Cuban-American author Marisella Veiga first tried to tell the story of her Minnesota childhood eight years ago. She wasn’t ready.
Her upbringing in the 1960s was all about suppressing the memory of her homeland and finding a foothold in her adoptive state — a mind-set that complicated the task of delving into the past. It took some soul-searching and an emotional return to Cuba to prepare the author to write about her years in Minnesota.
The resulting book, “We Carry Our Homes With Us,” from Minnesota Historical Society Press, came out earlier this spring, at a time of heightened interest in the Caribbean nation since the thaw in relations with the United States.
“The process of assimilating and acculturating can be really painful,” said Veiga, a poet, writer and writing instructor who now lives in Florida. “The loss of the homeland is a major trauma.”
In 2008, Veiga introduced herself to editor Pamela McClanahan at a writer’s conference in New York City. She told McClanahan she was Cuban and grew up in Minnesota. The Minnesota Historical Society Press editor knew she wanted to see Veiga’s story in print. She has a taste for the state’s “hidden histories,” and she had heard little about the experiences of the few Cuban exiles that found their way north to Minnesota.
Veiga says that was not the book she had meant to pitch.
“I was busy ignoring a lot of my personal history as my parents had done in order to survive,” she said.
Veiga’s family arrived in Minnesota in 1962, when her mother was pregnant with her fourth child. They had flown from Havana to Miami a year earlier, her father carrying all of 14 cents in his pocket. They had decided to leave behind that city’s fast-growing Cuban community for the better job opportunities and calm of the Upper Midwest.
‘About not looking back’
They settled with a host family in St. Paul and focused on adjusting quickly. Veiga, who was 4 when the family moved to Minnesota, learned to ice-skate and speak English, in that order. Her father started a job as assistant comptroller at a St. Paul meat wholesaler.
“The life her family forged here was all about not looking back,” McClanahan said.
That got in the way when Veiga first attempted a memoir about her childhood. A proposal she wrote at the time was rejected.
In the following years, she slowly opened up to her past. She revisited Minnesota, where she met with childhood friends and stopped by her family’s old haunts. In 2010, she returned to Cuba. She met relatives and immersed herself in Havana’s faded beauty. The experience was overwhelming, she says: “It was wonderful, and it was terribly sad. All I did was cry because of all we lost.”
The following year, Veiga brought herself to visit her childhood home in a fishing village outside Havana.
In 2014, Veiga felt ready to tackle her Minnesota memoir again. She won a residency at the Anderson Center in Red Wing, where her draft took shape. She plied the memories of her siblings and her father, asking him why she grew up knowing so little about her homeland.
“We couldn’t talk about Cuba because we couldn’t afford to,” Veiga says he told her.
McClanahan said when she first encouraged Veiga to pursue the project, she didn’t foresee President Obama reopening diplomatic relations with the country and easing travel restrictions.
“Sometimes serendipity is in your favor,” McClanahan said.
Mila Koumpilova 612-673-4781