Saturday, March 19, 2011

My Great-Grandfather El Tio Jenaro

By Lino Gutierrezo

>First of all, I apologize to those of my and previous generations for writing in the language of Shakespeare rather than that of Cervantes. I guess I'm thinking more of future generations than our own. Since Tio Jenaro spoke English very well, I'm sure he would not have minded.>>It's been over a month since he passed. His passing marked the end of the generation of Abuelo Lino and Abuela Eugenia's children, and what a group they turned out to be: Lolita, LinĂ­n, Tom, Guiche, and Jenaro. They were remarkable people: all extremely talented, some more artistic, some more athletic, all poets, all with the flair and baggage of their generation. They were good, productive, patriotic citizens in their native land. They married, had children and grandchildren, and contributed to their country and society. But one day, against their will, they were forced to leave their native land to start anew in a new country. Against all odds they succeeded in providing for their families and in making a mark in their new surroundings. During their lives, they suffered through dictatorships, hard times, natural disasters, untimely deaths, and exile. They moved around quite a bit: Las Villas, Matanzas, La Habana in Cuba, then to far off> places like Cali, Los Angeles, Tuscaloosa, and Jackson, Louisiana. Quite a life they led, and quite an example they remain to those of us who are still here.>>Jenaro, of course, was the youngest of the group. He was 12 years younger than my father, so I imagine the older siblings had a big part in raising him along with their parents. I remember my father (who would have been 92 on February 27) calling me "Jenaro ... I mean Lino," throughout my childhood. When I catch myself calling my granddaughter Silvia "Susie," the name of my youngest daughter, it reminds me of my father calling me by the name of his youngest brother.>>My early memories of Jenaro in Cuba were those of a cool uncle who used to visit us and was always joking. He was a doctor, and the family was extremely proud of him for having become one. He had been an excellent student, but he also had an irreverent side that some may not have not known about. There is a famous story about Jenaro that took place when he was a medical student at the University of Havana. Apparently an anatomy class was scheduled for that day, and a real cadaver, with organs exposed for the students to learn, was to be used in the lesson. Prior to the lesson, Tio Jenaro sneaked into the classroom, and placed a piece of ham into the cadaver, hidden between some organs. When the class convened, and the instructor started pointing out the organs, tio Jenaro moved forward, took a good look at the organs, and casually reached in, retrieved the piece of ham he had previously left, and started eating it. Apparently some screamed, others> fainted, and a riot ensued. Or at least that's how the story was told to me.>>He studied in the U.S. for a time. Years later, he told me a story about looking for a small apartment in New York. He was shown an apartment, liked it, and prepared to sign the lease. When he signed "Jenaro Gutierrez," the landlord had a worried look in his face, and said, "I'm sorry, but we don't rent to Puerto Ricans." No problem, said Tio Jenaro, proudly, "I am not Puerto Rican. I am Cuban!" "Same s---," said the landlord and tore up the lease. (For years, I retold this story many times, believing it was true. Only later did I find out it had never happened! Another of tio Jenaro's famous jokes.)>>I remember my parents and I used to go out to dinner with him in Cuba. For some reason I remember going to the "Embers" restaurant with him and ordering spaghetti (which is what I always ordered at age 8). I also remember Tio Jenaro visiting us at La Panchita, the small oceanfront village in Las Villas where the family usually went for summer vacation, and recall that he was an excellent swimmer, as were his brothers. Later I heard that Jenaro was practicing medicine in Jaguey Grande, a town in south central Cuba.>>Then Fidel entered (and ultimately changed) all of our lives. My parents supported him at the beginning, and I recall that Tio Jenaro did too. I heard that, as a doctor, he had been pressed into service by the Castro militia. When the Bay of Pigs invasion took place, it was near Jaguey Grande, where Tio Jenaro was, so he was taken to the front. If I remember correctly, he barely escaped death when a bomb exploded nearby, but he survived the conflict safe and sound.>>My parents had lost faith in the Revolution long before, and soon thereafter, Tio Jenaro underwent a political transformation as well. My father joked that one day, Jenaro had a picture of Lenin on the wall. The next time he visited, he had removed Lenin and replaced him with a painting of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. I don't know if the story is true or not, but it became part of the family lore.>>Within the next few months, those of us in the family who were still in Cuba began to leave the island. Tia Lola and her family were already in the U.S. My mother, Tia Josefina, her four children and myself, left Cuba on June 12, 1961 for Cali, Colombia, where Tia Guiche and Tio Rogelio welcomed us. After a few weeks, with five rambunctious kids in the house in addition to three of their own plus newborn twins, they may have had second thoughts! Soon Tio Tom, and later my father, were able to leave the island and join their respective families.>>Jenaro stayed behind. The next time I saw him was when I was in college, I believe in 1970. By then he, his wife Herminita, and children Jenarito, Leandro and Pedrin, left the island and came to live with us for a while. In that time I really got to know and appreciate my uncle. What I had not realized is what a humorist he was. He could have made a living in show business. He could do impressions -- his impression of Fidel making a speech in the countryside about importing hairy oranges from Siberia was hilarious. He could recite poems, often with double entendre. And his best performance was in a famous ode to ... well, I'd better tell you about that one in person. But I had never seen my father with tears in his eyes from laughing so hard.>>He was a Renaissance Man: an excellent doctor, a lover of music, cultured, well read, with a talent for languages. He could speak some Russian, and he taught me some words. He had no difficulty in quickly receiving U.S. accreditation to practice medicine, and found a job at a local hospital.>>He did have one contretemps when he took his driving exam from an Alabama state trooper. Apparently he did not parallel park his car (a 1966 Valiant, if I recall) to the trooper's satisfaction, so he flunked the driving exam. Boy was he mad! He cursed generations of State troopers, policemen, Alabamians, and anyone else who happened to be around on the drive home. Of course he passed the exam the next time, but we kidded him about it for a while.>>After some time in Tuscaloosa, he moved his family to Jackson, Louisiana. I remember visiting him a couple of times there, usually on the way to New Orleans. After that, I joined the Foreign Service, and saw him very few times through the years. I always invited him to visit me in my foreign assignments. He never did, to my disappointment. He would have enjoyed Santo Domingo, Lisbon, Paris, or Buenos Aires. He certainly told me a few jokes about some of the inhabitants of these cities.>>I saw him in Miami a couple of times in the 1990s. Later, when he became ill, I called him on the phone a few times, but it was clear that talking too much tired him. I wanted to see him one more time, so I drove to Louisiana from Washington in May 2009. We did get to talk, laugh a bit while he drank coffee and smoked his "cachimba." That was the last time I saw him.>>So that's what I remember about el tio Jenaro. I'm sure my recollections are imperfect, and others have a lot more vivid ones about him. I just wanted to pay homage to my last remaining uncle, a good man, a patriot, a loving parent, brother, and son, who made many of us laugh. When I think of him, I will smile. And maybe someday I'll get to hear him recite "Paco y Ursulina" or imitate Fidel in another, better place.


Jenardo was my great-grandfather and he passed away recently. I never got to see him.


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