“These fragile bodies of touch and taste
This fragrant skin, this hair like lace
Spirits open to the thrust of grace
Never a breath you can afford to waste”
-- Bruce Cockburn, “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” (1984)
YOUR HEART MY SKY is set in Cuba thirty years ago, over the summer of 1991. It was a period of scarcity and widespread hunger.
“The History of Our Hunger
According to legends told by old folks,
this is how emptiness swallowed us:
Nearly thirty years ago, the US refused
to trade with Cuba, so we fell into the bear hug
of Russia, until a few months ago, when suddenly
the Soviet Union began to crumble like a sandcastle,
No more subsidies, bribes, or rewards.
Now, with tourists from all over the world
due to arrive for global games, our food rations
are slashed to create an illusion of plenty
at hotel banquets, in restaurants that we
are not permitted
My parents quietly call it tourist apartheid.
Everything for outsiders.
Nothing for islanders.”
Liana is a fourteen-year-old Cuban teen who knows some English thanks to the old dictionary hidden at the back of her mother’s cluttered bookshelf. She has just been befriended by a stray dog.
There is a young man, Amando, who is a year older than her:
I’m the only boy in this entire town
who did not go to the sugar fields
for a summer of oppressive labor.
Everyone knows it’s more mandatory
than voluntary, at least in the sense
of becoming an outcast if you refuse,
losing all privileges, forfeiting college,
losing hope for a future of education
So I wander alone now, observing, listening,
trying to discover rare sources of food, ration lines
that lead to bread or coffee, instead of the usual
slice of aching
All my friends left yesterday
on flatbed army trucks, carted like cattle.
I don’t expect to see any teenagers in town,
so I’m surprised when I spot a girl I’ve noticed
many times, even though I’ve never
been brave enough to speak to her.
Close to her side, a foxlike animal
lopes casually, fearless in the presence
of hungry strangers.
Doesn’t the wild-looking dog understand
that most of us are ravenous enough
to lose our sense of guilt?
Cats have disappeared
and dogs are vanishing too,
abandoned, gone feral,
or worse--devoured, the meat
described as pork or rabbit…
No one can afford to feed a pet.
We can barely take care of ourselves.
Some would eat this creature just to fill
the agony of a hollow belly
and vanishing conscience.”
YOUR HEART MY SKY is the story of two young people in an historic era of hunger. Their quest for food is the central issue in the book. The details as to what made it so difficult for the normal Cuban to obtain sustenance in 1991 is revealed as we observe the two young people eating anything that will stay down, and scheming to obtain the seeds necessary to illegally grow food at their families’ homes.
There is a sweetness to their blooming relationship counterposed with the bitterness of the inhumane conditions that result from the island’s political-economic system.
What do all young cubanos want to be
when we grow up
her would ask,
providing the cynical answer
The era portrayed here is eerily echoed by a present-day Cuba starvation crisis. This month, sixty years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Raul Castro has stepped down as the island faces another horrific period of starvation.
“[Cuba] is in the throes of its worst economic contraction since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Painful economic reforms have sent inflation soaring. Long lines for food have again become commonplace. Trump-era sanctions have reduced access to vital economic lifelines like remittances. and a nascent but increasingly vocal social movement is channeling mounting frustration.”
-- from the Miami Herald (4/12/21)
What is the solution to Cuba’s woes? Will they eventually return to being exploited by the U.S.? Can they find the allies necessary to create a freer system while maintaining a good measure of autonomy? YOUR HEART MY SKY will prompt young readers to do some digging into Cuba’s history. For the sake of eleven-plus million Cubans, again having to fight starvation, I hope there is some resolution sooner rather than later.
YOUR HEART MY SKY enlightens readers about conditions that cause people from places like Cuba to risk their lives in order to reach the United States. I hope that Liana and Amado’s story engenders empathy and compassion for those seeking asylum at our borders and shores.
YOUR HEART MY SKY is an innocent love story that is perfect for middle schoolers.
224 pages 978-1534464964 Ages 12 and up
Keywords: romance, diversity, diverse books, Latino, Latina, Latinx, multicultural, social issues, social conditions, hunger, historical fiction, Latina author, 12 year old, 13 year old, 14 year old
Recommended by: Richie Partington, MLIS, California USA
Acclaimed author Margarita Engle tells a painful, poignant story of love in a time of hunger inspired by her own family’s struggles during a dark period in Cuba’s history.
The people of Cuba are living in el período especial en tiempos de paz—the special period in times of peace. That’s what the government insists that this era must be called, but the reality behind these words is starvation.
Liana is struggling to find enough to eat. Yet hunger has also made her brave: she finds the courage to skip a summer of so-called volunteer farm labor, even though she risks government retribution. Nearby, a quiet, handsome boy named Amado also refuses to comply, so he wanders alone, trying to discover rare sources of food.
A chance encounter with an enigmatic dog brings Liana and Amado together. United in hope and hunger, they soon discover that their feelings for each other run deep. Love can feed their souls and hearts—but is it enough to withstand el período especial?---from the publisher