His powerful arms enveloped me, and Luis wept. His broad frame shuddering as he sobbed uncontrollably, childlike, squeezing me tighter and tighter as if for comfort as he spoke, almost choking on his words. I wept too. The liberating tears of relief.
This moment could so easily never have occurred. For many reasons…….
This is a story about being in ‘exile’ and about something that didn’t happen. The tale of a murder that didn’t take place, and so never became news. But that fact may make it worth telling. It’s quite a long story, so please bear with me, because at its heart is something important: love.
It all started in Houston, Texas. On a Greyhound bus one December morning. I was a young guy with a bicycle, intent on cycling across the USA, and had been relying on a friend of a friend to collect me from the airport to take me in for a few days until I sorted out buying a tent and other essential gear for my trip. The friend didn’t show, I was stuck, so instead I caught a bus to San Antonio, a smaller and less scary city than Houston, which I figured would be easier to get around in, gear up and cycle out of, finally able to head west.
It was on the Greyhound that I met Linda, who engaged me in conversation as we traveled, gently extracting my story, and my plans. She was going home for Christmas, to stay with her folks, and was supposed to be bringing a pal, who’d cancelled. When we arrived in San Antonio, on impulse she said “Come with me, stay for Christmas, they’re expecting two, it’ll be fine – look there’s my mom and stepdad!” and pointed across the plaza to a waving couple.
Within a few hours we were deep in the Texas Hill Country and I was sucked into her warm and welcoming extended family. Linda’s mum Kerry and her Cuban husband Luis, (Linda’s stepfather), were staying with Kerry’s mum and dad, Jenny and Hans, both now retired. Across the street in two other houses were Jenny’s sisters and their husbands. Kerry and Luis were temporarily resident with Jenny and Hans whilst she and Luis built a house for themselves on a large plot a stone’s throw away.
With no schedule to keep, I was talked into staying. Christmas in the Hill Country was glorious. Pleasantly warm days but with the occasional ice storm, the ‘blue northers’ that sweep down from The Panhandle bringing chilly days and bitterly cold nights. But there was lots of wood chopping to keep me warm, and the all-consuming warmth of the family’s hospitality. New Year was spent in Houston with Luis’s sister and her extended family, a crazy few days of Cuban food and more full-on hospitality which again completely overwhelmed me.
I’d offered to work on Kerry and Luis’s house in return for their kindness, my skills as a trained carpenter would be very valuable. So when Linda departed after Christmas to return to college, preparation for the house build began in earnest, and my stay became a longer one as the construction got under way. Kerry returned to her long hours working as sole breadwinner, and Luis and I, with help from the family set about the build.
I spent my days with Luis, planning, getting material, preparing the ground for the slab. But as we worked and I settled in, frictions revealed themselves. Subtle, but noticeable, between Luis and his new family. There was some unspoken resentment. Luis tried his best, but made ‘mistakes’, such as getting some Mexican labourer friends to undertake the hugely important job of pouring the concrete slab for the house, which turned into a disaster. I was absent during this, having gone off to do some other work for friends of the family, and returned to find they had been too hasty and the uneven pour had caused the slab to bulge out uncontrollably, necessitating a lot of subsequent work to remedy. This ‘fix’ soaked up more money, and was a major inconvenience. But we worked on through all this, the house taking shape and becoming almost a home. Eventually I departed, a few months had passed, and the open road beckoned.
Nine months and twelve thousand miles later I returned to Texas, having meandered across the continent, and scraped through numerous other ‘incidents’ on the way. I was warmly welcomed back by all the family. The house had come on well, but still needed some work to finish it, although Kerry and Luis had now moved in. However Luis had grown frustrated, money had been wasted, he was drinking more than usual and the situation was somewhat tense. But everyone was taking it in their stride and life seemed settled and hopeful.
I stayed for several weeks, did more work on the house for them, then had to return home as my visa had expired.
I was only home a week or so when the ‘phone rang. One of the family in some distress recounted what had happened just shortly after I’d left. Luis had gone on a drunken bender, fueled by dope, and all his frustrations erupted. He locked himself in the new house with his wife, holding her at gunpoint and demanding that “John must come to the house, I’m going to shoot him. Where is he?” Shouting over and over in a fit of rage: “Get him! Get him! Get him here!” but of course I had just left.
“You said ‘shoot’?” I asked, perplexed.
“Yes, shoot. He’d taken a rifle and ammunition with him!” came the pained reply
“What!” I exclaimed “Where did he get that? Luis didn’t own a gun! He never used them and didn’t seem to care about them!”
There was a long silence, punctuated by the sound of strained anxious breathing…..then…
“We think he won it, won it in a damned raffle. With ammunition too I guess…..”
I was astonished and dismayed. A bloody raffle prize.
However his mother-in-law Jenny, a stern no-nonsense woman, despite the obvious risks approached the house and talked him into letting her come inside and he was eventually coaxed into releasing his wife Kerry, but he then vented his anger on Jenny beating her up very badly. Armed Police had been summoned and by now had the property surrounded and were desperately trying to talk him out. Finally they got his uncle from Houston on the ‘phone and were able to get Luis to speak with him. His uncle, whom Luis respected greatly, was able to calm Luis down and get him to release Jenny, but he would not leave the house. By all accounts the police were patient and understanding, but the situation was extremely tense, marksmen with guns trained on the building. Eventually as darkness fell Luis set the house on fire, throwing gasoline around, and in the midst of the blaze eventually threw himself headlong through a window and was arrested.
Kerry knew that because of his past ‘experiences’ in Cuba Luis would seriously struggle to cope with prison, and this was the man she loved and did not want to lose. She managed to convince her mother and family not to press charges, and Luis was eventually released. But the price they paid was high. This was one step too far. The rifle, like some ugly exclamation mark, was an obstacle beyond which Luis could not proceed in his old life: he was forbidden to return to the area or to contact the extended family. His and Kerry’s financial investment in their house was lost, the whole structure destroyed and all their possessions with it, none of which the insurance company would pay for. But more than that, the swirling sparks that looped and whirled off into oblivion in the velvet Texas sky that evening, took with them Luis and Kerry’s shared dream.
I returned to Texas the following year to visit friends in West Texas, far away from the Hill Country. But I made the long trip across the state to visit Kerry’s family. The slab that had supported Kerry and Luis’s glorious hacienda-style home, and which had absorbed so much of our time, energy and care, was a sad and pathetic sight. All that remained were a few charred timbers, the melted and contorted carcases of a fridge and cooker, and loops of scorched electrical circuits with the sheathing melted away, the copper wire incongruously bright amid the blackened and unrecognizable debris of conflagration. The heat had been so intense in places that it had cracked the surface of the concrete slab. I was very upset and stood amidst the devastation for quite a long time, and could barely keep the tears at bay.
I phoned Kerry, whom I’d kept in touch with. By now Luis had got sober, was holding down a good job, learning English again, and studying to become a pastor. I asked if I could come and visit them, and she said, “Are you sure you want to?” and I said “Yes, I would. I really would like to.”
I wanted to because there was another narrative concealed behind this familiar story of: ‘Man goes crazy, man takes gun, man threatens others with murder.’ And it was important.
Luis had a history, one of struggle. And it was a history that would deeply affect his life, and the lives of those around him.
He had tried to leave Cuba legally in 1966 with his family but was denied permission because he was of military age. Instead he tried to leave a short time afterwards illegally, but the boat was shot at with machine guns and sunk, and as one of the few survivors he was jailed. He spent seven years in prison. He described to me how his fellow prisoners would often disappear at night. The belief amongst the remaining prisoners was that the missing had their blood drained and sent to the Russians fighting in the Vietnam War, and the the ’empty’ bodies disposed of into the shark invested waters off the coast near the prison. Whatever the truth, it was a fraught and damaging experience for the remaining inmates.
Luis was finally allowed to leave Cuba for the USA in 1973, but the circumstances of his departure were traumatic, when the plane he was on was stopped after taxiing down the runway to take off, and all the passengers were ordered off at gunpoint and lined up. He feared they would be shot, but they were finally allowed to leave, first crying with relief, then joy, then shouting and dancing all the way to Miami. Luis was the youngest person on board. But his joy turned to despair as he discovered what awaited him in the USA. His wife, who had left legally seven years before when he had been refused exit, was convinced Luis had been shot or drowned in his escape attempt all those years ago, and was unaware that he had in fact been in jail. Distraught, she grieved for her loss, but had then remarried and was living in Illinois with her new husband and their two children, but also Luis’s daughter from their previous marriage. Luis had to simply say goodbye to the dream he had nurtured for years, to be reunited with his wife and daughter, and walk away. However in the following years he fought to remain in close contact with his daughter.
These events had taken a significant psychological toll of Luis, and although he never spoke much more about it to me, its legacy ran deeply through his life, affecting him in all kinds of ways. And it became obvious that although he’d lost his own family, but found this new one through Kerry, he was not completely welcomed by his wife’s family. However their love for their daughter, and their support of her choice of husband, ameliorated their attitude towards him to a certain degree, but an undercurrent of resentment, and on occasion racism, was directed towards him. All this simply added more fuel to the fires of criticism that continually smouldered. The badly poured slab was a bone of contention, symbolic for some of how Luis was careless and irresponsible with money. But my impression of events was different. From comments he’d made I’d gathered that Luis had simply wanted to give benefit to other immigrants, people he knew were economically and socially marginalized and scrabbling to find daily employment. He could see himself in them, and knew what they felt, and what such ‘opportunity’ meant to them. He cared.
Underlying all of this was the fact that Luis, a latin male, and with considerable pride, was reliant on his wife as the main source of income and for all that underpinned both their lives. This obviously sat uncomfortably with him. He had tried to find steady work but his poor English language skills had not helped his work prospects, but to his credit he was taking lessons and improving well. Each day as we worked Luis would speak English to me, teasing me gloriously, and I would offer a stumbling response in my very poor Spanish, and we would roll about laughing. Real stomach-hurting laughter, the universal language of connection.
However, perhaps unsurprisingly, Luis had a drink problem, and I suspected (but never witnessed) that he smoked dope. This obviously affected his behaviour and his judgment, and did nothing to enhance his standing in the family. With the clarity of hindsight, and the wisdom of age, I now realize that I must have sat, somewhat uncomfortably, in some odd role between the family and Luis, but I never sensed any animosity from him. Quite the contrary, he always slung his arm around my shoulder when we were out, calling me ‘my boy’, took me to the pub and was friendly and confiding, introducing me to his Cuban and Mexican friends and speaking to them in rapid Spanish I could not follow, but which invariably caused them to hug me warmly and buy me a drink. We were friends, and we became very good friends. And I was building a home for him and his wife, putting care and attention into the work, as craftsmen do when they work for people they care about, and he knew this and greatly appreciated it.
And so it was for all those reasons that one day I ended up concealed behind a curtain in Luis and Kerry’s tiny living room, in the only house they could now afford. It was in the poorest part of the district, a run down rural shack, poorly maintained, creaking in the wind and a far cry from the dream home we’d all worked so hard to build.
Kerry had asked me to hide, and said she’d welcome Luis as usual, then say she had a surprise for him, and I was to slowly emerge.
I hid. Luis arrived. My heart thumped, the adrenaline coursing through me in anticipation. Every nerve straining, unsure how Luis would react to my presence: this was a man who had desperately wanted to kill me. They were the longest few moments of my life.
And then I stepped out.
And Luis just swept me up in his arms, hugged me, sobbing, and through the tears and convulsions gently spoke to me…. “John, my boy, my boy…oh god….I wanted to…I would have….ohhh……I would have killed you…..I’m sorry…so sorry…I was such a fool….” and then was overcome by the emotion of the moment, and fell silent, save for his sobs. And the three of us wept together.
At first, after the siege, I fretted over whether Luis had really hated me. I was sure he must have, and I worried over this for a long time. After all both of us were strangers in the USA, and I imagined it seemed to him that he’d been denied the warm welcome from the family that I had been blessed with. I guessed he was resentful of that, felt it should have been so for him also.
But time has a way of bringing events into sharper focus, and after consideration I thought no, his resentment and frustration were towards his situation, and perhaps his past. And apart from the events of the siege he only ever showed affection towards me. I’d like to think that perhaps had I actually been present on that night I might have managed to prevent some of the destruction. But in an irrational state, Luis could have done anything, and I may have fallen victim to, of all things, a raffle prize. I’ve often wondered if my presence (and then absence) actually provided a different focus for his anger, some absent ‘other’ on whom to concentrate his rage, and which might in fact have provided a safety net for those closer to him and who were certainly older, frailer and much more vulnerable, towards whom he might otherwise have been more violent, even murderous. I wont ever know.
I have huge admiration for Kerry, a thoughtful, fiercely intelligent professional woman, who staunchly supported Luis, the man she loved dearly, through all of this, often at considerable personal cost. Her health suffered, and her life took turns she could never have envisaged. But she fought and fought for him, and with him, and did so several times subsequently as he again went adrift. She was always there for him. But it wore her down. Sadly even her love was not enough to keep in check the dragging weight of Luis’s past experiences, and a decade later she left him. Kerry found love again, eventually, with a good man, settled and happy.
But what has become of Luis, I do not know. He will be an old man now, if he is still alive. I’d like to think that he can at least reflect on the fact that after all he endured in Cuba, he did find love in his adopted country, and that love took him a long way. He found a wife who fought incredibly hard to undo the damage wrought on him in that Cuban jail, without which his life could have been very different. It could have ended as another sad news item, one more firearms statistic: “Person shot in armed siege” the headline might have read, another needless death in a seemingly never-ending list. A name, a date of death, a cause: ‘gunshot wounds’.
Or, perhaps even worse for Luis, he could have been returned to the confines of a prison, with little hope of release, and with the unforgettable echo of his past to haunt him for the rest of his days.
But what I’ve realized by being part of this particular story, is that often the real cause of such deaths can be multi-layered and complex. It’s not just the gun. The weapon in this case came at the end of a long process of attrition, one exacerbated by drink and drugs, the problems of exile, the barriers of race and language, societal values and expectations. Many factors.
Ironically the wider family themselves were descended from European migrants, a fact they were proud of, and in my distant past are Spanish genes from a seaman with the Spanish Armada, cast ashore on the Scottish West Coast in 1588. With even brief exposure to the sun, like my father, I turn dark brown, and in Texas with my dark beard and swarthy skin I was often mistaken for a relative of Luis. We are all, to some degree, strangers in a strange land if we care to look closely enough.
There were no bad people in this story, quite the contrary. They were all caring, god-fearing, hard-working and intelligent people. But they were all victims of circumstance, and the inexorable pressures of upbringing and belief. And perhaps towering over them all the inescapable legacy of Luis’s formative years, jailed and treated brutally at gunpoint, with no way to contact his family, and unsure whether he would ever be released, or even live beyond the next day. None of which excuses his subsequent behaviour, but when such experience drags at someone, pulls them down into depression and alcohol dependency, it becomes a recipe for disaster.
We in Europe will see many people like Luis in the next few years. And we may judge them. But we may do so in the absence of any knowledge of their pasts. Like Luis they have become exiles from their native soil not because it was a lifestyle choice, but because it was about simply, their life. And saving it.