I think this happens to most people: an obscure or forgotten historical moment seizes their interest at a formative time in their lives and stays with them forever. The moment embeds itself into their developing character and permanently alters their worldview. For me, it was the Bay of Pigs Invasion.
The Bay of Pigs was important when it happened, sure, but 50 years later it is essentially forgotten. Its legacy is completely overshadowed by the sequel episode in the Cuba-USA-USSR drama, the Cuban Missile Crisis, which is also sort of forgotten.
But about six years ago, when I was 20, I became fascinated by the Bay of Pigs. As the son of two Cuban exiles, I wondered how different my life would’ve turned out if things had gone differently that day, the logical conclusion of course being that I wouldn’t even exist because my parents would’ve never met in Miami. But I also wondered how different things would’ve been for all the exiles. What if the invasion’s promised air support hadn’t been grounded, if they hadn’t run out of ammunition at the most critical moments in the battle, if the location of the beach landing hadn’t been changed from a more favorable location to a swamp, if they hadn’t already been forsaken? Just writing about it gives me goosebumps.
The exiles are one of the America’s great immigrant success stories. They’re prosperous, they’re an integral part of one of America’s largest cities, there are several high-profile Cuban-Americans in American pop-culture (from Gloria Estefan to Marco Rubio to Pitbull), and the exiles have an exceptionally powerful lobbying presence on Capitol Hill. The argument can be made that political backing from the exiles determines the next president, since they tip the scales in the most crucial purple state. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Kennedy severely damaged the political future of the Democratic Party by disenfranchising the Cubans, although I also don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Republicans have been exploiting the exiles for decades with their cries of “Next year in Havana!” every four years.
Yet despite their success in America, the majority of exiles, even today, more than 50 years later, still dream of returning to Cuba. For some of them, it’s practically all they talk about, even now. I’ve met older exiles who justify their unhealthy habits by the fact that they won’t get back to Cuba before they die anyway, so they might as well keep drinking their cafecito even though their doctor gave them explicit orders not to. Learning about the Bay of Pigs helped me better understand the agony of the exile’s loss, their drive to succeed in America, and their permanent connection to Cuba. Even so, my interest in the Bay of Pigs eventually faded. I keep up with the story of the exiles, and I always will, but mostly I’ve just gone on living my life in America.
And then can you imagine how shocking it was when one of the forgotten pages of a history text was for an instant still a man alive here in the world? He was small and hunched over and walked crooked because of a limp in his right leg. I spoke to him only because someone else at the party I was at told me he was there on that day.
“Tell me about what happened to you. I want to know.”
We walked away from the speakers blaring salsa, merengue and other music that sounded even sillier than usual, and he told me of the things I’d read about, how they ran out of bullets, how they could see an American cruiser offshore that didn’t help them, how they were captured and held in camps and how Fidel had random groups of them publicly executed to keep them scared. He told me with tears lining his eyes. I hated myself for being taller than him and bent down to listen. He spoke until he didn’t feel like it anymore and then limped away. “2506,” he said, turning his head back towards me for a moment, “but that number means nothing to you.” “It was the number of your brigade,” I yelled after him, but he couldn’t hear me over the music. He folded back into the crowd like a random page in a book and that was it.