On the surface, this beautifully written memoir is riveting simply because it revolves around a young girl growing up in Cuba during the Communist revolution. When Flor Fernandez Barrios's parents consider fleeing Castro's regime, they are labeled gusanos, or traitors. Neighbors shame and taunt them. At the age of 10, Barrios is sent away along with thousands of other children to a work camp, where she is forced into hard labor, picking tobacco and sugar cane to offset the U.S. embargo.
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Offering a striking child's-eye view of the Cuban revolution, Barrios begins her memoir with her birth during a hurricane, which convinced her curandera grandmother that the child would be a spiritual healer like her. When Barrios was a year old, Castro's 1956 Radio Rebelde broadcasts disrupted evening domino games in her hometown in Santa Clara province. In 1958, her father was falsely accused of being a Castro sympathizer and detained. Though he was returned to his family, their lives were soon upended: "agrarian reform" forced her grandfather to give his land to Castro's government and Barrios was sent to the countryside for two years as a child laborer. To win a weekend pass to visit her parents, she picked tobacco until her fingers were bloody. "All I knew was that the word communist meant lack of freedom," she writes. Though Castro had promised racial equality (Barrios was nicknamed negrita, "little black one," by her grandmother), Barrios did not find that much changed. When her father was later sent to a labor camp as an anti-Castro gusano (a slang term meaning "maggot"), he shared frogs and fish with guards who were as hungry as he was. A decade later, Barrios's family was allowed to emigrate to Los Angeles, where most thought she was Mexican. She initially sought acceptance by "toning down the bright colors of her Cuban culture," but after completing a UCLA pre-med program, Barrios embraced her roots and the Afro-Cuban spirituality instilled in her by her grandmother and nanny, Carmen. The book includes a Spanish glossary, but even without it, the rich context of Barrios's memories fluently conveys the nuances of her idioms and offsets the uneven writing.