A rare photo of Caro with her hair loose, 1995. Photo Credit: Ruth Behar

Remembering the Woman Who Was My Second Mother in Cuba

Upon the death of her friend and childhood nanny in Cuba, an anthropologist reflects on the gifts exchanged over decades of reunion amid cultural and economic changes on the island.

When my cellphone rang on the morning of December 12, 2018, and I saw the call was from Paco Lopez in Miami, I took a deep breath. I told myself that he did sometimes call just to say hello or update me on the family in Cuba. There was no reason to expect the worst. But I knew that one day he’d phone me with bad news. This was the day.

“Se nos fue,” he said.

She was gone, I repeated to myself. Caro was gone.

Paco is the older of Caro’s twin sons. He began to cry, and I did too.

Caro, whose full name was Evangelista Caridad Martinez Castillo, had not lived quite as long as her father, who made it to 100, but she came close. She died at the age of 93.

When I was a little girl in Cuba, Caro was my nanny. She took care of me and my brother in the late 1950s, before our family left the island. What initially was a simple relationship of caretaker and child developed into something more complex and entangled, an intergenerational bond between a woman of the island and a woman of the Cuban diaspora. It emerged amid the social, economic, and cultural changes in Cuba that took place in the 1990s and that led to increasing contact and reconciliation between Cubans and Cuban-Americans. Caro became a second mother to me, an anchor to the island of my childhood.

What I visualize when I close my eyes now and imagine her are the quiet moments we shared in her house on lazy, warm afternoons, sitting side by side. We’d gaze at each other and try to see who we each had become after our lives were irrevocably changed by the Cuban revolution of 1959 that brought Fidel Castro and the bearded rebels to power, promising a utopian future for an island that had been ruled by dictators and controlled by the United States throughout the 20th century.

Caro breathed her last at home in Cuba, the island where she was born, the island she never left. She was cremated, and a few days later, her family scattered her ashes in the sea near her house in Havana. The ashes may even reach Miami, where Paco lives. He left Cuba in August 1996 and only returned once to see Caro and the rest of his family. He strove to put Cuba behind him, in the past, in order to move forward with his new life in the United States. Now he would live with the sadness that he wasn’t able to return to offer his mother a last goodbye.