Tía For­tu­na’s New Home: A Jew­ish Cuban Journey

Ruth Behar; Devon Holzwarth, illus.

By – February 17, 2022

Ruth Behar has explored the Jew­ish Cuban expe­ri­ence in sev­er­al books for both chil­dren and adults. In Tía Fortuna’s New Home, evoca­tive pic­tures by Devon Holzwarth accom­pa­ny Behar’s sto­ry, this time focused on the rela­tion­ship between a young girl and her Cuban exile aunt liv­ing in Florida.

Tía For­tu­na is in the process of leav­ing her Mia­mi home for an assist­ed liv­ing facil­i­ty. Con­front­ed with the inevitabil­i­ty of this event, she wise­ly tells her niece, Estrel­la, it’s time to say good­bye and wish for mazal bueno.” Chil­dren read­ing the book will learn about Sephardic cul­ture and also feel reas­sured that Tía Fortuna’s atti­tude, as much as mazal, will enable her to adjust to a new life.

Many Jews left Cuba in the years after the rev­o­lu­tion of 1959. Behar’s poet­ic, but straight­for­ward, lan­guage cap­tures the wrench­ing nature of this expe­ri­ence, as it depicts Tía Fortuna’s arrival in Flori­da with noth­ing more than a sin­gle suit­case and a mezuzah. The blue and green of the sea, along with pas­tel and jew­el tones, pro­vide the visu­al back­ground for Tía Fortuna’s odyssey.

Many years lat­er, when she learns that her home will be demol­ished to make way for a hotel, she is pre­pared to move on with her mem­o­ries, but pas­sive res­ig­na­tion is not her style. Serv­ing bourekas to Estrel­la, she uses the pas­tries as sym­bols of resilience and the Sephardic dias­po­ra. They are same food enjoyed by your grand­fa­thers’ grand­fa­thers’ grand­fa­thers and your grand­moth­ers’ grand­moth­ers’ grand­moth­ers.” Both patri­archs and matri­archs are links in an unbreak­able chain.

Even in the most dif­fi­cult moment, when Tía For­tu­na clos­es the door of her home for the last time, she con­veys to her niece the impor­tance of both opti­mism and luck. That same mezuzah that trav­eled from Cuba is now so crust­ed with sea salt, it won’t budge.” Only a patient request, sup­port­ed by a lit­tle mag­ic, allows her to remove it from the door and accom­pa­ny her on her next voy­age. Styl­ized stars and dots, reflect­ing the beads on Fortuna’s bracelet, sur­round Holzwarth’s pic­ture of the gold­en rit­u­al object held in the old woman’s strong hands.

Jew­ish iden­ti­ty is the anchor when she arrives at her next res­i­dence, where she offers her spe­cial bourekas to a mul­ti­cul­tur­al cast of new neigh­bors. Estrel­la, sur­round­ed by a del­i­cate bor­der of images from her family’s past, now wears as a neck­lace the gold key from her aunt’s Cuban home. With­out min­i­miz­ing the under­ly­ing sad­ness of old age and its chal­lenges, Behar offers a hope­ful por­trait of both con­ti­nu­ity and change.

This high­ly rec­om­mend­ed book includes an author’s note about Behar’s back­ground, as well as a glossary.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

Discussion Questions

This is a beau­ti­ful, lyri­cal book about Ladino/​Cuban cul­ture, and the mean­ing of home and fam­i­ly in a world where Jews have his­tor­i­cal­ly had to leave their homes behind, car­ry­ing lit­tle with them but their mem­o­ries. The poet­ic text cel­e­brates inter­gen­er­a­tional love as Tia moves from her pink casita at the Sea­way, where she has lived since she was a young girl (hav­ing arrived in Amer­i­ca from Havana), to a senior cit­i­zens’ home. Tia helps her grand­daugh­ter, For­tu­na, under­stand that hap­pi­ness comes from with­in. How can Tia be hap­py on such a sad day? Tomor­row the sand­cas­tle will be gone…and so will we.” It’s not man­ana yet, Estel­la. Let’s enjoy today.” 

Sephardic tra­di­tions are gen­tly woven through­out the sto­ry, adding depth with a light, and some­times whim­si­cal, touch. It is a pos­i­tive, poignant, and empow­er­ing story. 

The mixed media illus­tra­tions are equal to the task at hand, blend­ing trop­i­cal col­ors and windswept curvi­lin­ear lines that give the sto­ry added ener­gy and warmth. The book also has a glos­sary of Span­ish words and an author’s note that pays homage to the author’s Ashke­nazi and Sephardic heritage.