Review: How to Leave Hialeah

Issue #113
Winter 2010-11

“Why can’t you just shut up about being Cuban, your mother says after asking if you’re still causing trouble for yourself,” Jennine Capó Crucet writes in the title story of her sparkling debut collection, How to Leave Hialeah. “No one would even notice if you flat-ironed your hair and stopped talking." Cuba and South Florida— specifically Hialeah, a metropolitan Miami city in northwest Miami-Dade county—are the physical territories occupied by the characters here, but the space between is what animates these eleven stories. And that space is big indeed—bigger, for reasons both political and emotional, than the ocean that divides the countries.

The quietly lovely “And in the Morning, Work,” about a young woman employed to read to workers at a cigar factory as they hand-roll cigars, is the single story set in Cuba, but Cuba’s presence is felt in the other ten, a ghost that can’t be shaken. As Crucet’s characters struggle with what home and family mean, the question they face is as often how to leave Cuba as it is how to leave Hialeah.

I mean this both literally and metaphorically. The pull of home is strong, and to choose to live in exile can be wrenching. In “Drift,” a man abandons his family in Miami to return to his mother in Cuba. His wife follows, dumping their two children at an uncle’s house, uncertain of whether their parents will return.

Luis, the protagonist of “The Next Move,” on the other hand, refuses to get on a plane unless it’s “to a free Cuba,” and sends his wife of thirty-nine years back alone, a choice he comes to regret after her death. Luis is too proud to admit this regret explicitly, but his sadness creeps in as he tells of his bad behavior during her trip. In the story’s heartbreaking last lines, he thinks of his wife’s desire to be buried in Cuba despite the twin plots they’d bought in Miami Gardens Cemetery, a wish he has not respected, and then of his own parents’ deaths: “My mother did it right: she died less than a year after she lost my father. When my uncle wrote from Cuba with the news, he said that my parents were like caged finches . . . When one dies, you can kiss the other good-bye, and that’s how it should be. That’s how my uncle wrote it, but of course,he wrote it in Spanish. And of course, in Spanish, it sounds much sweeter.”

Leaving Cuba turns out to be complicated. This is as true for the next generation as for their exile parents. The narrator of “How to Leave Hialeah,” the final story and one of the strongest, has moved from Florida to “The Great White North,” where “[y]ou have never felt more Cuban in your life, mainly because for the first time, you are consistently being identified as Mexican or something.” After the graduate program adviser says that she is “Probably [writing] about spics, that’s her only angle,” she steals the woman’s coffee mug (“you couldn’t help stealing it: you’re a spic”), which reads “I Don’t Do Mondays.” She uses the mug to microwave water for instant coffee while she straightens her hair in preparation for her return to Hialeah for her cousin’s funeral. The coffee, in an ironic touch, is Café Bustelo, sent in a care package from Florida.

“Victor was half Cuban—half decent, my dad used to say,” says Sandra Ortiz, the narrator of “Men Who Punched Me in the Face.” She’s speaking of her first significant boyfriend. He is the first of four men to hit her—and here I should say that to Crucet’s credit, the story examines the ramifications of domestic violence without making the men villains or caricatures. In college Victor meets “this American girl who would have sex with him without being married, which, contrary to all Cuban logic, got him to eventually marry her once she graduated.” Sandra embodies the tension between Cuban logic and American logic as she struggles with which Cuban mores to embrace and which to reject. Attempting to heed her mother’s desire that she marry, she finds herself engaged to an abusive guy named Ralph who she feels she’s too old, at twenty-eight, to leave. Here the story could take a stereotypical turn, leaving Sandra trapped by her parents’—and the Cuban community’s—expectations. Instead, Sandra takes her mother out to trail Ralph after a fight, and when he goes to another girl’s house, her mother confronts Ralph herself in one of the book’s most memorable scenes.

Crucet has a great ear for the rhythms of spoken language.The voices are so alive you can hear them. Explaining his decision to invest in a dump truck, Tío Nando in “El Destino Hauling” says, “We buy a dump truck. This is the initial investment, okay fine. Then we start a business. What is our business? Moving things with the dump truck.” At the end of his explanation, his son adds, “My papi is one inteligente motherfucker.” The plan is doomed—though not for the reason you think.

You’ve probably noticed the acerbic wit at work here. When Crucet is at her best, her stories are both heartbreaking and funny. If her subject matter recalls ZZ Packer’s Drinking Coffee Elsewhere and Ana Menendez’s In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd, her humor brings to mind Junot Díaz and especially Lorrie Moore. So does her use of the instructional second person, though she makes it her own through the freshness of her characters.

The opening story, the gloriously titled “Resurrection, or: The Story behind the Failure of the 2003 Radio Salsa 98.1 Semi-Annual Cuban and/ or Puerto Rican Heritage Festival,” presents us with Jesenia, a Miami club girl who goes first to a Catholic church and then to a santera in her quest to bring Celia Cruz back from the dead. Here, the third-person narrator intrudes to admit an ignorance of Santería and to draw a distinction between real life and what we expect from popular-culture depictions: “you wanted chicken blood, people wearing burlap, goats maybe, statues eating fruit and drinking bottles of beer. You want zombies . . . But here’s what happens.” This playful self-awareness is a gentle caution to check our expectations at the door. What follows is a promise that what we will be given is richer, more delightfully unbelievable, than what we think we want: “And you, you keep watching her, hardly believing people like this exist.”

The collection makes good on this promise. Winner of the John Simmons Short Fiction Award from the University of Iowa Press, How to Leave Hialeah is garnering the praise it deserves. “Oh please . . . Like anyone would want to read about Hialeah,” one character says in a moment of metafictional fun. Crucet proves this statement wrong. Her compelling portrait of Hialeah—her channeling of “a community’s voices,” as Julia Alvarez writes—becomes a much bigger portrait: a portrait of familial relationships at their best and worst, of love and
grief and joy and, yes, magic, of the human variety.