Ah, the storytelling power of passports! By means of just a few words and images on pages made from mere mortal trees, those tiny prosaic booklets can not only record the bearer’s origins and displacements — part biography and part travel narrative — but they can also stand, silently, subtly, as documents of political history. Consider my father’s old passport, seen here, issued by Cuba’s Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores on 20 February 1962. I’m seduced by my dad’s black-and-white picture — so young, yet so solemn, possibly overwhelmed by the prospect of having to leave the country where he had comfortably grown up, enjoying a life of privilege, and where his mother, after his only brother’s death, would remain virtually alone. The passport contains a visa issued on 10 May 1962 at the Embassy of Mexico in Havana on behalf of the Colombian Consulate — or, as the visa itself states, “Embajada de México en Cuba Encargada de los Asuntos de Colombia.” By then, I think, all Latin American countries had broken diplomatic relations with Cuba, except for Mexico, which would explain why visas for other parts of the hemisphere had to be processed there. At one point, apparently, we considered going to Colombia, but nowhere in the passport does one find an entry stamp for that country. Call us predictable, but the place we really wanted to go to was the United States — or, more specifically, Puerto Rico, its Spanish-speaking territory, or colony, where my mother’s sister and many of her cousins had already settled. That was the plan when Ana María, my mother, traveled all the way to Havana just five months after our passports’ issuance in order to purchase our one-way airplane tickets for Miami, from where we would then easily reach San Juan. But then politics, our old friend, struck an unimaginable coup de théâtre. When Ana María arrived at the offices of Pan American Airways in the Vedado district, she found a large crowd of people with worried looks on their faces. Oddly, the plane from Miami that was supposed to land that morning in Havana — and then fly back to the U.S., transporting more exiles — had not arrived. No one really knew why. Finally, the manager came out and got up on a desk to make a dramatic announcement: Pan Am had cancelled its flights for the day and, even worse, he suspected Pan Am would no longer fly to Cuba. It was October 1962 and the missile crisis had erupted. Nuclear war did not break out in the Caribbean, but the manager’s prediction turned out to be correct. Pan Am, which had proudly started its operations by flying between Key West and Havana in 1927, never scheduled a flight to Cuba again. As for our own family history, my mother returned to Santiago, where we would remain for yet another year. Circumstances were difficult. My parents had already quit their jobs and we were officially considered gusanos, as the counter-revolutionaries were called.
Because there was no way to fly directly from Cuba to the United States, we went to Spain instead. But making it out of the country wasn’t that easy. Again, my father’s passport tells the next chapter in the story. It holds two visas issued by the Spanish Consulate in Santiago de Cuba, one on 19 April 1963, seen here, and the second one, on 17 October 1963. They are both heavily stamped affairs, reminding me of the Poema del Cid, where documents are said to be “fuertemente sellados.” The first one must have expired before we were able to secure an exit permit form Cuba; the second had to be hastily obtained after the passage of Hurricane Flora through the eastern part of the island. A monster tempest, Flora devastated the province of Oriente, and Fidel Castro decided, as I recounted earlier, that more gusanos needed to leave as soon as possible so that their homes and possessions could go to the hurricane victims. That’s how we ended up leaving Cuba, and that’s how the most remarkable sign in my father’s passport came to appear: a blue oval rubber stamp from the Ministerio del Interior, dated 31 October 1963 at Rancho Boyero, Havana’s airport, proclaiming “Salida.” In my father’s case at least, the stamp sealed his definitive exit from Cuba, as he died in Miami in 1989 without ever going back to Cuba. There are three other stamps in the little bluish-grayish cardboard passport: an entry into Spain at Madrid’s Barajas airport registered by the Comisaría General de Fronteras; an exit from Spain, also at Barajas, several months later; and, finally, an entry into the United States, at San Juan, P.R., sealed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
A Cuban citizen until 1976, I too once had a passport virtually identical to my father’s, and it bore similar stamps. But I no longer possess that passport, and its absence is yet another sad twist in Cuba’s and the United States’ intertwined political history. It was the mid-1980s and I, a stupidly romantic young man, passionately wanted to return to the stormy Ithaca to which we had said farewell more than twenty years earlier, a forbidden space of which I had no memories, really, to speak of, but which I desired. As a graduate student, collaborating as a researcher and writer for a travel guidebook published by students at my university, I had spent several summers traveling all over Europe and as far east as the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. I had written about the museums and parks of London and Paris; slept in hostels and cheap pensions in a score of Italian and Spanish cities; taken trains and ferries to diacritically seductive destinations such as Zürich and Mariánské Lázně and the Åland Islands. If I had done all that, how come I couldn’t go to Cuba as well? Looking at the maps I collected at countless tourist offices, I yearned to learn the maps of Havana and Santiago de Cuba as minutely as I knew those of European cities. In Paris, I had hungrily bought a travel guidebook to Cuba. Such books were virtually non-existent in the U.S. at the time, so I treasured it. The preface was by Alejo Carpentier, who waxed dreamily in French: “L’île de Cuba est, par son étendue, la plus importante des Antilles. […] Tant à La Havane qu’à Santiago, ou à Sancti-Spiritus, ou dans la ravissante petite cité de Trinidad, on plonge dans un passé fastueux, représenté par des vieux palais, des résidences seigneuriales, des églises, des cathédrales, des ouvrages de fortification”… I soon learned that people born in Cuba could travel there. but they had to do so on a Cuban passport, regardless of their present nationality. But there was a rub. In order to obtain a new passport, you needed to forfeit the old expired one. I mailed my application to Cuban Interests Section at the Embassy of Czechoslovakia in Washington, though my mother (but not my father) kept telling me that it was all a terrible idea. As it turned out, Ana María was right. Ronald Reagan had just launched Radio Martí, and an angry Castro, in retaliation, declared that no Cuban-born person living in the U.S. would be allowed to visit Cuba. And so it was that I lost my first passport even as I gained a new one, issued on 1 April 1986 by an unidentified “autoridad” on behalf of the “Gobierno de la República de Cuba.” The thing expired before I could use it to travel anywhere, even Bulgaria, the only country for which it would have been advantageous to have a Cuban passport instead of an American one. And so it is that, for me, Cuba’s sumptuous past remains a thing for the future — except that I’m no longer as interested as I once was in seeing any of those old palaces and cathedrals. Only the decrepit railways, the first built in Latin America, earlier than anything in Spain, exert for me any kind of attraction.
A side of me still mourns the voluntary loss of my first passport. But God, by which I mean the omniscient Web, bestowed on me something far richer than my own lost little booklet. A few weeks ago, one of my genealogist cousins in Miami found not one, but three passports belonging to the sons of Jean-Baptiste Gué, the architect from Cap-Français killed by a slave in 1794. As patient readers of this blog will recall, Jean-Baptiste was also the father of Anne-Julienne Gué, who at some point after the turn of the nineteenth century married François Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne, my third great-grandfather, who in turn had migrated from France to Saint-Domingue, along with four of his brothers, at the height of the Revolution’s Reign of Terror… We still don’t know when or where Anne-Julienne and François met, but we know that she was in Philadelphia in 1795, and we also think that her siblings must have left for Bordeaux, perhaps via a port city in the United States, around the same time. Pierre, the first-born son, penned an account of his father’s murder — though, it must be said, the more I think about it, the more I’m persuaded the “Tragique histoire de Jean Baptiste Gué, architecte du Cap Français, par son Fils Pierre Gué” is probably an apocryphal text… In any event, Pierre’s “Passe-port à l’Étranger,” an early example of the genre, is all too real, a lovely document crafted under the signs of Liberté and Égalité, if not Fraternité. With a little effort, one can read that it was issued in Bordeaux “le vingt trois fructidor de l’an neuf de la République, une et indivisible.” That would be 10 September 1801. We also learn that Pierre is twenty-two years old and one meter and seven-hundred-eight millimeters tall, that he has chestnut hair and gray eyes and an ordinary mouth… We also learn, not without a measure of surprise, that he is traveling back across the Atlantic to Cap-Français, “dans sa propriété,” and that he is doing so in connection with the Ministre de la marine et des colonies. But several questions emerge. Why are Pierre and his brothers, Jean-François-Marie and Pierre-Julien, returning to their birthplace, apparently on their own volition? What property could they still possess over there? Had they not relinquished what they owned once the family left Saint-Domingue? Were they not afraid to return to the land where their father had been murdered? Or am I projecting onto the history of Haiti, as the colony would soon be known, the experience of exile and dispossession I associate with the Cuban Revolution? How long will they stay there? We know that Pierre, if perhaps not his brothers, would return to live permanently in France. On at least one genealogical site I have seen, he is listed as the Directeur des Diligences nationales in Bordeaux. My cousin has even found a second passport issued to him, on 9 September 1828, to travel to Amsterdam, via Paris, pour “affaires de commerce.” He is described as a négociant and is accompanied by his nineteen-year-old démoiselle, who we presume is his daughter. Almost three decades after the earlier passport, his eyes are now described as blue and his hair as gray; a bourgeois paterfamilias in his late forties, he now also sports a beard.
One hundred and seventy years and the ocean lie between the French and the Cuban Revolutions, and, as Borges would have it, the story of my father and that of Pierre Gué are now irrecoverable. Yet residues remain. Many years after his death, staying with an old friend of his in Madrid, after several glasses of scotch late into the night, I learned all about my father — but those secrets must be reserved for a Henry James-inflected novella. Even the life and times of Pierre Gué are retrievable, in some fashion, by means of the folios that recorded the milestones of his journey on earth. Indeed, in both my father’s and my their great-granduncle’s cases, republics, weak or strong, created civil codes that allow citizens to live on in the realm of graphic everlastingness. Compare that to the lives of those other transatlantic migrants, the millions of human beings transported from Africa to Cuba or Saint-Domingue without benefit of passports, on whose labor the wealth of nations was built, and who remain for the most part anonymous and unknown to their descendants.