--each one was showing, you know, what he had done to the butt of each, you know, some had put a plastic thing with butterflies captured inside, etc. We were having such a good time, as a matter of fact, that Warren Miller's wife was unaware that we were under arrest all this time. For that reason, I had a, you know, sort of feeling for Mayari, and as soon as I had the idea proposed by Pantheon to go there, I said, "I'm going to Mayari."
Studs Terkel We should point out that naturally the word "Cuba" and "Castro" immediately arouse certain emotion or that, Jose Yglesias' book is a book of human beings living there. He speaks of the politics there, but basically it's your adventures, just as Jan Myrdal's observations of a small Chinese town, and it's something about Cuba and the Cubans and the Latins here that's--
Jose Yglesias Well, you know, just as you didn't do an analysis of the political life of Chicago or anything like that, but just went to the people, have them talk to you and tell their story, is what I did there. In Cuba things are very political, so everybody talks politics, but I didn't want to do an analysis of the politics of the revolution or anything like that, except as it comes up in people's lives. I went there unannounced and happened to find in the middle of the night a room at a new motel that had been built in town.
Jose Yglesias The Bitiri. In Oriente, that eastern province, everything seems to have an accent on the last syllable, and that's because of the Indian origin of a lot of names. At the Bitiri, which looked absolutely enchanting, etc., was very new, and it was done in the kind of [Eneet?] architecture, which uses a lot of the Indian styles and tropical and modern combined, I settled, to find that there was no running water, as beautiful, that they had not yet built the aqueduct before they built the motel, and it's sort of a center for people going through the town, people coming to the town to spend some time there. And it's right in the town, it's not like our motels that are usually on the outskirts of the city. So I was, I just settled there and went about talking to people, that's all I did.
Studs Terkel That's one thing that's quite clear about this book, and that's talking. We think of, again, a certain kind of country, a certain kind of government. Here they're talk. Everybody was talking.
Jose Yglesias Everybody talks. The Cubans are both amiable and talkative, and if there is one other person around, nobody goes to bed if they can talk to somebody, you know. The corners and the street corners, anywhere that you're at, you know, you immediately get into a conversation.
Studs Terkel People ask, people I know who read your book and of course admire it very much, ask, "Was he really free? [Unintelligible] Jose Yglesias, you know, well, did he have to follow a certain pattern? Weren't people afraid to talk to him?" Because they knew he was an American, you see, they knew you spoke Spanish, you know. Now, so--your adventures, your thoughts.
Jose Yglesias I had difficulty getting a visa from the Cubans. As a matter of fact, it took me 13 months, as I say in the book. But once I got there, the only thing I had to watch out for was the courteous treatment of officialdom in Havana who wanted to take me to the town or something like that, and I said, "No, please, I don't want any of that. You know, I speak Spanish, I'll go about my business on my own," and it's exactly what I did, and I didn't have to, you know, I didn't have to follow any kind of procedure. People weren't afraid to talk to me.
Jose Yglesias Oh, yes, oh, yes, also, I mean, from enemies of the regime to even friends of the regime criticizing. It's very hard to shut up a Cuban when it comes to what he thinks. And they will just talk, that's all, and they will be critical.
Studs Terkel We should point out, the book, by the way, not only is it a lively book and a very revealing one, but the humor, too, throughout. But improvisation is almost the key word, I mean, that bus ride was funny, there's a form of in or off, and one woman got the wire all mixed up.
Jose Yglesias Yes, one woman was, who was from Mayari was going back to Mayari because she had received a wire from Havana from her daughter-in-law saying that, you know, her son is sick, and wire money, so she went in person. Actually, in the Spanish there had been a slight typo, and what she had said was not that he was in bed, meaning sick, but that he was in the cane fields cutting cane, so she couldn't reach him and she needed some money, so she had gone all the way to Havana and back because of this typo in the wire which of course she told to everybody in the bus.
Jose Yglesias Oh no, and he wasn't doing it for a tip or anything like that. He was just doing it because it was in the middle of the night and he was just being friendly. I had this big bag and a typewriter, so he carried it over, not expecting a tip, and so I didn't give him a tip so as not to insult him, and moved on.
Studs Terkel Again, this is a matter again, the sensitivity of Jose Yglesias, but also a question now of pride, of people no matter where you are. This is something you have to find out immediately, don't you?
Jose Yglesias There is--I think it's a Spanish tradition that Cubans are "tienen mucha dignidad," that is, a lot of dignity. However jovial they are and outgoing and exuberant and different from, say, Castilians, but there is that question, you know, of honor and pride. It's very hard to pay for a drink in a bar in Cuba. People don't have enough food to, you know, the rationing is so strict to ask you home and give you a feast as they would want to do, so if they find you at a bar they just simply don't let you pay for a drink.
Jose Yglesias Yes.
Studs Terkel So as you're going along, the people tell you stories, and it's an intermixture here, intertwining of Jose Yglesias' observations and the words of the people. Armand tells this story. And you go to the barber shop. And the matter of color is interesting, here, too. The question of color. No bar.
Jose Yglesias No, no, Cuba never had the racial discrimination we had. They just don't, didn't have it, but they did have discrimination. Considerable of it. And the revolution seems to have wiped it all out. That is, I found no evidence of any kind of discrimination. When you talk about color, it's a sensuous description, you know, and I think you will remember some of the girls who were engaged as a white
Jose Yglesias The Bitiri, one of girls who was a blonde was engaged to a fellow who was a mixture of Black and Indian and white, and the name for that is "habao," and she would say, "Oh, my habao, wait 'til you see how beautiful he is," you know, and the question of color and they used the word mulatto or habao, and it's always a sensuous description and there's one of the men who had had experiences, the matter of fact, the head of the region who was called Sonny, which was really "Sonny," he was of Jamaican descent. He was Black, and he was explaining to me how he first ran into racial discrimination working for Americans at the nickel plant, and he said to me, "You see, Jose, with us when we say Negro, Negro. It's a term of endearment."
Studs Terkel As, improvise, too, as you're talking about your book, it has that nature of you finding as you go along, the girls that worked there, they'd gossip and talk, and you were just, even though you were a guest, they'd call you, "Hey,
Jose Yglesias Absolutely none at all, not at all. I was "Jose" to them, you know, and I'd gossip with them just as much as they'd gossip with me, and as you saw I got all involved in various things that occurred.
Jose Yglesias Oh yes, that very informal courtroom that they called the "bourgeois court." But it's like no bourgeois court I ever saw, you know, with dogs straying into the place, and there were really no lawyers to speak up. People got up and had their say, and it was all very informal, so much so that I sat next to the judge. And sometimes people would, you know, would try to convince me of their innocence,
Jose Yglesias Drugs are free to anybody in a hospital. If you go into a hospital, it'll cost you absolutely nothing. If you're an outpatient, you will get them free if there is any sign that you can't afford it, automatically if you're retired, on pension or anything like that. But if you're an outpatient, you--and get a prescription, you are supposed to pay for it if you have no, you know, no problems about paying it. But they don't like prescriptions. This is something new under the revolution, that is, to have to, for, you know, drugs to have, to get a prescription because Cubans just love to prescribe for one another. They used to just buy any kind of medicine, you know, from Terramycin to dextrose, intravenous dextrose, and inject one another, etc. And when I got a case of the flu there, you know, one of the waitresses told me, "Take some Terramycin, you know, you take two to start with with an aspirin, and then every four hours, one with an aspirin." And it cured me! I must say, I went off to the drugstore, [ingested their mood?], bought some Terramycin, and did this outrageous by American medical standards--
Jose Yglesias Yes. Yes, as a matter of fact, one of the doctors told me that if he ever forgot himself or the patient, he said, "Well, I have a slight sore throat," they'd start prescribing and say, "Well, doctor, what you should do is gargle with this."
Studs Terkel I want to ask you about the reactions to a film, it's very, "This Sporting Life", the British film with Richard Harris and Rachel Roberts, this film, for the reactions to it, they're very interesting, the matter of the freedom as far as sex education discussion and the Puritanism, now, there's a slight conflict here, now,
Jose Yglesias Yes, absolutely. For example, their reaction to "This Sporting Life" was that those two people shouldn't have been unhappy. They were living as man and wife. What more do they want from each other?
Studs Terkel For those who don't remember the film, remember it's the rugby player, the tough rugby Richard Harris living with his landlady who becomes his mistress and they have battling and the psychic battles and they're destroying each other, and people couldn't understand this.
Jose Yglesias No, they just couldn't understand that. If they were living together as man and wife, why couldn't they enjoy each other? They also, it seemed to me instinctively, couldn't believe in a picture of life in which there was no happiness, you know. I mean, to them if you if you have--well, if you just go out, you know, you're not working at that moment, there's, you know, there's all this happiness in life to be enjoyed.
Jose Yglesias There is, you know, there, in Oriente, particularly, the tradition still is amongst country people that the young man kidnaps his girl. You know, permission of the parents, etc. Still the "rapto" is the order of the day. And there is a very kind of free and easy sexual life with people. The revolution has tried to get them all married, legalize their marriages, in a certain sense is introducing what are bourgeois morals, you know, amongst the people, though there is of course the tradition of the lower-middle-class in Cuba in which it's still machismo and the woman stays in the house. And you, and a girl is chaperoned, all of that, you know. But what has occurred now is a wild melange of all this, you know, of good revolutionaries who find that they aren't accepted into the party because they'd had an affair. That kind of thing.
Jose Yglesias Yes. As I said in the book, that I thought that I had a way of identifying when I was in a group of men who were the guys who belonged to the party. As soon as a woman walked by, he was the guy who had to control himself from following her all the way with his eyes.
Jose Yglesias [Louie Chow?]. Yes. Anything that had been done by the Americans before, it was better when it was done by the Americans. But if it was something that had no tradition, that is, if the Americans hadn't done it, and it was some kind of, say, like growing tomatoes, well, all of that, then he was very, then he would praise the revolution very much for that. But when it came to anything that the Americans had been there doing before, that's it. The Americans always did it better.
Jose Yglesias Oh, absolutely open in that. This was incidentally at what was called the guest house in what was the old United Fruit Company sugar mill town, and [Luis? Louise?] [Chow? Chau?] had worked for the manager of the United Fruit Company, and he was put in charge of this guesthouse. It's such a little sugar mill town that there was absolutely no place to stay. So, I went to the party and they put me up in their guest house. So [Luis? Louise?] [Chow? Chau?] for all he knew, I was somebody very important, you know, and would pass on anything he said to the government, this didn't bother him one bit. As a matter of fact, when they sent me there, they said [Luis? Louise?] [Chow? Chau?] is a great cook, but I can't vouch for his political opinions.
Studs Terkel And you got an old [Black? flag?] man, he's expressing his sources, but there's also pride. There seems to be a new attribute here in what they're doing. They all want new information, facts. They want the guy to tell them
Jose Yglesias Yes, it's statistics. Every day how many pounds were milled by the mill, that kind of thing. They live on it, you know, it's a sugar mill town, and, you know, their lives, you know, revolve completely around it.
Jose Yglesias Oh, yes. That was a very interesting case. Roberto Henderson was one of the executives of the United Fruit Company. He was married to a Cuban woman and he went back to the States along with all the other executives of the United Fruit Company as it was nationalized. But he had not really wanted to go. This has become a kind of myth everybody will tell you their whole lives. It was his Cuban wife who really wanted to leave, who didn't like this whole new arrangement. And they went back to the States, I understand New Orleans, and then he wanted to come back to Cuba. He, the American, and she didn't want to. They divorced, he came back to Cuba, and then she finally followed him. He works in an important position, has an important position in Havana in the distribution of food.