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'Lessons from Abuelo' wants kids — and families — to explore their own Cuban histories

Hernan Henriquez
Artwork from the cover of the book 'Lessons From Abuelo', written by Andy Gomez with illustrations by Hernan Henriquez

Cuba is one of the most politically charged subjects in South Florida – and that can make it more complicated here to teach children about the nation and its history.

Despite that, Cuban exile Andy Gomez has written a history of Cuba for children and families. It’s titled Lessons from Abuelo, and it’s told to his four young grandsons, whose curiosity inspired him to put pen to paper.

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To write the book, he had to consider which topics to include, and how to explain instances like the communist revolution in a way that is informational and not ideological.

"I believe in presenting the facts and letting my students interpret them," said Gomez, the former director of the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. "But I’ve never written a children’s book... that was not easy [to do] in this book."

Lessons from Abuelo
An Hernan Henriquez illustration of Fidel Castro in 'Lessons from Abuelo.' The page features the line, "Many Cuban families fearing what was about to happen began to leave Cuba."

He added: "My goal is to have each family sit down with this book and tell the story of Cuba from their own experience."

WLRN’s Tim Padgett spoke with him about how kids and their families can talk about the Cuba experience. Here are excerpts of their conversation:

PADGETT: Andy, I like the way Lessons from Abuelo opens, with you and your grandkids as doves flying around the Freedom Tower in downtown Miami – and they're asking you why you left Cuba. They're all younger than 10. What kind of questions do they ask about Cuba that made you decide to write this book?

GOMEZ: You know, they have always been very inquisitive about: what was it like in Cuba when you were a kid? In my office, in my condominium, I have so many pictures on the walls of Cuba — such as, of my brother and me, the last Christmas in Havana in 1960. And I started telling them things like what I mention in the book, that I remember my father taking me to see Fidel Castro coming into Havana on January 8th of 1959 — I remember it like it was yesterday.

My oldest daughter and her two kids, A.J. and Luca, recently went to Washington, D.C., and they were at the [International] Spy Museum, in front of the Cuban Missile Crisis exhibit. So they put A.J. on the phone so I could answer his questions. He wanted to know why happened, when it happened. And it's a challenge to put in words to a 9-year-old the real history.

READ MORE: Did Fidel Castro help shape modern Miami? For some, the answer is yes.

How did you go about deciding which things about Cuban history kids need to know and don't need to know? You stress the importance of independence hero José Martí; but I noticed you left out mention of the Platt Amendment and U.S. control over Cuba at the start of the 20th century – which may be going too deep into the woods for 9-year-olds?

I consulted a number of people like Barbara Gutierrez, my colleague and journalist at the University of Miami. She and I talked for hours on what were the key points for me. But there's a history in every family. For instance, if you go to page 26 where it talks about Mariel…

Courtesy Andy Gomez
Andy Gomez (in chair) and his wife Frances at their home in Coral Gables with their four grandsons

The Mariel boatlift, when tens of thousands of Cubans came to Miami in 1980…

Yes. And the boat in the middle of the page is called The Roadrunner. Well, my in-law, Tony, who had actually come [to the U.S. from Cuba] at the age of 14 — they commandeered a crop duster, it was the first crop duster to actually land in Homestead from Cuba — during Mariel, Tony went back on a boat named The Roadrunner. So, Tony can now sit down with his grandkids and explain what those experiences were like. So: have each family sit down and tell the story from their own experience.

And how difficult was it to explain the communist revolution, and the exodus of Cuban exiles like yourself, to children in a way that's educational and not ideological? You make it clear Castro robbed Cubans of their freedom. But your approach is pretty straightforward.

You know, I'm an academic. I've always taken it as a given that it is my job to present to my students the facts and let them interpret the facts. But I’ve never written a children’s book; and you’re right, that was not easy [to do] in this book.

We've seen books about Cuba get banned from schools here in the past because they weren't critical enough of the communist regime. Are you bracing at all for any backlash of that sort?

So my goal is not for this book to be in school libraries. My goal is for this book to be in each Cuban-American home if they wish. But I tell you, I have had my book bought by some of the more conservative Cuban-Americans in our community, and the feedback has been very positive, very good.

The illustrations in Lessons from Abuelo were done by Cuban exile artist Hernan Henriquez, who's a famous cartoonist, right?

He's famous for Gugulandia, which he started in Cuba…

That’s a popular Cuban comic strip…

Yeah. And I'm sitting one day, again, in my office, and all of a sudden I see these different caricatures that I have on my wall that Hernan had given me. I said, “That’s it!” And I approached Hernan, and it took him just a month to capture what I wanted to do – to help understand our history, our heritage, our culture.

Andy Gomez will present Lessons from Abuelo on January 22 at 11:30 a.m. at Books & Books at 265 Aragon Ave. in Coral Gables.

Andy Gomez / Hernan Henriquez
Cover of the book 'Lessons From Abuelo', written by Andy Gomez with illustrations by Hernan Henriquez.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.