Growing Up Coolie: Memories of my Chino-Cubano Diaspora

Grandfathers

I can still hear the clanking of his belt and rip of his zipper. He snakes out of his pants to barely reveal a furry gray tuft of hair. He is Manolo, my father’s father. We are in the car on the way to Shop-Rite for eggs and milk. I am strapped into the front passenger’s seat before car seats were required for children. He says, “Look here, Boy. This is what a woman looks like. Touch it.” I was six years old.


We are a family of Chino-Cubanos descended from “Coolies,” Chinese men abducted into indentured servitude by European plantation owners and shipped to Cuba to work railroads and sugar cane fields in the 1890s. My great-great grandfather and my great-grandfather were among the slaves who laid rails and cut cane across the Hades heat of La Habana, long before another form of oppression raped the island paradise and its people.

Mami died last year. After ten months imprisoned in a cell of silent sorrow in the same 1400 square foot apartment, father and son are ready to talk. In the next to last day of a punishing 2016, my father shares, for the first time in my life, that I am three generations separated from slavery.

I feel beautiful and punch drunk with culture.

My great-great grandfather was born in the Guangdong Province of southeastern China. He was named Tun Kong Hong and was farmed like a pig from China to La Habana as the slave of a Frenchman by the name of Madam. Given that slaves were assigned the last name of their owners, his new Cuban identity became Tun Kong Hong-Madam. Despite Tun Kong Hong’s eventual freedom, my grandfather, Manuel de Jesus Perez-Madam, born free in Jovellanos, Cuba, took the slave name, Madam, due to the proximity of the family to our French owners.

“It was just customary and everyone accepted it,” Papi assures me, perhaps sensing my sudden pride descending into disgust. He continues his cuento. My questions are firing off faster than we can eat our eggs. I am starving for a genealogy that Mami never shared for reasons she took to Christ. The family business was dry cleaning garments for the wealthy in our newfound freedom. My father was born to a working-class family in La Purisima Concepción Salón of the historic Asociación de Dependentientes Del Comercio de La Habana.

Papi drifts from my interrogation and journeys with me to a street in downtown 1957 La Habana. He recounts the story of a wreck in which Tío Pepe attempted to avoid collision while driving the family dry cleaning van. Tío Pepe, ejected from the vehicle, is beaten, battered, bruised, befuddled and blamed, but his little nephew is never again allowed to ride in the van with loco Tío Pepe.

His eyes squinch together and disappear as they do when he laughs hard. His body convulses retelling el cuento, as if he has not recalled this story in many many years. We digress. Stories of other strains of disasters, tragedies, and triumphs that befell our family will come later. Dad becomes tired after breakfast and retreats to his man cave for a nap.

Fucking diabetes. My writing will have to wait. Time to prepare his insulin shot.

“Papi, why do you always cook your omelets on the back burner?” Seems like a stretch for a man with shoulders so eroded he cannot even wash his own armpits. His face reddens. The words spit forth from his mouth full of eggs and onions.

“JEEZUZ, do you realize the amount of electricity the front burner uses? The heat is so much that you cannot even stand in front of it!” He scratches his head and wipes his face with his hands, so exasperated by my question that he breaks a sweat.

“Dad, you know that if you put the front burner on the low setting, it will not heat up as hot. It’s the same as the back burner. Just bigger.”

“I don’t care.”

He eats with a string of melted Swiss cheese hanging off his face like he just took a bite of Sal’s pizza from West New York. I return to making my omelet on the front burner. Back at the breakfast table, I push the plunger on my French press and it breathes out a gentle sigh of relief. The sweet aroma of pressed caffeine and fried onions fills the breakfast space. We ingest our huevitos in silence, the air conditioning vent humming a dirge behind us. Coffee talk will soon be over. Papi’s breakfast routine brings me comfort.

Papi tries to hide in his man cave, as he often does in the morning, when insulin is imminent and he knows we will make him eat. He is much more in favor of skulking into the kitchen when no one is looking, whipping up a quickie onion eggy bell pepper mixture and skulking back to the cave. A phantom. Today, I need to write and I trick him. Seductive siren, I prepare his favorite sunny side up and my good Italian blend in the fancy French press he does not understand.

“Good morning, Papi. Come to eat your breakfast.”

“Oh ok mijo.” Surprise. He pads out of his cave, his slippers slip slipping across our wood laminate.

My egg-white omelet between us, he begins to gingerly sip his coffee, dramatically diluted with an offensive pour of fat-free milk. I start my questions. He starts his answers, pressing me to write about the history of his mother’s side of the family. I surmise he has much more to tell on that side and I can’t wait to open that Pandora’s Box.

But I need to keep him focused on the chronological order of our genealogy. I am OCD like that. Building an arc in my mind. Perhaps this will not be the neat arc I paint for my students on the board. Perhaps this will be a time capsule of never before heard family memories. I remind myself I am just a few pages in. Patience, grasshopper.

“Tun Kong Hong was living the typical life of the men of his village.”

I ask what “typical” means and he falls silent, obviously annoyed at my interruption. He does provide a sound bite.

“Daily, Abuelo Tun farmed his rice to house, feed, and clothe his family.” Until the ship that debarked my great-great grandfather onto an island nation, carving the path for the men we would become.

European slave masters captured the younger stronger men and discarded the women, children, elderly, and infirm. Broken promises made that greatness awaited in the Americas. My great-great grandfather, stars in his eyes for his loved ones, politely cooperated. At once, was he a man in chains, bound for the Caribbean, shoulder-to-shoulder and smell-to-smell with hundreds of similarly captured good Chinese men.

I imagine Abuelo Tun’s first glimpse of the paradise nation is a herd of men lined up for sale by slave traders and owners. Wandering up and down the human aisles as we would shop for shampoo and toenail clippers at Walmart.

For hundreds of miles of Cuban fire, Abuelo Tun blasted holes through the earth, laid down roadbed, and spiked tracks of the earliest Ferro Carriles Nacionales de Cuba. Abuelo Tun bled, wept, and died on those Caribbean rails.

Papi closes his eyes, rubs his face with his hands like a squirrel, and takes me down another rabbit hole. Vexed that eggs, ham, toast, café, and insulin are working against us, I frantically tap words on my keyboard. I push him to stay chronological, but the memories randomly flooding his brain are palpable across the table.

I try in vain to furiously manically passionately capture every word. I cannot write fast enough to keep up with him but he bursts with a childhood memory. I am never prepared for his erratic memories. This one lifts me away from my keyboard to Papi’s early childhood. He remembers an outing from La Habana to Batabanó.

“I was just a kid, but they took me to the fields to watch the men cut cane. Of course, I was only brought to watch.” He feels the need to emphasize that clarification. I ache to ask him about the missing generation he never speaks of. Abuelo Tun’s son, my father’s grandfather, my great-grandfather.

“I have no information about my grandfather. JEEZUS.” His face is red.

“Dad, you don’t even have a name?” I take my chances at being yelled at again and push past his Cuban rage.

“I have nothing.”

His voice becoming angered, perhaps at his memory loss from the strokes. Perhaps grieving his lost grandfather. Perhaps hating his grandfather. Perhaps cursing his lost memory. I am even more intrigued and decide I will raid the garage where we have lovingly housed every remnant of my mother’s life.

We are not yet at the place to sort through her precious belongings. Not a single blouse or bottle of Jean Nate disturbed. Everything she possessed, frozen like young lovers on a Grecian Urn. It is a place I only visit to pray. To look at the photo we enlarged for her service. To give it kisses and whisper my secrets. To gently rub her face and hold it in my hand in its two-dimensional foam core. To cry.

It is Valentine’s Day and I sit across the breakfast table with my father once again. I am pressing him to conjure his grandfather but he struggles. “Why are you so hung up on this Tun Kong Hong?” He is angry. I comfort him.

“Dad. I am good.” We graduate to Abuela Rufina. He makes jokes and entertains himself with an internal monologue while I write. I can see his relief that we are finally moving on to the women in his family.

“Let’s begin with Rufina, my great-grandmother.” He smiles and sips his cafecito. Rufina. Not Chinese. He wants to make this clear to me. “Everything in her house was Chinese. Her children were Julio, who everybody called Yuju, Pepe, the dry cleaning dangerous driver, Neni, and Manolo Perez. You got all that?”

“Yes, Dad.”

“Manolo was my father, your grandfather. My father was a trolley conductor for El Ferro Carril Urbano de La Habana. The trolley went by my house, where my mother used to live with her mother and father and sisters.” As I write, I am remembering Manolo’s hand in his pants. A secret I must take to my grave.

Manolo, a Cuban father with four gentlemen callers calling incessantly, was naturally overwhelmed and protective like a lion. The men were mercilessly interrogated daily. As the youngest, Olga faced the brunt of Manolo’s fury. He was losing his hijitas faster than the Ferro Carril could zoom up and down Lacret Numero 10 Vibora La Habana. Eventually, of course, the four sisters married and Olga and Manolo settled in their honeymoon home about a half hour away from Lacret Numero 10.

Suddenly, my father interrupts his own narrative to walk away again. I am grateful for anything he can give me. I write. It burns.

I persist while hiding my scars.

Writing, Non-Fiction

Alex Manuel Pérez-Barry
West New York, NJ, MFA Writing