The Metamorphosis of Carlos Eire

Mike Gonzalez

Scripture is filled with auguries alerting man to the folly of hubris. Proverbs cautions, “Pride goes before disaster, and a haughty spirit before a fall,” while the Book of Daniel pronounces of an ancient king that “when his heart became proud and his spirit hardened by insolence, he was put down from his royal throne and deprived of his glory.” Likewise with the Greeks and Romans. Hubris itself is a Greek word, and the tragedies of the ancients are mostly variations on the theme that overweening pride precedes catastrophe.

Alas, Cubans in the first half of the twentieth century paid no heed to such warnings about their earthly paradise. In various ways, they told themselves that their island was the most beautiful place on earth, and that no one could rival a Cuban in wit, virility, or vim. Everywhere on the compass outside their island was inferior. Such brashness bordered on impudence in politics, birthing a cavalier attitude when gravity, humility, and reasonableness would have served them better. Cubans thus continually countenanced political chaos, somehow forgetting that their very real economic advances depended on stability and civic virtue. For all these effronteries, God did one day cast Cubans out of their Eden. On New Year’s Day, 1959, after the dictator Fulgencio Batista fled at midnight with his family, and the guerrillas came down from the mountains, to the celebration of many unsuspecting souls, their universe exploded—everything changed.

Whether they stayed on the island, or left like the 11-year-old Carlos Eire—today one of America’s most eminent historians of medieval and early modern Europe—Cubans have since tried to work their way back to grace. For the one-tenth of the population that left, the United States provided first an escape hatch, and then, for many, haven and redemption. Curiously, in the United States the Cubans’ assertiveness—because that’s what their brashness and optimism also were—provided them the ability to avoid the destiny of some other immigrants: victimhood. Eckerd College Professor Yanira Angulo-Cano writes that it is often the lot of immigrants and their children to meet “a wide range of negative stereotypes which force them to respond either by overcoming the obstacles [or] giving up and accepting their inferior status.”1 The pride that may have doomed them on their island helped many of the newly minted Cuban-Americans take the first option and succeed in El Norte. But they would have to undergo a process of purgation that any Christian theologian, and perhaps many Ivy League academics, would instantly recognize.

From Riches to Poverty to Earned Success

Carlos M.N. Eire, whose work Angulo-Cano happened to be surveying in her essay, very much belongs to the group that overcame the obstacles of exile and became a victor not a victim. Born in Havana in 1950, Eire was airlifted out of Cuba by Operation Pedro Pan, a Catholic Church-run undertaking that eventually saved 14,000 Cuban children by whisking them out of Cuba and placing them in foster homes or institutions in the U.S. Eire himself, along with his then fourteen year-old brother Tony, ended up first in a Miami camp that had earlier been used for juvenile delinquents, and were later temporarily placed in separate foster homes. They were not to see their mother again for three years, in 1965, when she herself managed to leave Cuba; they would never again see their father, who stayed behind looking after the family’s inheritance, in the hope (which my own father, too, harbored) that the Revolution would be short-lived.

As Eire was to recount later in an autobiography, Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, which won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2003, Operation Pedro Pan was able to provide only one meal a day to all those boys at the camp, and it did not come until 5:00 pm. In Cuba the privileged son of a judge who “had never cut my own steak or buttered my own toast,”2 Eire remembers that he and Tony felt they were “nearly starving.”3 The two brothers could have fallen through the cracks, as many desperate young men do. Eire for example, recounts how thugs at the Miami camp tried to get the two boys to help them steal, and when the young Eires refused, threatened them with physical harm. But to no avail. What saved them? Their upbringing. Even though their parents were not at the camp, the young Eires understood that stealing would be “an affront” to them; it “seemed so wrong that I couldn’t bring myself to go along,”4 Eire wrote years later.

As the years passed, Eire followed a path well-trod by other Cuban émigrés, going from carefree days as a privileged son of a judge in Havana, to hunger and privation on the streets of Miami, to a stint in a factory in Chicago, to a job as a janitor in a poor New England town, on the way earning a B.A. in History and Theology from Loyola University and a Ph.D. from Yale. He taught at St. John’s University in Minnesota and the University of Virginia, before arriving at the pinnacle of professional academic success as the T. Lawrason Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale.

His scholarly focus on the religious upheavals of medieval and Renaissance Europe led to his 893-page, 2016 academic magnum opus, Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650, which garnered the R.R. Hawkins Award for best scholarly book of the year from the Association of American Publishers. No doubt his Catholic childhood and his encounter with Protestant America contributed to his becoming a distinguished historian of the Reformation and its pivotal transition between the mystical ecstasies of the late Middle Ages and the pragmatic, commercial mindset of the Modern World.

The Paradigm Shift in the West

More than the Renaissance that preceded it and the Enlightenment that followed, Eire writes that the Reformation remade the West. “Protestants did more than simply change beliefs by redefining the relationship of matter to spirit, and the natural to the supernatural, and by segregating the living and the dead: they reordered their society and their economy. In the sixteenth century, as in our own, a change in beliefs led to changes in the world,”5 Eire writes in “Redefining the Sacred and the Supernatural,” a chapter in the 2016 book, Protestantism After 500 Years. Though he does not make this case directly, barely buried in his writings may lie the genesis of a subject that roils our polarized political debate these days: the modern atomization of the individual and the loss of absolute truth. Eire traces them not to John Locke, as many of our political writers do these days,6 but to the sixteenth century breakup of Christendom, a split whose consequences we continue to live with today. It was not, in other words, the Enlightenment’s liberation of man from the Aristotelian and Thomistic moral fetters in the 1700s that has caused today’s problems, but the fact that, for the first time in centuries, Martin Luther and his followers made everyone in the West question what had been assumed to be absolute truth in the 1500s.

To be sure, the Reformation did not just suddenly materialize. In Reformations Eire traces an earlier breach with the assumed verities of the past to the early appearance of humanism in the late Middle Ages. Humanism sought, writes Eire, “to dethrone theology as the queen of the sciences.”7 But humanism was an educational program “well-suited for the elite.”8 It was not until the crucial years of the Reformation, writes Eire, that all strata of society were exposed to the constant theological arguments that gushed forth. Not only were churchmen and noblemen exposed to all this theological jousting, but peasants and merchants, too. “Might such dissonance have led to skepticism, even to unbelief? And might have all of the deconstructing and demolishing of opposing arguments led some to suspect that all of Christian theology was actually vulnerable and therefore necessarily flawed or too close to nonsense? Might not this relentless bickering have led some to go further and dismiss religion as not just irrational, but actually as dangerous for the well-being of society?” Eire asks in Reformations.9

Protestantism was the label given to all the different interpretations of Christianity that broke with the Vatican following Martin Luther’s original questioning of its canonical authority in 1517. The term, as Eire explains, stemmed from a “Protestation” signed in 1529 by six princes and fourteen imperial cities who complained that the Second Diet of Speyer held by the Holy Roman Empire had tried to take away “the right of every state to choose its religion.”10 Whereas they themselves used the term “evangelicals,” because of their emphasis on the Gospels, others (who did not necessarily have their best interests at heart) took to calling them “Protestants”—and the term has stuck down to our days.

These Protestants shaped England especially, and therefore her colonies. In the Anglosphere that Britain created, the view prevailed that “English culture itself was shaped by a break with the Catholic Church. In other words, English culture was viewed as Protestant. In England and all its colonies, as in all other Protestant states, the only true Reformation—with a capital R—was that brought about by Protestants.”11 It is important for us to note that the impartial Eire does not just retain the Roman Catholicism of his birth but writes vividly of its relevance today, and of the loss of certainty that came with the Protestant cleavage. His latest book is The Life of St. Teresa of Avila, from Princeton University Press. It remains nonetheless true that as an émigré Cuban boy, Eire found refuge in the United States, not just the main nation of the Protestant Anglosphere, but the former British colony most marked by the most dissenting form of Protestantism.

At the other end stood Spain, the champion of the Counter-Reformation and stalwart defender of the Roman Catholic Faith, and her many colonies in the New World. This produced a stark dichotomy whose reverberations were felt even centuries later—one that, as we will see, Eire was able to witness through his life’s journey.

Because it “proved itself unfertile ground for Protestantism,”12 Spain was regarded as backward by Protestant historians accustomed to seeing their religion as descended from Renaissance humanism. Spain’s steep decline accelerated after its Golden Age had come to a close in the 1650s, and “Spain’s reputation for intolerance, thanks to its Inquisition . . . made it seem a benighted land to modern eyes.”13 For all these reasons, Protestant historiography sought to portray Spanish humanism as “a withered branch on the Renaissance family tree,”14 writes Eire, who nonetheless defends the attempts at renovating the Catholic Church undertaken by Spain and Italy (the only other country where Protestants made little headway). These were Reformations, too, not mere responses to the revolution that Martin Luther unleashed throughout Christendom—thus his book is titled in the plural, Reformations.

Eire also emphasizes the multiplying divisions among Protestants themselves to make the case that there were many Reformations. Already by the time of the Protestations, barely a decade after Luther’s first act of rebellion, the princes and imperial cities that signed the document already “disagreed with Luther on many issues.”15 So, though it was true that the Reformation had created “two very different kinds of Christianity, and two worldviews within Western culture,”16 Eire also draws attention to the splits within Protestantism, particularly those in England. On one side stood the established Church of England that emerged from the Elizabethan Settlement, which retained vestiges of Catholic rituals, and on the other the dissenting Protestant denominations which saw it as too close to Roman rites. “Reformed Protestants object to many different ‘Romish’ remnants . . . forcing some to become nonconformists. And their adamant will to rid the Church of England of all its impurities, in turn, soon earned them the name of ‘Puritans’—an identity constructed not by the nonconformists themselves, but by their opponents, for polemical purposes.”17

Cuba’s Shift

Again, one has to wonder if Eire’s own life story may have helped him discern the salience of these splits within Christianity with special clarity (at least if “one” is a fellow Cuban-American reviewer who, too, has undergone an eerily similar peripatetic life journey and can attest to the lessons on “compare and contrast” that such a school of hard knocks can impart.) The same can be said of Eire’s perception of the revolutionary break with the past sparked by Luther, Calvin, Knox and the destruction of Cuban culture wreaked by its rebel leaders.

In Waiting for Snow in Havana, Eire the historian transitions into Eire the adult Cuban-American émigré, who displays how well he understands the boy who lost both father and fatherland. The work also sheds light on how much the experience of moving from a society that reveled in rapture and the supernatural, to the nation perhaps most influenced by the Protestant virtues that protect individual liberty, helped Eire to understand intrinsically the subject of radical change.

The contrast could not be starker. America is, after all, the direct result of a very early form of English non-conformism. Cuba, on the other hand, began to be colonized in 1511, and Havana was founded in 1519, making Cuban society the last child of pre-Luther, Medieval devotional convictions. Plymouth Rock was the landing place of the separatist Pilgrims, and New England later became a haven for Puritans. None other than Edmund Burke was one of the first to remark on the impact this was to have on colonists who were then in the early stages of rebellion. As he told the House of Commons in 1775, they had to understand that the Americans “are Protestants, and of that kind which is the most averse to all implicit submission of mind and opinion. All Protestantism, even the most cold and passive, is a sort of dissent. But the religion most prevalent in our northern colonies [Burke meant New England] is a refinement of the principle of resistance: it is the dissidence of dissent, and the Protestantism of the Protestant religion.”18 New England, as in New Haven, Connecticut, is precisely where this erstwhile Cuban boy finally landed.

There are also parallels to be found between the profound social changes that buffeted Eire as a boy—a transition that left deep scars on him and all others who were exposed to the trauma of the Revolution and then exile in America—and the ones he dispassionately dissects and describes in his academic work. To the people who suffered the dislocations brought about by the birth of Protestantism, the dispossessions, the exposure to the public burnings of heretics (of either side), never mind the victims actually at the stake, the Reformation was not a lapidary affair. The economic effects were also deep and wide. As Eire writes in Reformations: “The Protestant rejection of monasticism, based as it was on a revaluation of key assumptions about human nature, figures prominently as a social change effected by theology: it not only caused the largest redistribution of property in Western history before the Bolsheviks came along, but also brought about a social and economic revolution. Suddenly, an entire social class was abolished, along with their sizable assets.”19 Equally, to the families torn asunder by the introduction of Marxism in the Caribbean, the culture shock was extensive. Here, again, is Eire, this time in Waiting for Snow in Havana,

A lifetime of memories gone in less than a year. An entire culture pulled up by the roots. It is a Revolution, after all. The priests have vanished, too, along with the monks and the nuns. All religious orders have been banished from Cuba. Gone are the Jesuits who had educated Fidel and my father and grandfather and great-grandfather. Gone are the Dominicans, and the Franciscans and the Carmelites, and the Christian brothers, and the Ursulines. Gone are the Italian priests who lived across the street from us. All foreign clergy have been expelled from the island.20

Read in isolation, Waiting for Snow in Havana comes across as an overall humorous, though also searingly sad, account of pre-Castro Cuba and later exile. Taken in the context of Eire’s lifework, it is difficult to read that autobiographical book without finding echoes of the two camps that exist within the Christian world—one, the ageless, Catholic one, still comfortable with the supernatural and the ecstatic; the other the one that has gone through the multiple Reformations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and is this-worldly, utilitarian (perhaps to a fault) and industrious. When he writes in his 2016 academic magnum opus that the Reformation “stripped religion of mediation and intimacy with the dead,” making it “more pragmatically focused on this world,”21 Eire is putting into the language of intellectual discourse the differences he brings into relief in more vivid language when he tells his own life story. Waiting for Snow in Havana is, to be sure, a very different book from his scholarly works, but thematically, the differences may not be so distant.

Waiting for Snow is indeed replete with the Catholic imagery that suffused pre-Revolution Cuban life, no matter where one stood on the socio-economic scale. Thus, in an early chapter, Eire recounts recurring visions he has of Christ on the Cross. Eire would often imagine this apparition while his mother, father, brother Tony and adopted brother Ernesto did such mundane acts as eat dinner, and of course none of them saw this Christ of the little boy’s imagination, and took no note of Carlos’s personal torment. This may sound odd or even borderline repulsive to a low Protestant ear, never mind an atheist one, but is entirely natural to a Roman Catholic, especially one from Mediterranean Europe or its colonial outposts. As Eire describes it,

There He was, at the window, shouldering the weight of that awful cross. He always showed up, so unexpectedly. So swiftly . . . He simply appeared, and He never made a sound. How I hated it. How I feared it. He just stood there, as always, blood trickling down His face, that nasty crown of thorns piercing His forehead . . . He just stood there and stared at me. My family kept eating dinner, as always, oblivious to the visitor.22

It is, too, in the Cubans’ hierarchical understanding of their place in the world that we see the split in Christendom. When they looked south, west, and east, to South America, Mexico and Central America, and Haiti, Cubans saw nothing but poverty and backwardness and reveled in their good fortune as “the Pearl of the Antilles.” “What was the first thing Columbus said when he first set foot on Cuba?” Eire recounts a teacher asking in class, something that is quickly recognized as a staple of pre- and post-Castro Cuban “pedagogy.” One boy, Miguel, responded with the answer etched into all Cuban hearts: “Columbus said, ‘This is the most beautiful land ever seen by human eyes’.” After the teacher praised Miguel for having had “a proper upbringing,” another, Ramiro, chimed in, “Yes, Cuba is a paradise. My dad told me that the Garden of Eden was here in Cuba, and that Adam and Eve were not only the first humans, but also the first Cubans.”23 There was reason for Cubans to have such pride, up to a point. Even if the politics of Cuba left much to be desired, the economy was usually booming and there was real prosperity. As Eire explained years later in an interview, “Cuba was a very politically immature society and it was a lethal combination of great prosperity due to sugar and political immaturity, which creates a series of very unstable governments.”24

But it was in their view of Spain and the United States, the colonial Mother Country and their ultimate guarantor of stability in the first half of the twentieth century, that we can see the dichotomy most clearly. Cubans had a warm place in their hearts for both, but also saw faults. In their Spanish progenitors, they saw the origins of their culture. Not for nothing was Cuba the last Latin American country to seek independence from the Mother Country, and dubbed “the Always Loyal Island of Cuba” even in official nineteenth century Spanish documents. But Cubans could also see obscurantist fanaticism in the Spain of their ancestors—which for millions of Cubans meant their parents and grandparents (Eire reminds an interviewer that one million Europeans, mostly northern Spaniards, emigrated to Cuba between 1900 and 1930, fundamentally altering the demographics of a country that had previously had a population of only two million).25 In their northern neighbors they saw too little soul, but an admirable pragmatism and modernism that poor Spain could not match. In the contest between Spanish and American culture that takes place in the Cuban soul, one side wins handily, as Eire recounts in Waiting for Snow, citing the precedence that the Christmas tree and Santa Claus takes over the Spanish creche. “At Christmastime, you see, a silent battle raged in our house between Spanish and American customs . . . between Bethlehem and the Christmas tree,”26 writes Eire. The tree wins.

Fall and Redemption

Thus, it is not surprising that the biblical story of fall through individual pride befell Cubans, who every day told themselves they lived in paradise, right to the point when they lost it to an atheist ideology that closed all religious schools and made observing the sacraments a difficult task. Eire gives every reason to think that he sees what happened through this lens of fall and redemption. In another moment of reflection, he recounts, “I didn’t know it then, but that so-called Eden was far too close to the one in the Bible, and too close to what followed in that story.” Cubans themselves lost it, through their actions. “I would have no foreigner to blame for the loss of my country, my home, and my family, or for all the worst moments of my life,” asserts Eire, assigning blame where it lies. Batista, Castro and all their supporters were Cuban.

That New World Eden was razed, a loss felt most deeply by the poor souls who could not escape to another country. “That God-damned place where everything I knew was destroyed. Wrecked in the name of fairness. In the name of progress. In the name of the oppressed, and of love for the Gods of Marx and Lenin. Utterly wrecked,”27 Eire writes ruefully. Of the specific Havana suburb where he lived, he writes, “the entire neighborhood went to ruin, just like ancient Rome, only more quickly and without the help of German barbarians.”

But those who left Cuba were, too, bereft. First, as they waited for their exit visas, they had to endure being called gusanos, “worms,” by Castro, his lackeys, and the crowds they roused. In one wincing passage, Eire describes how a mob chased his mother, who had been left with a limp by childhood polio, throwing rocks and bottles at her and spitting out the word worm. Then, the Cubans who left had to leave all their possessions behind, taking with them only a fistful of dollars and what clothes they could fit into makeshift, tubular canvas bags that invariably were, too, dubbed gusanos. But it was Cubans themselves who were to be blamed for their tragedy; it wasn’t barbarians or Martians who did it. The poorer classes were guilty for allowing the rebels to stoke their resentment into populist fury, which in the end begat them not riches but more intense penury and the loss of all freedom; the rich and proud guilty for, well . . . the sin of hubris.

Looking back at his first confession, preceding his First Communion, Eire avers that he left out a sin. “One stain had been missed, though. Forgiven, of course, under the rubric of ‘any other sins I have overlooked.’ It was the stain of pride. I remember thinking how nice it was to be at the Havana Yacht Club, how well it suited me, my classmates and our families. I knew at that age that I was lucky and thought God owed me that luck simply because I richly deserved it.”28

But redemption was to come. As Eire himself recognizes, it had to be earned at the price of persecution, followed by loss, followed by poverty in a foreign land and going from privilege to being called “spic,” followed by hard work, perseverance, and education. It was not success for all (Eire’s brother Tony never became the rich man he wanted to be) but only for those who, yes, had luck, but also abided by the virtues of the New Jerusalem where they landed, a country that, more than Luther’s Germany, is the product of Reformations.

Writing of all the poor jobs and insults he went through, Eire explains that they brought him down to the level of the impoverished boys in the Havana neighborhood of Regla, and becomes thankful for all the hard jobs and struggles he had in this country: “God bless the roaches behind the wall paper, and the screws at the factory, and the broken dishes at the Conrad Hilton Hotel. God bless especially the freckled-faced girls who leaned on the chain-linked fence and shouted ‘spic’ my first day at the refugee camp at Homestead. Thanks to them I became a Regla boy.”29

This purgation became the chrysalis that turned Eire into a Yale don. Reflecting on the fact that in Spanish gusano also means caterpillar, Eire writes, “everyone knows what happens to caterpillars.”30

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