Talking about my generation…

Fidel Castro was a boy too, as Patrick Symmes reveals in this boisterous account of the Cuban leader’s school days


The Boys from Dolores
Patrick Symmes
2007, Constable and Robinson
386 pages

Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez

AFTER FOLLOWING the route of Ernesto Guevara in Chasing Che as an inseparable travelling companion, the logical consequence for Patrick Symmes is to turn his eyes to Fidel Castro, much maligned by some, admired by others.

Symmes’ detective work for The Boys from Dolores begins with a simple school snapshot and a reunion in Miami. In his quaint account of the happy and sad times of the few former pupils of Castro’s school that he interviews, this travel writer with a difference displays a keen understanding of education in a Jesuit school.

The Boys from Dolores tells the amazing stories of David de Jongh, Lundy Aguilar, José Antonio Roca, Alberto Casas and Pepín Bou among other “Dolorinos” bound from an early age by class, education, aspirations, country and now – elderly and in exile – by their feelings towards the one cocky boy they would come to know so well.

A new map of Cuba has now been drawn, but in the days of the boys from Dolores everything bad came from Oriente: “The New World itself , which was born when Columbus set foot on the sands of Oriente and found, instead of his one-eyed monsters, a land of ‘exceeding riches’ with a population so gentle that it could be enslaved by ‘50 men with swords’”. The Castro brothers – Ramón, Fidel and Raúl – were all products of Oriente and, 500 years later, two of them would arrive with only 86 men in a boat to change their island’s destiny.

Cuba’s answer to Hogwarts

Life in Santiago at the Colegio de Dolores could evoke our modern Harry Potter’s Hogwarts: the same meticulous discipline, encouragement for competition and moral commitment. However, unlike a school of wizardry, the Jesuit priests who were teaching there would sneer at popular superstitions and the dark practices of black descendants of slaves that they referred to as “criminal anthropology”.

The boys from Dolores grew into men who were educated, culturally advanced, scientifically minded and accomplished in their fields. Cocooned in this top school in idyllic surroundings, Fidel and his brothers were brought up in the 1930s and ’40s to win the world for Christ, to look at possessions without want, and to be rigorously scientific. As members of the Cuban elite, the Castros were surrounded by whiter-than-white kids in impeccable gala uniforms. Dolores was the school of choice for prestigious families who considered their offspring as future leaders (be careful what you wish for!).

These were interesting times – a new constitution had been established in Cuba and the cracks in society allowed ideals to enter. Most the boys from Dolores, although conservative, were open to the idea that Cuba was a broken country that needed fixing. So even these students supported the Revolution led by the basketball-mad Fidel, the literacy campaigns, land grants and deployment of doctors to the countryside. The only sore point was when these reforms began to affect the economy.

The Jesuits, persecuted over centuries as radically dangerous because of their progressive approach towards social issues (brotherhood of man, equality before God, and applying one’s talents and hard work for everyone’s sake), later ended up being pushed out of the education system after Castro had taken power.

The Boys from Dolores is an exciting account of the years preceding the Cuban revolution, especially how a new educational system influenced the events to come in 1958, and offers a picture of how Cuba’s revolution gradually changed from a movement encouraged by the middle class into a socialist experiment. But the most fascinating elements of this book are the detailed accounts of men who knew a beardless Castro and witnessed his transformation.

The teenage Fidel sticks out defiantly in the photo (no tie) – clearly a self-confident kid believing himself capable of the impossible. It is hard to imagine him in the future, fearless in his strident, bushy beard, olive-green uniform and, today, liver spots. Nor is it possible to envisage Castro as a boy aged 12 writing a letter in basic English to the then president of the USA; surviving a fall from the third floor with the aid of a simple umbrella; or as the young man in his 20s dodging starving Caribbean sharks. It is even harder to imagine the man nicknamed “cyclops” by Guillermo Cabrera Infante could owe so much to a religious order – although it is clear from this ironic book that it was not just by sheer good luck but by taking advantage of the right opportunities, as he had been taught, that help to explain his fate: a boy like that could easily survive.

Most of the boys of Dolores interviewed by Symmes in the US also managed lucky escapes – of a different type – by applying the science, endurance and other life skills they learned at school. It is not difficult to believe that, while the other members of the film club at Dolores enjoyed re-acting Western movies, Fidel hated this game, explaining that it was because the “wrong side” always won. It is also weird to imagine that someone could have survived a punch-up with the Cuban leader and lived to tell the tale. There is also one who is said to have lied to Che Guevara, and even more unbelievable is the former schoolmate who attributes the events of 9/11 to Castro, accusing him of being the real mastermind behind the attacks.

There are also tales of dissidents on the island, human rights campaigners and those who stayed behind, like David de Jongh’s youngest brother who, after all these years, believes that the only possible solution for Cuba’s problems was the Revolution – and that no revolution can be weak.

In a beautifully engaging style, Symmes tries to present a balanced assessment of Cuba through individual accounts intertwined with detailed historical research, while juxtaposing the obvious freedoms of Cubans in the United States against the well-publicised limitations of Cuba.

He gives the reader an insight into the colourful divide between Cuban Americans of different generations living in the US itself: plantados who have tied themselves to the idea of returning to the island as soon as “Cyclops” has gone to demand what once was theirs – some even stronger preachers of the American cause than the natives themselves – versus the surprising progressives, who believe in a peaceful solution through dialogue with Castro.

While the whole world ruminates upon the destiny of Cuba after Fidel Castro, the ageing leader himself remains confident of his ability to rebound (he once suggested as his successor Elián Gonzalez). As for the Revolutionary Cubans young and old – the ones who stayed because of their convictions or because they could not get away – the landscape remains grey, with Symmes clearly portraying the problems and austerity endured daily by a Cuba living in isolation.

For those who still believe that realismo mágico is only a realm of literature The Boys from Dolores demonstrates otherwise.

*Patrick Symmes is contributing editor for Outside magazine, and writes for Harper’s, GQ, Conde Nast Traveler, Wired, The New Yorker, The Washington Post and New York Magazine.

Georgina Jiménez is a freelance Mexican writer