Cuban-American book addresses the HIV crisis in Cuba in the late 1990s
“Sacrificio,” by Ernesto Mestre-Reed, combines fictional characters and a real historical background.
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Besides being a writer and a professor, Ernesto Mestre-Reed is also a proud parent. When he is not working, he is spending time with his two children, ages 14 and 17.
For more than 10 years, he divided himself between being a novelist and being present in his children's lives — and although writing a novel is hard, being a parent is much harder, he said.
All his hard work eventually paid off when his work “Sacrificio” was published by Soho Press in September. The narrative explores not only politics, especially the Castro government, but also the social, health, and economic crisis that was happening in Cuba at the time. Because of his amazing work telling the story of HIV positive people in the island, Mestre-Reed’s book also appeared on the New York Times (NYT) book list for Fall 2022.
Set in Cuba in the late 1990s, “Sacrificio” follows Rafa, who had recently moved to Havana with nothing. He ends up working at a café where he meets Renato — leader of the group “Los Injected Ones,” counter-revolutionaries who oppose the Castro government and are planning an attack to coincide with Pope John Paul II’s visit to the island.
When Renato goes missing, Rafa’s search for his friend takes him through various haunts in Havana: from an AIDS sanatorium, to the guest rooms of tourist hotels, to the outskirts of the capital, where he enters a phantasmagorical slum cobbled together from the city’s detritus by "Los Injected Ones" — as described by Penguin Random House.
The idea for the book came to Mestre-Reed back in the 1990s, when he read an article published by the NYT about the rockeros: a group that used American rock music as a way of social revolution, in the middle of one of the most turbulent periods in Cuba’s history. Some of those revolutionizers were injecting themselves with HIV, so they could get into the AIDS sanitariums the government had set up to keep people who were HIV positive away from the rest of the population.
While in those sanitariums, people would get three meals a day — a “luxury” considering the poor economic and social situation of people in Cuba. In there, the rockeros would keep wearing their long hair and doing American rock music, Mestre-Reed said. They were free to be who they were.
Considering the history of Cuba, Mestre-Reed explained how in the midst of people dying of diseases and fame, someone came and promised an ideal. Not just a revolution, but also a social experiment that all Latin America got inspired by. Even though a great leader and a threat to the U.S., Cuba’s President Fidel Castro eventually became obsessed with his own power, failing the experiment, Mestre-Reed said.
“My work is all about how we think about these ideals and how eventually, because we are humans, they get corrupted,” he added.
Coming up with a narrative story, Mestre-Reed started creating characters around the NYT article background, because he couldn’t stop thinking about how someone would be so desperate to the point of injecting themselves with a deadly disease as a form of rebellion. Mestre-Reed said that many people approach him thinking the story is pure fiction; but even though the characters aren’t real, what they experienced was.
His process to get the information for the book included mainly talking to people who had lived in Cuba at the time. Most of them moved to the U.S. after the Soviet Union collapsed and stopped sending money to Cuba, making the country fall apart. Besides that, his search for historical background was tough and he credits it as one of the reasons why the book took so long to get finished.
LIFE AND LITERACY
Mestre-Reed was born in Guantanamo, Cuba, but moved to Miami when he was young. As an undergraduate pre-med student at first, he attended Tulane University, in New Orleans; but after a couple of literature classes, he realized he actually wanted to study English.
The hardest part was having to tell his doctor father that he no longer wanted to pursue the career. Hesitant at first, his dad ended up being a great supporter later in his writing career.
Mestre-Reed headed to New York City for graduate school at New York University and simply fell in love with the city. A Brooklyn resident now, he thinks it is a great place to raise children due to the open-minded and culturally diverse population.
“It’s everyone, it’s the world in some ways,” he said about the city.
Nowadays Mestre-Reed teaches creative writing at Brooklyn College, where he has the opportunity to see young writers emerge. Using his position of influence, the Cuban writer tries to show his students that there are a lot of voices other than just the American one. He likes to bring different texts to class, especially Latino works — which his students often have never read before.
With “Sacrificio,” the third book Mestre-Reed has written about Cuba, he wants to promote the same kind of impact but on the readers.
“I want them to get engaged with it, with the characters and the idea, for them to see another kind of reality,” he said.
Being a part of the change that is happening in the United States right now, where more Latinos are reaching positions of power and achieving success; Mestre-Reed remembers when his college professor predicted this would happen. In the 80s, when he was still an undergraduate student, his professor said that in 50 years, American literature would be dominated by writers with names like Fernadez, Garcia and Hernandez.
“I will never forget that,” Mestre-Reed said. “I thought it was cool, and now it is really happening.”