The warning came three days after Magda Montiel Davis embraced Fidel Castro. A client called, saying that a rabid Spanish-language radio host was urging the public to kidnap the liberal lawyer’s small children.
Montiel Davis had three older kids, but Sadie and Ben were then only 3 and 4 years old. “This rush of terror came over me,” she recalls.
She called their preschool at Beth David Congregation. The kids were safe, thank God. From then on, every morning she and her husband, prominent immigration attorney Ira Kurzban, drove together to drop off their youngest at the synagogue, Montiel Davis sat with them in the back seat, playing rock-paper-scissors and telling fairy tales.
“I enjoyed them like I never had before,” she says, pretending not to cry, her voice raw from the effort. She was always thinking, If this is the last time they see me, or the last time I see them, this is what I want them to remember.
That was April 1994. Twenty-one years later, Montiel Davis splits her time between a farmhouse and a high-rise apartment in downtown Iowa City, home of the illustrious Iowa Writer’s Workshop. She is penning a memoir and is one year away from completing a master’s degree in nonfiction writing. This summer, just as the American Embassy reopened in Havana, she hit “save” on a rough draft of her book, tentatively titled Kissing Fidel.
As the United States strengthens its ties to Cuba in a historic thaw and Miami’s exiles edge toward the political center, Montiel Davis’ memories of embracing el tirano and the terrible aftermath carry a new significance. Among many other things, her memoir tells of the kudos she cooed at the dictator who was and remains the devil to some in Miami — and the years of punishment that followed.
This is how it went back then: Someone vicious would say something hyperbolic and someone stupider and meaner would listen. Kidnap her children, they said. Bomb her offices, her car, her house. According to a 1994 Human Rights Watch report issued about the fallout from a Havana conference attended by dozens of Miami exiles: “Magda Montiel has borne the brunt of the postconference agitation. In addition to numerous calls terming her ‘dog,’ ‘whore,’ and ‘Castro agent,’ death threats received by mail… included graphic pictures portraying her death.”
For years, fear lingered like smoke rolling away from a dowsed fire. People saw her, swarmed her, and police had to escort her away. Mobs surrounded her car in the office parking lot, at the airport, the grocery. She learned to hold her head up when she was scared — her deep dark eyes cast straight ahead, slim back arched, sharp shoulders high and proud.
She learned not to be afraid of cowards who balked at diplomacy. Hateful masses kept coming in airports, on the street, almost everywhere she went.
“Eres una rata!” a woman shouted at her at baggage claim in 1995. (Magda recalls responding: “Go to hell, just go straight to hell!”) Then, when Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998, a Cuban-American señora — it was almost always women who approached her in person — was kind and complimentary before asking what Montiel Davis thought of his holiness’ sojourn.
“Anything that provides for an opening, I’m in favor of,” she responded.
The woman recoiled, hissing. “Tu eres una communista!”
Sometimes, it wasn’t easy. Once, at an immigration law conference in San Francisco, she told her husband, “I don’t want to go back to Miami.”
“You have to,” he said, “because if you don’t, you’re going to show them they won.”
“That’s why they hated me so much,” Montiel Davis explains. “It wasn’t so much the kiss or my words but that I refused to back down.”
But she stopped going to restaurants and clubs on Calle Ocho. There were no more cortaditos or coladas at Versailles. “I just didn’t bother,” she says. And like everything else, this got easier as time passed. After a while, Cuban radio started to call her “la abogada” instead of “lesbian degenerate traitor whore,” she says. “So that was good.”
And then in 2002, a friend sent Montiel Davis the catalog for the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, an annual series of writing classes and lectures. She traveled there for a week and enjoyed it. The next year, it was two weeks. She felt herself pulled toward writing and away from law. “It was enough. I felt like I’d paid my dues. I’d helped a lot of people, and it was time now to do this.”
In 2005, she bought an 18-acre farm with rolling hills, hiking paths, a butterfly garden, and a big red barn. She named it “Villa Boniato,” her way of poking fun at “los cubanos de high class” who name their Miami homes “Villa Whatever.”
She also bought an apartment in town. On a recent day, she reclined there on a broad sofa. Two Alexander Calder paintings hung next to family portraits on the wall behind her alongside a framed photograph of the Sunday night that almost wrecked her life. Fidel Castro is pictured in his green fatigues. Magda, two decades younger, wears a purple suit and clasps the Cuban prime minister’s hands.
Montiel Davis absent-mindedly stroked the ears of a miniature terrier named Lady Gaga as a black maltese, Kate Middleton, and a coon hound, Mila Kunis, fought for space on the sofa. (Johnny Depp, a miniature Pinscher, is in Miami.)
She started writing her book, she says, in her Havana hotel room in 1994 soon after meeting the dictator. “All my friends — the political activists, the few there from Miami with whom I had things in common — were gone,” she says. Alone in her room, she turned to her notebook. It would be years before she understood that she was writing the start of a memoir.
She wrote down every fact she could recall, every thought sharp enough to penetrate the fog of dread. “I had to write it,” she says. She spent years telling the story, and then came President Obama’s easing of relations between the two countries. Ending a book is never easy, but nonfiction writers worth their salt know this: When you’re telling a true story, you don’t pick the end of your book. You live it.
When Magda was invited to the reopening of the Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C., this past July 20, she resolved to pack her notebook — the latest in the massive enumerated collection that now fills box after box in an Iowa City storage locker.
And after arrival, she watched the Cuban flag rise while the band played “La Bayamesa,” Cuba’s national anthem. She heard Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla speak and, later, watched him stand next to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. She wishes her parents could have lived to see the day.
Montiel Davis never thought a U.S. president would have the courage to end the embargo, but on that July day, for the first time since moving to the United States, “I was able to sing the national anthem and feel it. Really feel it.”
This, she can feel too: The tide of Cuban-American sentiment is changing. Soon, it may even catch up with her. A recent poll by Bendixen & Amandi International shows an almost even split between Cuban-American support for the embargo and Obama’s efforts to normalize relations with Cuba, while a 2014 Florida International University poll revealed that 78 percent of Cuban-Americans in Miami aged 33 to 44 favor the restoration of diplomatic relations. Meanwhile, data from a Pew Research Center survey gives testament to the leftward skew of exile politics: GOP allegiance was down to 47 percent in 2013 from 64 percent in 2002.
What does Montiel Davis think now that the thaw she hoped for is finally materializing? “It’s about fucking time,” she says.
The United States and Cuba never had a normal relationship, she adds. “It was master and servant.” She sees no reason why some Cuban exiles want to resist a dialogue with the island now, one that might be on a more equal footing.
In both Cuba and the United States, human rights are violated, she explains. Public discourse is limited, and notions of moral righteousness are bloated. La isla and la superpotencia have much in common. A real relationship, for countries as for people, she says, means accepting certain character flaws. It also means accepting certain consequences and, sometimes, unexpected rewards.
Her own ordeal was never about Fidel or the media. It was about her right to speak her mind and in a way about bringing about the future that has finally arrived. “I would not ever apologize,” she says, punctuating each word with the point of her ringed index finger.
These days, she is perhaps defined less by what she likes (tiny dogs, oversized handbags, hot yoga, her husband — “He looks like Yoda, pero mira, he’s a sex god!”) than by things she can’t stand: pastel colors, whiny men, false equivalencies, and hypocrisy, to name a few.
But sometimes people in Miami still say, “Huh, you look familiar!” They try to place her. Does she go to that gym? Work here? Shop there?
When that happens, Montiel Davis smiles. “Really?” she says, “You look familiar too.” And then she walks away like she has more important things on her mind — which, of course, she does.
By Gemma de Choisy, Miami New Times
September 9, 2015