In 1962, 11-year-old Carlos Eire was one of thousands of children airlifted out of Cuba and sent to Florida to escape Fidel Castro's regime. His parents thought he would be back as soon as Castro was deposed.
But Eire never returned home. Shortly after he arrived in the United States, the Cuban missile crisis shut down Cuba's borders, and his parents were unable to leave the country. For the next several years, Eire would be shuffled between foster families around the country before joining his aunt and uncle in Chicago.
Eire's memoir, Learning to Die in Miami, chronicles the years he spent away from his family acclimating to a completely new country — as well as his eventual reunion with his mother. (His father died in Cuba.)
Now a professor of history and religious studies at Yale, Eire tells Terry Gross how a religious book his parents gave him just before he left Cuba made a lasting impression on him. The book, Imitation of Christ, was written by a 15th-century monk and is about accepting suffering and letting go of the idea that one has control over his or her life.
"It's the last book in the world a 12-year-old boy wants to read, but I very quickly outgrew my clothes, so the only two reminders I had of my family physically were a religious medal I wore around my neck and this book," he says. "And there's a Catholic superstition where if you have a question and open that book at random, the answer will be on that page."
When he was 14, Eire says, the book started making sense to him.
"The book allowed me to let go of my past. It allowed me not to fix my gaze on what I had lost but rather to be happy that I had lost," he says. "To take my exile as a gift — to not focus on how I could reclaim my place in the social hierarchy, but rather just to devote myself to reading about my religion, learning how to live it, and then, once I got this idea in my head that my profession was going to be teaching, that's what I considered my vocation."
Eire's first memoir, Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2003. He is also the author of War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Eramus to Calvin.
On how the Pedro Pan Airlifts started
"It was begun by a headmaster, at an American school in Havana, the Ruston Academy. He knew several men and women who, in 1959, were already struggling against Fidel Castro. ... These men and women feared that if they were caught and imprisoned, they wouldn't know who would take care of their children or what would happen to their children. The headmaster at Ruston Academy had friends in Washington [D.C.], and they arranged for the State Department to grant visa waivers to Cuban children so they could leave right away without security clearances. Though it was initially intended for children of dissidents who were fighting against Fidel Castro, it quickly grew into a program for any child whose parents wanted them out of the island. As soon as government took over all schools in April 1961, the program really took off, and it mushroomed into something that no one had predicted or expected."
On his first foster parents
"They took us in, thinking they'd only have us for a few months ... when the Cuban missile crisis closed down everything. But my foster parents were not alone in being 'stuck' with a foster child they were only supposed to have for months. I know Pedro Pan kids who stayed with their families for several years."
On the concept of eternity
"I definitely believed in it and still do. [My concept of it has] changed enormously. The little kid in Catholic school has these graphic pictures to look at — the religious images, very graphic pictures. Heaven is always boring. It's just people on clouds, circling around God or Jesus, that never looked too exciting to a kid. [But] hell is terrible — people being fired or tortured. And, of course, my view has changed, and I think that's one of my chief interests as a scholar — dealing with the history of death and the way in which the afterlife has been configured in the West. I now know how tied to specific time and place images of hell and heaven are. I realize that. I can study that. I can detach myself from that and see it as a cultural construction — specific views of heaven or hell or eternity. But as a person living out my life, I know that my years on Earth are numbered, and I look for some continued existence that I can't even begin to imagine. I leave it at that for myself. I don't try to imagine what will happen, but I'm pretty sure something will."