Posted July 31, 2003 by publisher in Cuba Culture.
LIFE-ALTERING DECISION: Cuba denounced as worms those who fled on the Mariel boatlift, Juan Carlos Zaldivar dutifully demonstrated against them, then joined them. WPBT-PBS 2/FOR THE HERALD
• POV: 90 Miles, 11-12 tonight. WPBT-PBS 2.
At 13, Juan Carlos Zaldivar was a good communist. When Fidel Castro called for demonstrations to denounce the thousands of gusanos (worms) who were fleeing Cuba in the Mariel boatlift, Zaldivar dutifully joined in. ‘‘I went out on the streets to demonstrate against the traitors that were betraying our revolution,’’ he remembers. ‘‘Little did I know that I was about to become one of them.’‘
Zaldivar’s film, 90 Miles, which airs tonight as part of the PBS series POV, is a gently told tale of the journey his family was about to make—one that isn’t finished yet. The film’s title is an ironic reminder that the distance between Havana and Miami is far greater than anything that can be measured in miles.
POV stands for point of view, and Zaldivar never pretends that 90 Miles is any story but his own—typical in some ways, unusual in others. He was a promising film student, with a scholarship to study broadcasting, when the Mariel boatlift began in 1980.
When an uncle in the United States offered to bring the family across the Florida Straits. Zaldivar resisted at first. ‘‘How can you take us to a place where I’ll be forced to take drugs in school, where you can’t go out alone at night, and where my grandparents won’t be able to see a doctor if they get sick?’’ he demanded of his parents.
Instead, he found a fascinating and slightly scary country where the grocery stores not only offered a paralyzing array of choices but had doors that mysteriously popped open on their own. And the bellicose exile demonstrations in Miami could be weird funhouse-mirror reflections of those in Havana.
Zaldivar’s home movies of the early years seemingly show a family making a successful transition: His sisters first address his camera in Spanish, later in English, and eventually one marries and has a daughter with an American birth certificate and the irretrievably gringo name Taylor.
But as the years pass, Zaldivar’s father Pachuco grows unaccountably discontent. Pachuco, though he makes a comfortable middle-class living as a shoe salesman in Little Havana, says he’s disappointed that Miami’s streets weren’t paved with gold after all.
Zaldivar suspects something else—that his father misses ‘‘something that we left in Cuba.’’ At age 31, Zaldivar returns to the island for a visit. (Emblematic of the wounds on the Cuban soul, his parents react more strongly to the news that he’s going back than to his revelation that he’s gay.)
But while there he finds himself amid demonstrations orchestrated to demand the return of Elián Gonzáles. As a government stooge screams that Elián is being held hostage in a country ‘‘where he can get rich by selling children’s organs,’’ Zaldivar realizes that home is 90 miles north.
Not a political tract but a wistful meditation about letting go, 90 Miles reminds us that life moves on, forcing choices even when we don’t want them. As unhappy as that may be at times, the alternative is worse. When Zaldivar compares the new film he shot in Cuba to old family home movies, he discovers that they look eerily alike—that nothing has changed. Cuba has become a dusty museum, waiting only for the curator to turn out the lights.
Glenn Garvin is The Herald’s television critic.
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