My grandfather and father in jail in 1958. My grandfather was a commander of a Cuban revolutionary group called Prio’s Organizacion Autentica. They, along with 31 other men, were imprisoned after US authorities arrested them in 1958 while attempting to sail to Cuba to fight Batista. Click Image for Full View.
From Jeanine Cornillot
My father was arrested for political bombings when I was two years old and sentenced to 30 years in prison. For years the myth of my father was like a mysterious constellation in the night sky. Every time I connected the points of light, a different story of him emerged from the empty space. A revolutionary. A martyr. An escaped convict. A hunger striker. A drug dealer. A guerilla fighter. An addict. A prison activist. A free man.
A mysterious and confusing life — that left behind a family of five. So to capture my father’s life on tape seemed a reasonable and sane reason to visit my father after his release from prison. Where it starts to get unusual is that I had only visited him once as an adult in prison. It had been 10 years since I had seen him last, and now that he was released, I brought a mic and mini disc to record him.
I secretly harbored the belief that my mic gave me an air of authority, a sort of power I imagined only journalists have. It was the perfect prop to get to know my father very quickly. I was looking to connect with him. We didn’t have time for small talk, unlike in prison, where everything is left unsaid. And – this is harder for me to admit – some part of me felt that recording my father was a way of holding him accountable to my family.
My dad and my brother Hector playing in the snow after my family moved from Miami to New Jersey for a short time. Click Image for Full View.
I went to Miami spur of the moment and bought the mini disc recorder at the last minute. What started out as a recording about my father’s life ended up a story about us — a father and daughter. An “us” — that really didn’t exist until this conversation.
Afterwards, I heard about Transom from a stranger on the street. There was a woman recording with a mini-disc recorder, and she told me if I wanted to sculpt something out of my recording, I could learn at Transom.org. I contacted Jay Allison and told him about my home recordings and how the father/daughter aspect dominated the tapes. But my secret hope was that he would hear the tapes and suggest I go back to Miami to get the rest of the story. What I thought was the “real” story. The one about my dad’s interesting life.
My grandfather and brother Hector visiting my dad in prison in the early 1980′s. They are all named Hector. My brother was in High School at this time, and my grandfather died a short while after. Click Image for Full View.
Instead, what happened next was an extraordinary opportunity to collaborate with Viki Merrick. In the beginning, it was surreal. No one in my life, outside of my three brothers and mom, had met my father. Not a best friend, not boyfriends, no one. No one knew what he sounded like, that he was a great storyteller, a complicated human being. Here was Viki, a total stranger, who had opinions and insights about a man who was so personal to my family. A man, who took up such a large invisible space in our house, but was a secret to the outside world. Viki was listening to our secret. I realized even as an adult I didn’t know how to articulate to outsiders about our father. My mom, brothers and I had our own language about him. A private language. There was love, but he never existed in the present tense. He lived in the past.
As I began to write about this conversation I had to create a new language. I had to stop telling the story I knew. Start telling the one about the father and daughter, the two people I was listening to on the tapes. What stood out to me about the conversation was that my father and I are so present in that moment. We are completely there — in that space — for good or bad, with each other.
Viki always challenged me to go deeper, and embrace all the moments that made me cringe. She let me know that I had the power to write my own story. The power to examine, uncover, recover myself in the story. I will always be deeply grateful to her for all her sensitivity, patience, and the creativity that she poured into this project. It was beyond my greatest expectations that she would take this long journey with me.
I would also like to thank my father who was so generous to let me in to his home with my microphone. To answer all my questions, every last question, and to undergo so many hours of what he referred to as “the interrogations.” Thank you so much.
Deep gratitude to my brothers who were also interviewed — tapes I will always treasure because it allowed me to get to know all of you as adults. I realized that I didn’t know the men you grew up to be, until these conversations. I’m amazed by each of you.
My parents when they lived in Cuba in 1959. They lived with my
grandparents in the Vedado section of Havana. Click Image for Full View.
Most importantly, my greatest thank you goes to my mom. Who also underwent long interviews. The hardest part was not to give my mom’s perspective and voice a large presence in this piece. I so wanted to tell her story, which is no less than that of a Superhero. (I shouldn’t trade out one myth for another, but it’s true!) I thank you for being the great protector, and encouraging me to find my own story. Thank you for being such an inspiration to me.
Finally thank you to Jay Allison for bringing me into the Transom fold, and for all of his support and his sensitivity working on the final mix with Viki. Thank you to all the folks at Transom.org for all your hospitality during my stay on the cape.
Last, but not least, thank you to Raquel Velasquez for convincing me to go to Miami to meet my father after his release. Thank you to Karin Gutman, Kim Levine and Cesar Hernandez (and Raquel) for all your insight and endless support during this process.
From Viki Merrick
Keeping it real is the mandate. This story is so cocked with emotions, dreams, regret and a very healthy dose of personality in both subjects. Along the way, I sometimes felt as though I had to hold Jeanine and Hector still or at my arm’s length in order to see clearly. It takes a lot to shake out the real from the past and separate it from what we wanted that past to be.
I remember a couple of years ago sitting on my porch listening to 7 hours of Hector and Jeanine’s encounter. Raw tape, SEVEN hours — I never left the porch. Those 7 hours I listened, I had headphones on, it was the only way you could actually hear anything. As Jeanine pointed out, it was a home recording. Some of our favorite bites were maybe unusable, but we kept faith and forged ahead.
Second mandate: Keep Dreaming.
Jeanine came to Woods Hole and together we re-worked the script and recorded it. So there’s two hours to stare at in protools. Most of my producerly life I’ve been making sonic id’s of about a 90 second length, max. It was another world. I pared the piece to 40 minutes but didn’t think I could remove another word.
Enter Jay Allison, ostensibly to just help the mix with his multi-colored plug-ins. But Jay has another something in his doctor bag you can’t purchase at Sweetwater or anywhere else: timing. His daring instinct for sustaining the rush or the ponderous beyond what’s natural is just uncanny. Sometimes his suggestions feel dangerous, almost sacrilegious at first but he’s almost always right and, yes it can be irritating. At Transom/APM we benefit from the irritation. I HAVE to thank my cohorts there, Sydney Lewis, Chelsea Merz and Helen Woodward. They never seem to tire of listening or propping me up. Working with Jeanine was a remarkable experience. She’s a strong writer and strong-willed like her Father. It’s awkward at times to edit someone on such personal issues; to force her to go beyond what “she thought she’d thought”, she didn’t duck but responded with grace and honesty and more grace even when she must have been wincing. Hector likes to say: Life is a paradox — and it is, to keep it real and keep dreaming.
Click on Images for Complete View
This is my father in his baseball uniform in Cuba. Baseball is big in Cuba, but my father was not that great at sports. He told me he remembers when he would strike out his father would get up and walk out of the game.
This is a picture of my dad and his little sister, Magda. Our family owned an apartment building in the Vedado section of Havana. Behind the apartment building there was a prison. My dad said as a boy he watched the prisoners walking in circles for hours around the prison yard. What he remembers most about the prisoners was the “expression of persecution they wore.” He said it was an expression he came to know well when he walked around the prison yard as an inmate.
This is a picture of my brothers Danny, Hector and Carlos. This picture was taken soon after we moved into our first house after my father’s incarceration. We were homeless for a period, and we were all SO excited that our mom found this house. We loved the backyard. The rent was $99 dollars a month.
A letter written by my father during his hunger strike in 1976 to Governor Askew.
This is a letter my father sent to my brother when he was elected president of his class. (I love when he writes basketball is “in” now.) My father always took advantage of any opportunities offered in the prison system, from college courses to intensive and experimental therapy. He led his own therapy groups in prison.
This is the only picture I have with my father as an adult. This was the week I interviewed him. I just finished interviewing him in the car. His wife, Teresita, took this picture on13th Avenue where there is a Memorial park to Cuban heroes in LittleHavana. I spent my summers two blocks away with my grandparents. We are standing in front the Jose Marti memorial (poet and revolutionary).
This is my favorite photograph of my grandmother and my father making their way down a street in Havana in 1940. We don’t know who took this photograph but they appear completely unaware that someone is taking their photo. Just beautiful.
This is my dad in the Bahamas when he was a teenager. Taking a vacation from the revolution?
This is my mom when she lived in Cuba in 1960. In this picture she’s pregnant with my oldest brother Hector. This is the year she left because she didn’t want my brother born in Cuba for fear that she wouldn’t be able to get him out. My father had to escape Cuba through Mexico. He swam across the Rio Grande where he was arrested for entering the country illegally. Later, our family settled in the little Havana section of Miami.
This is a picture of my grandparents after they re-settled in government subsidized housing in the Little Havana section of Miami. After my father was sentenced to 30 years on bombing charges, my grandfather was so angry with him that he rarely visited him in prison. He made a few exceptions. One was when the prison officials thought my father was going to die during his 40 day hunger strike. A priest was called to give him last rites. My father said he remembers floating outside of his body looking down on his parents and the priest giving him last rites in the prison hospital.
This is a letter my dad sent me from prison when I was a kid. I was horrified by his comment about my spelling and grammar, especially since English was not his first language! Now I can see it his attempt to parent from prison.
A letter my dad sent me from prison in 1975.
I have been receiving so many powerful emails since the show has been up on Transom. I received this photograph of my father that was taken by political prisoner Luis Crespo at Belle Glade Correctional Institution in 1975.
by Viki Merrick
There were lots of moments of wondering if the outside world could understand the audio – Hector’s lovely accent and modulations, microphone distance, background flip-flops and general ambience – so I’d test it (this is ridiculous since I mostly had the whole thing MEMORIZED), I’d turn the volume down, move to the doorway, squat down, lean out the window, anything, to keep reassuring myself it would be intelligible. Waves “Restoration” plug-ins wrasseled the audio to the ground under Jay Allison’s baton. Watching Jay mix is always inspiring but it needs to be said: he’s got the best toys of anyone (it’s part of his job). He’d select a bit of audio, like he was making an example of it to the rest of the bad audio and then teach the plug-in to make it all sound better. X-hiss, x-hum, x-noise. I love these words. Plug-ins are a high. They let you have your way, sometimes.
About Jeanine Cornillot
Jeanine Cornillot has worked as a freelance writer and producer for CBS This Morning, CNN Perspectives, MTV Networks and Paramount Pictures. Currently she works as a show producer for NBC’s daily docu-soap series Starting Over, Cornillot is also the co-creator of an original fictional prime-time series Pookie Santos, in development with National Geographic. Cornillot devotes her free time to Free Arts for Abused Children and Venice Arts Mecca where she teaches teenagers in Los Angeles living in juvenile facilities how to document their lives through photography. In February 2005, she will travel to Beslan, Russia with the foundation Children as the Peacemakers, working with children on The Banner of Hope, a mile-long red-silk memorial inscribed with the names, photographs, and ages of children killed in war across the planet.
She plans to develop a radio documentary called “How to Succeed in Prison Without Doing Time,” made up of first person stories from children of prisoners. “Family Sentence” is her first radio project. She can be contacted at: email@example.com.
About Viki Merrick
Viki is an editor and project coordinator for Transom.org. Previously, she worked in Rome, Italy for ABC News as a “fixer” and radio stringer moving on to freelance as location/production manager for film documentaries for North American venues. In 1994 she became Operations/Production manager at Fabrica, an international school of guerilla communications in Treviso, Italy for film, video, audio and print. Returning to the US in 1996, she is currently a producer at Atlantic Public Media where she produces local commentaries, essays and slices of life for NPR stations WCAI and WNAN for Cape Cod and the Islands. Viki lives in Woods Hole with her two kids Allegra and Ben.
Additional support for this work provided by
with funding from the