About Me

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New York, New York, United States
I am a portrait, landscape painter and a fiction writer. My paintings can be found in private, academic and corporate collections. Traveler's Insurance, Yale University, Aberchrombie and Fitch Inc. Drew University etc. I currently have two novels in print: 'Raining Sardines' (07)and '90 Miles to Havana' (10) published by Roaring Brook Press. Become Social: Facebook:

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Writing 90 Miles to Havana

Havana Street
oil on linen
Enrique Flores-Galbis

My 90 Mile Necklace of Memories
On writing 90 miles to Havana
Enrique Flores-Galbis
New York City.
            Every book starts with an idea and then an itch. The idea can be murky and shapeless, or clear and perfect as a pearl. The itch comes from the need to scratch your idea into the shape of a book, just to see how it looks in the real world. This is where imagination meets creativity, and the gravity and friction of the writing process start to shape, and change your idea.  
            When your first draft is finished, you step back and the first thing you notice is that, in the dry light of day, your idea looks a lot different than it did in your fluid imagination. Often shapeless ideas emerge clearly defined, while the clear ones get muddied up and complicated. But this is the payback of all creative endeavors. The immersion required by the writing process enables us to draw on higher resources in order to bring focus to the vague, or to take a critical look at accepted assumptions. I’ve come to actually look forward to the surprise at the end. Often where I had hoped for one little pearl, I usually end up with a whole necklace of ideas.
            I began writing 90 Miles to Havana with what I thought was a very clear idea about how the book would look at the end. Initially I saw it as biographical story about a pleasant and privileged life in Cuba that was interrupted by a revolution and then the experience of life in the refugee camp of Operation Pedro Pan.
            My first chapter sketches were about the fun things my brothers and I did, such as swimming in our turquoise sea, or riding horses over the green hills.  I would often send my brothers the rough drafts and we would laugh about our adventures. They liked the one about how we used to hijack my father’s messenger’s big red motor scooter and then pile on as many neighborhood kids as we could fit. Our record was seven. They had almost forgotten the one about watching the movie Dracula, and then staying up for three nights, too afraid to sleep.  
Our conversations unearthed communal memories that helped me create a more detailed view of the streets, beaches and rooms that I would visit when I wrote. As time passed and the good memories, the ones on the surface, thinned out, I had to dig deeper. From that point on I could never be sure whether the images and feelings that I unearthed every morning would be bitter or sweet. At night I read as much about Cuban history as I could get my hands on in order to place the events of my life in historical context. 
             The year I was born, the presidential candidate, Fulgencio Batista, was running third when he decided that it would not be wise to wait for the election. He took control (again) in a military coup, and then promptly cancelled elections, alienating a large segment of the population and breathing new life into the long festering rebel movement. Seven years later, Batista flew away with the contents of the treasury and the rebels claimed victory for the Revolution. Two years later, in 1961, my brothers and I escaped the revolution through the window opened by the State Department and the Catholic Church. That window was called, “Operation Pedro Pan.” During my golden years in Havana, the time in between the coup and the revolution, the volume of the political unrest and resulting violence continued to rise.
            Our parents tried to shield us from the upheaval, but when the violence intensified, the muffled gunfire and explosions we had heard in the distance came roaring down our street and knocking at our door. I was frightened by the noise, but I remember feeling insulted — indignant — that the people who made the movies we went to see on the weekends had presented gunshots and explosions as pleasant pops, no more threatening than hands clapping or beating on the tightened skin of a drum. The real gunshots and explosions I experienced were not pleasant at all, they were jolts of electricity that cut right through me and left a bitter taste in my mouth.
              As I became immersed in writing about my experiences, the stories reeled out easily, but they were turning darker than I had envisioned the book to be. Even so, I did not want to close the door on that period of my life that I had purposefully “forgotten.” I didn’t want to lose the connection to all those memories and emotions. I decided to let the stories ramble out and then edit, cut and shape at the end.
            One of the dark stories that I cut out recounted the accidental discovery of a teenager under the big train table in the back room of my father’s office. The teenager, a baseball player we knew, was hiding from Batista’s secret police and scared for his life. As I crouched under the table with him, I could feel his fear washing over me like a nauseating wave and then I was terrified too. He warned me that if I told anyone I had seen him, it could be dangerous for my father and my whole family. I believed him.
We all knew about the secret police — sinister men who rode around in black Buicks, wearing black suits and sunglasses. Their job was to run down, beat up, and do much worse to anyone suspected of being involved in the resistance. They were masters of the art of intimidation, an art they performed in a very public way to give those who were considering joining the resistance a graphic demonstration of the consequences. More than once, my mother had warned me to look away as we drove by one of their cruel warnings on the side of the road. I wish I had listened to her.
            It seems strange now, but at the time, the idea that institutional bullies used fear to intimidate people did not come as a surprise. I thought that was just the way things were done. I saw it often in the playground. Even though I was only nine years old, I understood that the drama of the playground was a scaled down version of what was going on in the streets.  I also remember thinking that real fear and gunshots belonged in the same “too real to believe” category. It was during this period that my fascination with the nuanced relationship between the virtual, whether painted, projected or printed, and reality began. This fascination engendered a lifelong involvement with the creative process. 
            It wasn’t until I arrived in the U.S that I realized just how strange it was for a ten-year-old to be thinking about intimidation, fear and the reality of gunshots. My new American friends were not thinking or worrying about those things. They had been born into a stable democracy with a constitution and laws that were generally respected. There were regular elections, people talked freely and seemed to be able to come to an agreement without shouting at, or shooting each other. Best of all, I didn’t see any men driving around in Buicks intimidating anyone.
            When the first rough draft was completed, I stepped back, and as I suspected, it felt darker and more complicated than the pearl of a memoir that I had imagined at the start. The writing process did reward me with a necklace of ideas, strung with just as many spiky urchins — the messy memories and insights, as pearls.
            In the process of editing down to find the core, I started to feel that a biography would put me too close to those messy memories and feelings that had bubbled up. My doubts with the biographical approach were also due to the fact that I live in Queens, NYC, the most culturally and ethnically diverse place on earth. I often hear hair-raising tales of life in the old country, the epic journey to get here, and stories that make my experiences sound like a walk in the park by comparison.
              I decided that I needed to write a story that was bigger than my own. An historical fiction novel would allow me to expand and include universal themes, tell the bigger story that celebrates the resilience and inventiveness of children in difficult situations, contains insights on bullies, and provides a view of a culture and an important moment in the history of both the U.S. and Cuba.
            Historical fiction deals with monumental events, History, in big block letters, but it always relies on accessible characters that the reader can trust and willingly inhabit, and together they push and pull the story down the road. When I visit schools to talk about the book or the writing process, I explain the function of the character as the Avatar effect. Aboard their chosen Avatar, they can walk around with their senses fully engaged in a specific time and place, and fully implicated in the virtual moment. This is always a more exciting way to ride through history than a textbook could ever provide.  
             Of course the author is always the first to ride the Avatar. The fictional, but familiar, character of Julian carried me to a vantage point from which I could view the panorama of experiences objectively, and then gauge their relative size or importance in the context of the narrative I was trying to weave. This distance helped me to see the bigger universal principles underlying my small experiences.
             From this perspective I was able to create a scaled-down version of the revolution that I witnessed in Cuba. In the parallel world of the camp, Caballo, the bully, intimidates, and generally throws his weight around, much like the two dictators that we experienced. As the plot evolves, Caballo’s heavy-handed approach alienates many of the kids in the camp. First they complain individually, then they form a group, and then they fight back. When they meet to discuss how they will carry out their mini-revolution, they consider two options: the “democratic way,” a new concept that Dolores, the camp’s cook suggests, or to do it the way they’ve seen it done before.
            Sadly, they decide to model their uprising on the events that they had just witnessed in Cuba. The revolution that ultimately led to displacement and social chaos at home was not a unique event. Violent overthrow has been a viable means of political change since the Spanish American War, and Cuba’s liberation from Spain.
             Julian’s efforts to prove himself — to claim his independence from his two older brothers — forms the central conflict that drives the plot. Julian’s involvement with the events in the playground are presented as an outgrowth of this core aspect of his character, and engage the reader at a level that most young adults can relate to. When his brothers are sent away, Julian misses them, but he also enjoys the freedom to use his own unique set of talents in situations that his brothers would say he was too young to take part in. He is independent at last.
            When Julian is forced to deal with the bully, Caballo, without the help of his brothers, he immediately becomes aware of the price and weight of his independence. But Julian does not retreat. Angelita, his closest friend in the camp, helps Julian see Caballo in a new light. He understands when she explains that it takes a bully to make a bully and Caballo’s actions are driven by the fear that someone will bully him, again. Angelita suggest a new approach that will not set off Caballo’s fear, causing him to respond the only way he knows how. Considering his intimidating size, the might is right option has always been very effective. Julian understands Angelita’s sage advice. He tries to disconnect from the lessons he has absorbed from the playground and history, but in the end, he also responds the only way he knows.            
            I learned from my experiences early in life that it takes a bully to make a bully and that fear keeps adding new bully links to the chain. It is a sad and vicious cycle that is hard to break, but I’ve also had experiences that taught me that there is hope.
            I went to five different schools my first year in the U.S. and like Julian, I had to deal with the schoolyard bully—five of them. In almost every one of those schools I was challenged, and then faced the same sad routine out by the swings. I don’t remember ever losing a fight, but then again I never really won one. I guess I never had the heart for the required and belittling, push the face into the sand stuff. Even back then, I knew that if I did it properly, beat the kid up, I would be giving him a good excuse to try to beat me up again. That would just lead to countless afternoons wasted fighting. It never made any sense to me.
            By the time I attended the third or fourth school of that first year, I had come to the conclusion that since the tormentor kid didn’t know anything about me, he had no good reason to want to beat me up. Maybe it was because I was different. I did dress funny and spoke a broken halfway English and I was usually the only Hispanic kid in the whole school. I decided that some kids and adults too, often feel threatened by people and things they don’t understand and when people are threatened they tend to act out of fear. That is when I decided that it was up to me to introduce myself — show them that there was nothing to be afraid of. This worked well with most of the regular kids I met, but it was little trickier with the school bullies — they were a tougher nut to crack.   
            But the fifth school was the charm. My well-tuned bully radar told me that the kid who had been riding around me on his bike was waiting for the right day to do his thing. I also noticed that his kickstand was loose. The next day I was waiting for him by the bike rack with a big adjustable wrench in my hand. I could tell he was surprised. Yes, It was awkward. I wasn’t what you would call a skilled communicator, and he didn’t seem to know what to say.  But when I waved the wrench and got down to tighten his kickstand, he looked around to see if there were any witnesses, then he smiled and mumbled something that I didn’t understand. He seemed relieved and I think he said thanks. No, we did not become best friends, but we never fought either.
            The consistent response to 90 Miles to Havana has been that it is fast-paced and it opens the door to discussions on a variety of relevant topics. This is very rewarding to hear since I wrote 90 Miles to Havana with a close eye on my “stall meter,” the gauge that beeps when back-story or description create a drag instead of a lift and the reader’s interest takes a dive. While writing 90 Miles to Havana, I had the meter set between Young Adult Historical Fiction and Fast Paced Action Novel.
            There is a wonderful moment when you finish a book and you can hold it in your hand and feel the weight of the idea that just had to scratch it’s way out. Finally that necklace of pearls and prickly urchins had been strung in the right order. The big ideas about bullies, history, and revolution that had wanted to drive the book had been pushed, pulled and pacified, to take their proper place as passengers in a Young Adult adventure about a boy named Julian, who insists that he has something to contribute.              
            I’m very proud of the recognition and acknowledgements 90 Miles to Havana  has received for its accurate depiction of Hispanic culture, and Cuban history from: the Association for Library Service to Children and REFORMA, The Pura Belpre Author Honor Award, The National Council for the Social Studies Exceptional Children’s Book list, Bank Street Best Children’s Books of the Year, Association for Library Service to Children Notable Children’s Book list, The Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s Choice Award.
            Thanks, and I hope you enjoy reading 90 Miles to Havana.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Operation Pedro Pan, '90 Miles to Havana'

90 Miles to Havana
Julian witnesses the Cuban revolution and the events that lead his parents to send him and his brothers away to an uncertain fate in the overcrowded refugee camps of Operation Pedro Pan. In Miami Julian encounters Caballo, a dictator-bully, and Dolores, the camp’s kindly cook who tries to teach them about making change the democratic way, and not modeling on their recent turbulent history. When Julian decides to confront Caballo, he is forced to leave the camp, and then moves in with Tomas, an inventor, who is fixing up an abandoned boat to sail to Cuba to help his parents and others escape. Julian rises to the challenge and makes the trip possible when Tomas's plan hits a snag.


Operation Pedro Pan was a little publicized State Department Operation that enabled the exodus 14,000 unaccompanied children to the U.S. Not long after the Revolutionary Government began drifting left, nationalizing property, and closing schools, Radio Swan began broadcasting its ominous warnings into Cuba, frightening parents, and polarizing the population. As soldiers dug trenches in the beaches preparing for the Yankee invasion, parents, fearing they would lose custody of their children, made the difficult choice to send them to the Church run camps in Miami.   

Writing 90 Miles.
Writing 90 Miles to Havana brought back images and events that I had stored safely away in that room under my hat where I put memories that should not be tampered with. Pen in hand, I would walk into that room every day and be surprised by the sights, sounds and emotions that were waiting to jump out at me.
            Most of the memories were happy, they made me laugh. But there were those that were not so happy. The sad ones, I recorded and then quickly put back onto their dusty shelves where they belong. No sense carrying sad stuff around, it just gets in the way.
            I was nine years old when my parents decided that my brothers and I would be safer in Miami, even though they had no clear idea what actually awaited us there. At the airport my father put on his best fa├žade, smiled and then handed us each a box of good Cuban cigars, but my mother looked like a raindrop that was about to burst—straining to push back her tears. It wasn’t until I had children of my own that I began to understand the power of the emotions behind all that water that she was holding back that day.
            I was trying to act cool like my two older brothers, when they opened the door to the runway. The fumes and noise of the airplane engines came roaring into the waiting room like an angry animal and  my cool started to melt. 
As I ran across the hot tarmac, I felt my feet leave the ground and then I found myself floating, behind my brothers, watching three boys that looked just like us run up the steps, and then into to the big rumbling silver airplane.
            That’s when I found out about the magic of floating. 
            I floated into to my seat, to Miami, past the man who took my box of cigars and then gave me ten dollars. I floated into Pedro Pan’s camp, and with my feet well off the ground, above it all, I was able to observe the strange goings on there. When when they finally let us go, I floated all the way to my uncle’s house. It took another year in America before I was able set my feet down on solid ground. I was finally here.
            As I looked around the fifth school that I had attended that year, I realized that the kids here might speak a different language, and wear slightly different clothes, but I was sure that in our hearts we are all the same.
            As I got older I never forgot how to float, I just learned how to use it in a different way, and for different reasons. I became a painter and then a writer. I earned my artist’s license and now I’m certified to float anywhere and at any time my heart desires.  
            The only thing that I still have not gotten used to in my new home is how cold the ocean is, just 90 miles from Havana.
            One last thought that might interest you. 90 miles to Havana is a fictional account of historical events, which means that I used my happy as well as the not so happy memories in the story. Then with my artist’s license pinned to my shirt, I expanded the story so that it would feel and say what I wanted it to.
            For instance, one of the main things that I remember about our time in the camp was that the adults weren’t around much, so the kids had to organize themselves the only way they knew how. They imitated what they had observed back in Cuba. I used this impression to create a parallel world in the camp where a one big kid and his friends ruled, and everybody else had to toe their line. Naturally not everybody wanted to get near their toe line, much less jump to their side of it. Some of the kids organized themselves into resistance groups with the sole purpose of making the camp dictator’s life so miserable that he would want to leave.
            This was my way of giving you, the reader, a view through Julian’s eyes of how people behave when they find themselves under someone else’s thumb, and the situation that led to my brothers and I leaving our island, unescorted, along with 14,000 other lonely kids. I hope you enjoy the book. I enjoyed writing it.                         

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Monday, March 8, 2010

Raining Sardines

Raining Sardines, set in pre- revolutionary Cuba, 'Raining Sardines' received the America’s Award for YA literature for it’s accurate historical depiction of characters and events in a Latin American country.

 Ernestina and Enriquito are as different as two people can be. Ernestina, the imaginative artist-dreamer, works from inspiration, while Enriquito the linear thinking, little engineer, plans, draws up lists, and gathers tools. Obstacles dissolve when they finally learn to combine their unique qualities. Ernestina and Enriquito follow a herd of wild Paso Fino Ponies to a secret valley where they discover Hatuey’s treasure.  The best friends must outsmart the huge Caiman guarding the treasure, and with the help of the townspeople, the mayor and the Gringo, they foil Don Rigol and his daughter’s plan to clear-cut the mountain, then claim the treasure, and the ponies.

 Writing Sardines  

Most people don’t believe me when I tell them that on my first trip back to Havana, I could feel the ghosts whispering by me as I walked the once familiar streets. The ghosts rattled their satchels of bones, blew their stories into my ear and flushed the color and light back into my frozen memories. That’s when ‘Raining Sardines,’ was born. Then there are those who suspect that a novel named after a phenomenon as improbable as pigs flying would be just another magical tall tale made up out of thin air, the same air that ghosts breath. ‘Raining Sardines’ is based on reality– an interweavingof family stories, Cuban history, and scientific fact, but sometimesfacts are stranger than fiction. For instance, would you believe that a Cuban national hero who inspired legions of revolutionaries, can be found chilling in the foggy coolers of the better bodegas of my hometown New York? That frosty but handsome profile on bottles of Malta Hatuey, a sickly sweet malt drink belongs to the Hateuy, a proud cacique (leader) of the Tainos. To understand the full irony of his final resting place, you need to know a few of the facts of the life and fiery death of this almost mythical figure.
Hatuey witnessed the cruelty of the Spanish Conquistadors in Hispaniola and then rowed across the Windward Passage to warn his Cuban cousins of the coming plague. On a moonlight night he gathered the Tainos on the shore of a lake and gave an eloquent speech describing the ill treatment of his people at the hands of the gold crazed Spaniards, eloquently argued against the notion that they were gods. They were men he reasoned, but men that had been driven crazy by the god of gold. In conclusion he suggested that the only way to be free of the Spanish curse was to get rid of their gold. They danced all night in a great circle, threw their gold into the basket at Hatuey’s feet and then as the sun was rising they dropped the basket into a lake.

The first Cuban nationalist was eventually hunted down by the Spaniards, sentenced to death and tied to the stake. As the torchbearer approached, a priest promised him entry into heaven if he acknowledged Christ as his lord and savior. Of course Hatuey had to ask the logical question: “Will I find Spaniards in heaven?”
Upon receiving his answer, he nodded at the torch and famously ordered, “Light the fire.”
Hatuey’s words come down to us from the hand of Padre Bartolome de las Casas a Dominican priest who was the first advocate of the indigenous people in the New World. He faithfully recorded Hatuey’s eloquent speech and final words, as well as other eyewitness accounts of cruel encounters with the Tainos. These documents were presented to the King of Spain as a legal brief, a petition for the humane treatment of the Hatuey’s people.
Had it not been for de las Casas insistence on accurately recording the facts in the form of legal depositions, Hatuey’s story might have been considered just another apocryphal tale from an enchanted region whose image has sometimes been distorted by a little too much magic and not enough realism. Similarly, if it weren’t for scientific curiosity and an insistence on accurately recording the workings of the wind, waves and the ways of fish, we could not say with certainty that it not only rain sardines, but also lizards, toads and sometimes even small rodents.
There, now you know why Hatuey is in the freezer, and why I titled my first book Raining Sardines but as far as whispering ghosts, well, that’s a little harder to explain.

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