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Farewell Cuba, Mi Isla

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About The Book

Two starred reviews!

“Perfect for fans of Margarita Engle and impactful historical fiction” (School Library Journal, starred review), this “evocative and transportive” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review) middle grade novel follows two girls fleeing 1960 Cuba with their family, inspired by award-winning author Alexandra Diaz’s family’s history.

Victoria loves everything about her home in Cuba. The beautiful land, the delicious food, her best friend and cousin, Jackie, and her big, loving family.

But it’s 1960 in Cuba, and as the political situation grows more and more dangerous, Victoria, her parents, and her two younger siblings are forced to seek refuge in America with nothing more than two changes of clothes and five dollars. Worse, they’re forced to leave the rest of their family, including Jackie, behind.

In Miami, everything is different. And it’s up to Victoria to step up and help her family settle into this new world—even though she hopes they won’t be there for long. Back in Cuba, everything feels different, too. Jackie watches as friends and family flee, or worse, disappear. So, when she’s given a chance to escape to America, she takes it—even though she has to go alone. Reunited in Miami, can Victoria and Jackie find a way to bring the rest of their family to safety?

Based on Alexandra Diaz’s mother’s real experiences as a Cuban refugee in America, this is a moving and timely story about family, friendship, and fighting for your future.

Excerpt

21 October 1960: La Habana airport 21 OCTOBER 1960 La Habana airport


Victoria shifted uneasily.

As inconspicuously as possible, she grabbed a handful of fabric to try to fix the problem. Of course Mami had insisted she wear a crinoline and slip under her skirt. Traveling required a person to wear one’s best clothes. And considering the government only allowed them to take two changes of clothes, they had to make them count. At least the Cuban humidity had prevented tights from being added to the ensemble, though not gloves. A lady needed her gloves. Especially in an airport full of germs.

“Stop fidgeting, niña,” Mami muttered under her breath, her fingers digging into Victoria’s shoulders like claws. “They’re going to think you’re up to something.”

She wasn’t up to anything. But she couldn’t say the same about her garments.

It was no use. If only she could excuse herself to use the restroom. Except Mami would never allow it. Her children, in a public restroom? ¡No, qué va!

Nor did she think Papi would allow it. They had to stay together and hold their place in the mob of evacuating Cubans, where they had been waiting for over two hours. Papi already feared they would be separated permanently. If that happened, it would be up to Victoria to step up as the head of the house. Mami, in her chronic delicate condition, wouldn’t be able to manage the responsibility. Wardrobe discomfort would then be the least of Victoria’s problems.

“What’s going on?” Jackie whispered in her ear.

Victoria removed her white silk gloves. “My panties are riding up. With all the layers, I can’t grab the edges.”

Jackie snickered. Then she shifted Victoria so her back faced minimal exposure, checked to make sure no soldiers or strangers were watching, and held out the layers of tulle for Victoria to reach under and rectify the invading undergarment.

Gloves still clutched in her hands, Victoria draped her arms around Jackie, resting her dark head on top of Jackie’s blond. “¿Qué haré sin ti?”

“Cry yourself to sleep?” Jackie joked. Except it wasn’t a joke. Victoria’s eyes were still red from saying goodbye to Tía Larita and Mamalara earlier. Jackie might act tough, but Victoria knew she’d cry too before the day was out. Only Victoria; her parents; and her two siblings, Inés and Nestico, had passports and tickets to leave; Jackie and her father would only stay with them through the plane’s departure.

Other than the first month of Victoria’s life, before Jackie was born, they’d never been apart for more than a few days. Their city house in La Habana consisted of two residences—Victoria’s family with Mamalara on the bottom floor, Jackie’s on the top. When not at the rural finca, Papalfonso liked having his family close by and had built his empire to achieve that.

And then, of course, everyone, whether related or not, always gathered in Victoria’s house. Or, rather, in their kitchen, run by Mamalara despite the two cooks.

Not anymore.

A couple of weeks ago, when things had really started to look bad for Cuba, the cooks, Dorothea and Manuela, had both returned to their native Spain. The small fortune they’d saved after fifteen years of service had already been sent to their families months before. Back when such things had still been allowed.

Since then, Victoria’s stomach had been in a twist. Nothing tasted good anymore.

The line moved one step closer.

Victoria’s family had flown a couple of times before, to Florida and New York, but never had Victoria known the airport to be jammed to capacity. Entire families, complete with grandparents and tíos y primos, argued above wailing infants; businessmen talked in English to their associates in booming voices; and a superfluity of nuns led a train of hand-clasped children. Guards marched through the crowds with their rifles propped on their shoulders.

Victoria leaned against Jackie. Solid and sturdy Jackie with a personality to match. The most unladylike person Victoria had ever met and her best friend. Victoria, with her almost-black hair, pale skin, and gangly body, looked nothing like Jackie, who had blond hair, dark skin, and a stocky, muscular build. Once, when they were little, Tía Larita had taken them to the park together, Victoria dressed like a proper young lady in a lilac dress with a white sash and Jackie in mud-stained green shorts that revealed scabby knees. Then some busybody atravesada had the nerve to point to Jackie and ask Tía Larita why she was taking care of the servant’s child. All because of Jackie’s darker skin, even though she and Tía shared similar facial features and the same blond hair.

By being Tía’s daughter, Jackie got to wear a sleeveless polo shirt, comfortable linen shorts, and canvas tennis shoes to the airport. The lucky duck.

The line shifted again.

“What do you think Mamalara is doing right now?” Victoria asked.

“Cleaning the house up and down with Pancha,” Jackie said. “You know what she’s like. Idle hands and all.”

Yes, Mamalara had to keep busy. Even when they’d had six household servants and two cooks, their grandmother had never dawdled. With Victoria’s family and most of the servants gone now, Mamalara would have more reason to want a distraction.

“And your mom is probably putting Clark down for his nap. Next time I see him, he won’t remember his godmother,” Victoria sighed. From the moment Jackie’s brother, Clark, had been born three months ago, Victoria had been in love with the infant. And not just because he’d been named after the handsome actor Clark Gable. Every night, she insisted on feeding him and putting him to bed. Becoming his godmother was the only good thing that had happened these last few weeks.

If only Mamalara, Tía Larita, and Clark were here. But the crowded airport wasn’t the right place for an infant. Besides, with Victoria’s family plus Jackie and Tío Rodrigo, the car couldn’t have fit anyone else.

More than that, Victoria wished Jackie and the rest of her familia were coming with them.

Papi kept insisting their exile would only last a few weeks, until the U.S. presidential election, but that was still longer than she’d ever been without her whole family.

Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide

Farewell Cuba, Mi Isla

By Alexandra Diaz

About the Book

Cousins Victoria and Jackie share an idyllic childhood in 1960 Cuba. They spend holidays and weekends with their extended family on their wealthy grandfather’s estate in the lush countryside and attend school in their connecting homes in Havana. When Fidel Castro rises to power, everything changes. Victoria and her immediate family leave the country for what they hope is a temporary exile in Miami, where they start a new life with nothing but their ability to work hard and their will to survive. Jackie’s family remains in Cuba and watches firsthand as the world they know unravels, and the situation becomes more and more dangerous. When the U.S.-funded program Operation Peter Pan offers a way for Jackie to leave Cuba without her family, she is reunited with Victoria, and the two girls must work together to create a new home in the U.S. and bring the rest of their family to safety.

Farewell Cuba, Mi Isla is a historical novel set during Fidel Castro’s rise to power in Cuba. It can serve as a helpful resource when learning about the characteristics of different political and economic systems, including communism, socialism, dictatorship, democracy, and capitalism.

Discussion Questions

1. A prologue is a section of a book that introduces characters, setting, or other important aspects of the book before the rest of the story takes place. What does the prologue of Farewell Cuba, Mi Isla reveal about Victoria’s family and her childhood in Cuba?

2. What details in the text show that, before the rise of Fidel Castro and communism in Cuba, Victoria’s family was very wealthy? Why does being in a higher social class put them at risk when Castro comes to power?

3. Why does Victoria’s father decide their family must leave Cuba? Why does her cousin Jackie’s family choose to stay? Why does Victoria’s father believe they will only need to leave Cuba for a short period of time? What is he hoping the future U.S. president will do?

4. As Castro exerts his power over Cuba, Jackie and Victoria realize that all foreign newspapers and magazines have disappeared. Jackie comments, “‘It’s like Mima said: they’re not allowing us to read news published outside the island.’” (p. 19) Why would a communist government restrict access to information? Why is freedom of the press an important element of democracy?

5. Why is Papi concerned that he might not be allowed to leave Cuba with his family? Why do you think the government restricts who can leave Cuba (forbidding engineers and doctors for example from leaving) and what they can take with them?

6. Why does Pancha stay with the family when the other staff has left? What is the tone and meaning of the narrator’s observation: “That was Communism. Down with the social classes and bureaucracies—power to the people.” (p. 40)

7. Explain why Jackie has conflicting feelings about the government. Do you identify with any of her feelings?

8. Why does Jackie decide to write to Victoria in code? Explain how the code she uses works.

9. What does Jackie think Victoria’s life in Miami is like? What is Victoria’s life in Miami like in reality? What do you think Jackie would do if she knew the truth about the challenges Victoria faces?

10. Describe how Victoria’s mother feels about their family compared to other people. What has made her believe this? Why do you think Victoria says: “‘Inside, I think Mami is very sad and very lonely.’” (p. 123)

11. Victoria’s parents have very specific expectations about her future. “Victoria’s only job was to grow up to be a proper young lady who married a suitable husband.” (p. 24). What do Mami and Papi believe about the roles of boys versus the roles of girls? How do the classes at Victoria’s school reinforce these gender expectations? How do characters like Marge and Jackie challenge these stereotypes?

12. Describe Victoria’s friendship with Phil. What does she have in common with him? How do they help each other? Why does Phil’s sister Monique dislike Victoria?

13. Why is Katya the target of bullying? Why does Victoria become Katya’s friend despite their different backgrounds? Do you think the girls have more in common or more about them that is different? Explain your answer. How does their ability to look beyond their differences end up helping them both?

14. What does Jackie’s letter to Victoria (pp. 91–95) reveal about life in Cuba under Castro’s government? How do you think Victoria would respond to the letter?

15. Why do you think they eventually named the program to get children out of Cuba Operation Peter Pan? Why doesn’t Jackie want to be a part of Operation Peter Pan? Why does her family send her to Miami anyway? How can you tell that the experience is traumatic for her? Use evidence from the text to support your answer.

16. What causes Victoria and Jackie’s relationship to become strained after Jackie arrives in Miami? What do you think Victoria does not understand about Jackie? What doesn’t Jackie understand about Victoria? How do they resolve their misunderstandings and repair their friendship?

17. Jackie is frustrated by how Victoria and her family constantly talk about politics. She observes: “‘We can’t do anything. We can’t change anything. There’s no point in talking about it anymore.’” (p. 204) Do you agree with Victoria that it is valuable to talk about politics, or do you agree with Jackie? Explain your answer.

18. A bildungsroman is a story about a character growing up or coming of age. How does Victoria mature over the course of the novel? What does she learn about advocating for herself and standing up for others? How is Victoria’s coming of age different than Jackie’s?

19. Farewell Cuba, Mi Isla is set in the 1960s, over sixty years ago. What are some differences you noticed about how things were done at that time and how people lived? What are some things that have remained the same over time? Use the text to cite specific examples of these differences and similarities.

20. Throughout the novel, Diaz includes Spanish words and phrases. Choose a few unfamiliar words or phrases and use context clues to identify their meaning. Write down what you think the definition is and why you believe that definition makes sense. Then, look up the word’s definition in the glossary at the end of the book and see if you were correct.

Extension Activities

1. Create an illustrated family tree of Victoria’s extended family, beginning with her grandparents, Papalfonso and Mamalara. Annotate the family tree with textual evidence that explains how the family members are related.

2. Research the Cuban revolution and create a time line of events beginning with the last year of Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship in 1958 and ending with the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Include historical events such as the election of President Kennedy, the Bay of Pigs, and Operation Peter Pan, along with key moments from the novel.

3. Jackie tells her mother about her assignment for school, “‘We debated the pros and cons of a Communist society, and for homework, we have to defend our ideal government—either real or imagined.’” (p. 42) Re-create this assignment with your classmates. Develop a persuasive case for what you believe is the ideal government (real or imagined) and debate the pros and cons of each person or group’s proposal.

4. As her family struggles to survive in the U.S., Victoria realizes that her mother never learned the practical skills needed to care for herself or her family, and she is glad to learn how to cook in her home economics class. Should schools teach all students, regardless of gender, the domestic or common-sense skills individuals may need in their daily lives, or focus only on academic subjects? Prepare an informative speech or create an informational video showing your classmates how to manage a practical life skill like doing laundry, sewing a button, using a hammer or screwdriver, cooking a family meal, mowing a lawn, or caring for a younger sibling.

5. When they move to Miami, Victoria notes that both her mother and her father have a difficult time adapting to their new lifestyle and the U.S. culture. (pp. 123–24) Think about a time when you faced a challenge or new experience and had to adapt. Write a personal essay about the challenge you faced and what you learned or gained by being able to adapt.

6. In Miami, Victoria’s classmates are worried about a missile attack from the Soviet Union. Her classmate Rebecca warns her, “‘Any day now, the Reds are going to launch a missile at us. Thank goodness my parents built a bunker under the house to keep us safe.’” (p. 86) This time in U.S. history is known as the Cold War. Research the Cold War, paying particular attention to Cold War propaganda and speeches. How did these fuel U.S. citizens’ fear and suspicion of families like Katya’s? (Note: the Student Center of the Encyclopedia Britannica is a good starting point for this research: https://www.britannica.com/study/cold-war-policies-propaganda-and-speeches)

7. The prologue uses vivid imagery to describe Victoria’s most beloved place on earth: her family’s finca. Write a descriptive essay about a place that is important to you. You can illustrate your essay with photographs or pictures if you would like.

8. Victoria and Jackie organize a community-wide celebration of Carnaval. Re-create this celebration with your classmates by choosing a country that celebrates Carnaval and researching the country’s culture, climate, history, food, and traditions. Use what you have learned to contribute food, decorations, music, or an activity that reflects your chosen country’s identity to a class-wide multicultural Carnaval celebration.

9. Working with a partner or group, create a memory book for Victoria or Jackie that includes pictures and reflections in the voice of the character that represents their life in Cuba, journey to the U.S., and life in Miami. Include an epilogue that shows what you think happens next or sometime in the future for the character.

10. Phil shares his short story with Victoria and tells her that it is an allegory: a story with two levels of meaning. (pp. 143–145) Writers often use allegories to make a social critique, particularly when those in power are seeking to suppress criticism or protest. Compare Farewell Cuba, Mi Isla with George Orwell’s allegorical critique of Communism, Animal Farm. How are the critiques in the novels similar? How are they different? What did each novel help you understand about Communist revolutions?

11. The Cuban Revolution is said to have unleashed the largest wave of immigration to the U.S. with 1.4 million people. Research and identify which cities or countries have the largest Cuban populations and map out their locations. Create a diagram showing how they might have gotten where they are. Discuss why a community might have decided to live in that geographic location.

Note: All page numbers refer to the hardcover edition of this title.

Guide prepared by Amy Jurskis, English Department Chair at Oxbridge Academy.

This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes. For more Simon & Schuster guides and classroom materials, please visit simonandschuster.net.

About The Author

Owen Benson

Alexandra Diaz is the award-winning author of The Only RoadThe CrossroadsSantiago’s Road Home, and Farewell Cuba, Mi IslaThe Only Road was a Pura Belpré Honor Book and won the Américas Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature, as well as numerous other accolades. Santiago’s Road Home was an International Latino Book Award gold medalist and an ALA Notable Children’s Book. Farewell Cuba, Mi Isla was a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year, received the Teacher’s Favorites Award from the Children’s Book Council, and received starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews and School Library Journal. Alexandra is the daughter of Cuban refugees and a native Spanish speaker. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, but got her master’s in writing for young people at Bath Spa University in England. Visit her at Alexandra-Diaz.com.

Why We Love It

“Based on Alexandra Diaz’s mother’s real experiences as a Cuban refugee in America, this is a moving and timely story about family, friendship, and fighting for your future.”

—Catherine L., Editor, on Farewell Cuba, Mi Isla

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books (September 5, 2023)
  • Length: 336 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781534495401
  • Grades: 3 - 7
  • Ages: 8 - 12
  • Fountas & Pinnell™ Y These books have been officially leveled by using the F&P Text Level Gradient™ Leveling System

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Raves and Reviews

* "Readers will be able to relate to the coming-of-age elements while learning about an important and difficult part of Cuba’s history. An evocative and transportive read."

Kirkus Reviews, STARRED REVIEW

* "Heartfelt and beautifully written, this middle grade novel is perfect for fans of Margarita Engle and of impactful historical fiction."

School Library Journal, STARRED REVIEW

“Inspired by her own family’s experiences, Diaz delivers a well-researched story that serves as a compassionate introduction to this underdiscussed part of American and Cuban history.”

– Publishers Weekly, 9/18/23

"This is a moving, poignant read."

Booklist

"Diaz does not shy away from addressing intertwined issues of the time period, including school integration, Cold War anti-Russian prejudice, and racial and gender dynamics within the family. The book’s ending... allows for a happy, hopeful reunion in Miami with Jackie’s parents and baby brother and the girls’ grandmother."

The Horn Book

Awards and Honors

  • CBC/NCSS Notable Social Studies Trade Book
  • Kirkus Best Middle Grade Books of the Year

Resources and Downloads

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