The Things We Leave Behind: A review of Raúl Ramos y Sánchez’s 'The Skinny Years'
The things we leave behind play a significant role in defining who we are. Moreover, as youth, what life forces us to jettison helps to give shape to the adults we become. Raúl Ramos y Sánchez knows this well. The Cuban-American writer, author of The Class-H Trilogy—a prescient series of novels that foresaw the hostile, anti-Latino sentiments that hover over the current presidential campaign—takes his readers on a journey of what it was like to be a refugee of the Cuban Revolution.
The Delgado family, as was the case with thousands of other Cubans who were compelled to leave their homeland, had enjoyed comfortable existences before Fidel’s triumph. They left behind a high social standing, a lovely home, and then they were obliged to start all over again at the bottom rung of the ladder in the formerly working-class neighborhood of Wynwood, in Miami. The abrupt change takes a heavy toll on the parents, the Abuela, and the children—particularly the eldest, eight year-old Victor, the novel’s main protagonist.
In sparkling clear prose, Ramos y Sánchez guides his readers through twelve years of hardships—financial, familial, personal, and cultural—as the Delgados struggle to adapt to an entirely new language and way of life. The adults in the family often stumble in their efforts to reinvent themselves, especially financially. Because of his tender age, Victor is the first to learn English and become acculturated. For him, however, the tension of being caught between the agonizingly slow adaptation of the adults and the wondrous good fortune he sees in becoming fully “American” is, at times, unbearable.
As The Skinny Years deftly explores, adapting to a new culture is a long, drawn-out, and often painful process. Yet in this novel, as well as in his previous ones, Ramos y Sánchez shows that humans are resilient and, if given a chance, they will eventually embrace their present in the hope of a better future.
Over the years, the emotional blows Victor received along the path toward becoming “American” leave serious scars. As the damage was being inflicted, the danger that he would surrender to bitterness and despair was always present. Yet, in The Skinny Years, a highly readable coming-of-age tale, Ramos y Sánchez assures readers that when immigrants are allowed to leave behind their former selves at their own pace, renovated identities will emerge. And although these new “Americans” will carry the bruises of their efforts to assimilate, most become grateful and wise contributors to the continuing saga of the United States of America.