Santa Fe author Alexandra Diaz launched her latest novel at Purple Fern Bookstore in Eldorado this month, wearing a white headband in her dark hair to match the girl on the cover of her book as she leaned into a rumor that the image was based on her (it’s not).
Farewell Cuba, Mi Isla (Sept. 5, Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books) is the fourth standalone novel in Diaz’s award-winning middle-grade immigration quartet, which began with The Only Road in 2016, followed by The Crossroads and Santiago’s Road Home in 2018 and 2019 respectively.
Diaz’s 12-year-old protagonist, Victoria, loves her home in Cuba, with its beautiful landscapes, delicious food and, most of all, her family. She spends time riding horses on her grandfather’s idyllic farm and hopes that, one day, it will all be hers. But history has other plans. It’s 1960 in Cuba, and Fidel Castro has been in power for a year. As the political climate grows more dangerous, Victoria, her parents and her two siblings are forced to leave the rest of their family behind and seek refuge in the US.
Farewell Cuba is the most personal tale Diaz has tackled so far. Loosely based on the story of her mother’s immigration, Diaz’s tale follows Victoria’s family as they flee communist Cuba for a new life in Miami. They leave the island believing their exile is only temporary—that they’ll be able to return after the upcoming US presidential election. The timeline begins to stretch, however, raising doubts that they’ll ever make it home.
When Diaz’s editor suggested she write about her own family’s experience, she was reluctant.
“It always did feel very personal, and it wasn’t something that I wanted to dive into,” she tells SFR, “but I did see it as an opportunity.”
She decided it was time to tell the story in the form she loves: middle-grade fiction.
“I never stopped reading middle-grade and [young adult]—it’s what I feel comfortable with,” Diaz says. “I always felt attuned to that audience.”
In fact, she earned her master’s in writing for young people at Bath Spa University in England. Still, she asked her mother’s permission to write the book, knowing that it would be difficult for her to revisit some of those memories. Telling the story to a young audience meant that Victoria, at 12, faces different challenges than Diaz’s mother did when she came to the US at 17. Diaz captures the mentalities of school kids of any era, and Victoria’s struggles—teasing, exclusion and uncertainty—will feel familiar to anyone. But she also offers unique insight into that particular time and place: the culture shock, changing gender role expectations and issues surrounding integration in schools, among others. Diaz’s books can be read on many levels, depending on the age of the reader; some might read it for the historical and political context, some for the character dynamics, some just for a good story. And Diaz paints a vivid picture of her characters’ home in Cuba, drawing on her mother’s memories, particularly of her grandfather’s farm where, Diaz says her mother told her, he’d grown “every fruit you could imagine.”
Diaz also had access to photographs her aunt smuggled out of Cuba through the Swiss embassy, and colors Farewell Cuba with her own memories of living in Puerto Rico, with its similar plants and landscapes. She goes even deeper, too. In order to flesh out the details of characters’ daily lives—the cost of an apartment, minimum wage and grocery prices, for example—Diaz sourced information from the archives of the Miami Herald. Finding specifics about life in Cuba at the time was more difficult, and since much of the information about events in the country is restricted, she had to rely largely on the memories and anecdotes of friends and family members.
“It was frustrating,” Diaz explains, “because I couldn’t find exact dates, so it would really depend on one person saying, ‘Oh yes, I know it was definitely this day, because that was my daughter’s birthday,’ or something random like that.”
Still, their accounts helped her to fill in immersive specifics: At one time, ex-pats were allowed to leave Cuba with no more than $5, and later, only a dime to make a phone call upon their arrival in the US; there came a time when professionals like engineers were no longer allowed to leave the island.
“It was really challenging to accept that not all of my dates were going to be historically accurate,” Diaz says.
Her uncertainty parallels that of Victoria and her family, though, who end up with little access to information about the goings-on in Cuba after their exodus. Instead, they rely on limited reports from American newspapers and radio broadcasts. This centers the novel in real-life history, and Diaz chose the most pivotal historical dates to craft the arc of her story.
“The Bay of Pigs was the time that every Cuban essentially lost hope,” she says. “That was when they knew there was no home to come back to, and that Fidel was never going to relinquish his power.”
In the book, it’s a devastating blow—but for Victoria, it strengthens her determination to help her family make Miami home.