DOS HERMANOS: Two Cuban Brothers and The American Friend

Articles, Community, Travel, Youth & Family — By on November 7, 2012 12:37 pm
As another JCCSF group flies to Cuba today, we thought it particularly appropriate to publish this reminder of the value of travel as a way to facilitate positive bonds between human beings. This is the second in a series that seeks to illustrate how the Sheva Middot -- the JCCSF's seven measures -- play out in infinite variety through our own lives. This story of international commitments and relationships tested by history, geography and politics -- comes to us from community writer Michael David Nolan, who has also written here about genealogy and family history. It would seem that this account exemplifies the value of Re-ut – friendship. Or could it be seen as an account of Hahnasat Orhim – welcoming strangers -- in this case of family members long estranged? Let us know how you see it. We value your comments.

In the spring of 2000, my 21 year old daughter Rosy and I set out for Cuba on a mission of discovery. We left from the San Francisco Airport shortly after midnight and arrived in Havana in the afternoon, full of enthusiasm, preparation and gifts: an obscure Nissan car part, a “CARE package” for a Cuban boyfriend, a variety of over-the-counter pharmaceuticals. A journalist friend, Carlos Iglesias, picked us up at the Havana airport and brought us to a rooftop apartment in the Vedado section of the capital city.

We packed our week with explorations of colonial architecture, strolls along the coastal Malecon boulevard, stopping for impromptu displays of music and singing. Already an accomplished drummer, Rosy took a private percussion class. We attended a folkloric dance performance at UNEAC, the National Union of Cuban Writers and Artists located in an old mansion just a block from our residence. After returning to the apartment, we could still hear the music wafting across the tropical air as we looked out across the cityscape, past the downtown hotels to the Caribbean.

We met Coqui Salazar when looking for a way to get to the beach on the eastern outskirts of the city. He lived just two floors below us with his wife and two children. He owned a car, not a common occurrence in Havana, spoke English quite well, and chauffeured tourists around the city for a living. Nicknamed ‘Coqui’ as an infant for his fuzzy coconut-looking head, his full name was Pedro Enrique Salazar. At 65, Coqui had a full mane of wavy black hair. As a young man, he had fought with Castro in the mountains outside his native Guantanamo.

On a second trip to Playa Santa Maria, the sandy shore just east of Havana, Coqui brought his 10-year-old daughter Salome along. Rosy frolicked with her in the clear turquoise surf, exclaiming she’d never seen water this color before. One night, Coqui drove us to his favorite ‘paladar,’ one of the many government-approved, 12-seat-limit private restaurants that families had established in their garages or extra rooms. We were escorted past a living room to a tented annex. They lavished us with a variety of savory red and white lobster, more than we could consume at one sitting.

With each new experience, Coqui and I developed a trust and affection for one another that no doubt led him to share the information that he longed to know the fate of a missing brother.

It was toward the end of our week in Havana during a tour of the mansions of Miramar, where wealthy Cubans and North Americans once resided in the opulent days before Castro’s Revolution, that Coqui took me into his confidence. We had stopped for lunch at a small outdoor café, when he told me of ‘Pedrito,’ his half-brother, who had left the island with his parents in the early ‘60s shortly after Fidel assumed power. Their father was a prominent doctor in Guantanamo and part of the exodus of middle-class professionals who left their homeland for the United States.

“I must tell you,” Coqui related, “that I always knew I had a brother over there. I knew he lived at Chicago but he had moved to another city and I moved from Guantanamo to Havana, so we had lost our trails, because in those moments it could be very difficult even sending a letter. About 20 years ago someone told me that my dad, Pedro, and stepmother were living at San Francisco.”

Many of Coqui’s touring customers were Californians. Some had offered to look for his missing brother, he told me, but without success

Challenged by the task, I offered to look for Pedro. The day after our farewell lunch, I went to Carlos’ office in the Havana Libre Hotel to use his computer. I sent a message to Jon Frappier, a private investigator in California, asking if he would search for a Pedro Salazar, or Pedro Eusebio Salazar, or Peter E. Salazar, living in northern California and born in the late 1950s. Then Rosy and I returned to our penthouse apartment and packed our bags.

Several days after our return to San Francisco, Jon came to my house. I cleared the paper clutter on the yellow Formica kitchen table so he could spread out lists generated by his online investigation. Among them was a Pedro E. Salazar, born in 1957, living on 21st Street in San Francisco with a phone number. We both agreed it was good bet.

Jon departed and shortly after, I made the phone call. An older woman answered in Spanish. The mention of “Coqui” brought instant recognition. It was Elvira, Pedro’s 82-year-old mother and Coqui’s stepmother. She told me that Pedro no longer lived in her apartment. He had married and moved across the Bay to Alameda. Pedro later recalled, “My mom called me that same afternoon and said, ‘this guy called who just came back from Cuba where he met Coqui and had his phone number.’ My knees were shaking as I told my wife. I was beside myself.”

I had hesitated to make the phone call, concerned that Pedro might not be interested in hearing from Coqui for political or other reasons. I need not have worried. Pedro Eusebio Salazar called me later that afternoon. It turned out he had been looking for his older brother for years. Then in his early 40s, Pedro worked as a chef in the University Club on San Francisco’s Nob Hill and lived across the Bay in Alameda.

‘Coqui’ Salazar as a young revolutionary in 1959.

“I have this memory of my brother standing in the door of my grandmother’s house in Guantanamo, as I sat on the couch,” Pedro recollected. “Coqui was dressed in his guerrilla fatigues, silhouetted by the sun, wearing his strap of bullets across his chest. He was a member of the student movement in Havana working to overthrow the Batista regime.”

He suggested we meet at his mother’s apartment on Saturday. It was a bright morning, the day before Easter. I left my home on Bernal Heights and boarded the Mission 14 bus at the bottom of the hill. Elvira lived in an apartment house on 21st  Street between Mission and Valencia Streets. I had walked by the place many times and attended receptions in the storefront art gallery on the ground floor.

Elvira greeted me at the door and ushered me into the living room where a table was set for lunch. The walls of the room were filled with family photographs set in Cuba and the U.S.  Pedro, a dark, handsome man with a bright smile, emerged from the kitchen where he was preparing our meal. He presented me with a bottle of wine.

Elvira went into her bedroom and came out with a photo of Coqui in Guantanamo in January, 1959, smiling as he stood in front of a jeep with a bandolier draped over his shoulder. I showed them my recent photo of Coqui taken during our Miramar lunch, gave them Coqui’s phone number, and departed.

Pedro called his older brother in Havana that very afternoon, so filled with emotion, I was later told, that he couldn’t say very much. Elvira had not had such difficulty.  She took the phone and easily fell into reminiscing about her stepson’s youthful exploits. “Coqui, remember when you used to chase after that negrita in Guantanamo?” she asked, as if it were only yesterday.

Seven months later Pedro was finally able to take time off from work and fly to Cuba to see Coqui. Jon and I met Pedro at the University Club for a “buen viaje” toast. He appeared dizzy with delight at what was about to happen the next day. To calm himself, he asked questions to suggest this was just another plane ride to a tropical resort.

“Tell me, is there a place to go jogging there in Havana? I’ll probably need to get out and stretch after the long flight,” he mused aloud.

Elvira moved in with Pedro’s wife and daughter for the week so they could all be close to the phone and receive news of the trip. I waited a few days before I called.

“He says he’s come home again,” his wife told me, when I checked in with her during Pedro’s week-long visit toHavana.

Pedro ‘Coqui’ Enrique Salazar (left) and Pedro Eusebio Salazar after lunch at a ‘paladar’ in Havana, January 2001, after 40 years of separation.

The brothers developed a daily ritual of standing on the balcony of the apartment, looking out on Havana, and toasting their reunion with morning cups of coffee.

“I thought Coqui had stayed in the military,” the younger (San Francisco) Pedro later recounted. “I thought I’d like to meet him once before I die. I remember [the plane] circling Havana and seeing the lights of the city. Then there was the long wait at customs and big crowds in the airport lobby. I walked out front and Coqui approached me with his two children, Salome and Calin. They began calling me ‘Tio’ right away. We hugged.”

After the reunion, Coqui wrote me an email: “Thanks God, I meet you and Rosy, and you know the rest of this story. Meeting him at the airport was really one of the happiest moments I ever had. I kept on saying to myself: I just can’t believe it. You can imagine that the last time I saw Pedro, he was 4 years old, and at that moment I had in front of me a handsome tall man smiling at me and two of my kids kept on asking: Papa. That’s our uncle? We all gave him a big and close hug and believe me, there was more than one tear that moment. Bye for now and a big hug to you, Coqui.”

Before Coqui died from heart trouble four years ago, Pedro made a second visit to see his older brother. I returned to Havana in 2005 for my last visit with Coqui.  While driving me back to my hotel, he became distracted in conversation and collided with another vehicle.  No one was hurt but he urgently dismissed me from the scene before the police arrived so I wouldn’t be implicated. From revolution to reunion, Coqui knew how to take care of friends, family and country.




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  1. Nzinga says:

    What a great story! How wonderful that you were able to help reunite the brothers. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Will Chang says:

    Wow! I had tears flowing when they met at the airport. Thank you for a wonderful story of how spirit dances in each of us as we walk our path each day, open to the voices that speak to our hearts.

    I loved how you wove the story from moment to moment with a dancer’s grace, fluid and easy.

    Great work Michael!

    I could see Rosie playing the drums and playing in the waves with Salome.

  3. Anne Hallinan says:

    Great story, Michael. You’re a whiz, of course, but it also speaks to your eagerness to go the extra mile to bring joy to others. Mazel tov, mensch.

  4. Rosy says:

    Wonderful story Dad! I remember this trip well.

  5. Kyleigh Nevis says:

    Several events over the past week have reminded me of how small of a world we truly live in. This story is another wonderful example, and I really enjoyed the familial aspect. It’s amazing how kinships can be broken, twisted and tainted by distance, feuds, and frauds, but can sometimes, and often do, become renewed and reconnected. Thank you for sharing your story of hope, it not only reinvigorates my already deep-seeded love for my family, near and far, but also my new-found love for Cuba and the amazing people I have met over the past couple years who I too consider as family. Thank you.

  6. Alec Bash says:

    Good work, Michael, Bringing brothers together after 40 years, what a blessing!

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