Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Remembering Natalia Revuelta

Natalia Revuelta Clews as a young
beauty (above) and in 1998 (below)

Natalia Revuelta Clews died last week at the age of 88. Who, you may ask? “Naty” Revuelta was a beautiful (and married) Cuban socialite who became enamored of a imprisoned revolutionary, the also-married illegitimate son of a Cuban landowner: Fidel Castro. Naty wrote to him while he was in prison after the failed attempt on the Moncada barracks. He wrote back and a passionate exchange of love letters ensued. She sent him books, gave money to his compatriots, and allowed them to hold meetings in her home. When Castro was released from prison, he very briefly met her, consummated the relationship and then went off, leaving her pregnant with their daughter who was born in 1956. She expected him to come
back to her after he overthrew Batista and entered Havana in triumph in 1959. He was too busy to be bothered and never legally acknowledged the child as his.

Wendy Gimbel tells Naty’s story in HAVANA DREAMS: A STORY OF CUBA.

Gimbel's paternal grandmother lived in pre-Castro Cuba and, as a girl, she made many trips to visit family there. She returned in the 1990’s, filled with memories of childhood play in vast courtyards of stately homes, the Havana Yacht Club, elegant ladies and their handsome gentlemen, all tended by well-trained servants. This life had disappeared and been replaced with poverty and need. The beautiful homes were empty or divided up or decaying.

In her book, Gimbel focused on four generations of Cuban women in a single family as a way of examining the Cuba of memory and that of reality. Doña Natica, who led the pampered upper-class life that has disappeared, chooses to pretend that things are as they always were. She closes herself up in her now decrepit mansion amid her antiques and family silver, china and crystal, enjoys formal afternoon teas, and is fond of claiming her imagined resemblance to Queen Elizabeth.

Her daughter, Natalia (“Naty”) takes the opposite path. She embraces the revolution, denounces her “bourgeoisie existence” and, despite being the wife of a wealthy and prominent doctor and the mother of their child, becomes enthralled with Fidel Castro.  Many of the love letters he and Naty exchanged are reprinted in Gimbel’s book. Naty remains devoted to Castro (who largely ignores her) and her dream that he will return to her, after the birth of their daughter, Alina. Even in her old age, she continues to read Fidel’s letters over and over, both privately and aloud to all visitors.

In the next generation, Naty’s older daughter, Nina, immigrates to the U.S. with her cardiologist father and, in 1993, takes part in anti-Castro demonstrations protesting his appearance at the U.N. When Gimbel finds her, she is living the life of a wealthy American suburban housewife.

On the other hand, Alina, Naty’s daughter by Castro, remains in Cuba but “dreams of Miami and freedom and the father she never really knew.” Rarely included in Castro family events and never introduced to Fidel’s sons, her half-brothers, she is finally whisked out of Cuba on a borrowed Spanish passport – with the aid of Nina and friends. From Europe, with help from Senator Sam Nunn, she is able to go to the U.S. A short time later, Castro agrees to let Alina’s daughter leave Cuba and join her mother.

Wendy Gimbel paints a far fuller picture of each of these women. She has interviewed them all as well as dozens of people who knew them. The combination of her own nostalgic recollections, her unblinking look at “modern” Cuba, and the vast amount of research she has obviously done make for a memorable read.

May Natalia Revuelta – at long last – rest in peace.

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