Guns and Butter: The Story Behind Suarez Bakery
The story of one family’s journey to freedom, and what that freedom cost
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In 1994, Tony was released from prison. He took a managerial position in the mailroom at the Observer. His second marriage hadn’t survived his time in prison.
A few years after he was released from prison, he met Maryanne. They had a son Tony named for Cappy, his grandfather.
Carlos and Barb had two sons, Carlos Jr. and Jesse. Carlos and Tony played weekends on the same club soccer team, but with the bakery and family commitments Carlos saw less of Tony. Still Tony would show up around lunchtime, Carlos recalls, to “shoot the breeze, eat an éclair, or a hot dog from the German guy out front.” Sometimes he’d make a delivery for Carlos. Everything seemed fine.
Then, in 2006, he unexpectedly quit his job at the Observer.
One evening in April 2007, Tony argued with his wife at the bakery. As she walked out, Tony’s words followed her to the car. “I’m done talking,” he said. “I’m done.”
The next morning the phone rang in Carlos’s office. It was Tony’s mother-in-law. Strange, he thought, she never called the bakery on a weekday. Initially, he misunderstood what she was saying. “I thought she said Tony was trying to commit suicide,” Carlos says. “So I asked her what hospital is he in.”
“She said, ‘No, he committed suicide,’ remembers Carlos. “I think I yelled, ‘He’s gone? What are you talking about? What the f--- are you talking about? I just saw him yesterday!’ ”
The details were sketchy. A garage sealed tight, a car inside, idling for who knows how long.
Carlos told his cake decorator that he had to leave. “She says, ‘What’s wrong?’ and I just broke down. Told her my brother died; my brother committed suicide.”
At the funeral in Charlotte, Armando, who was born exactly twelve months after Carlos, and, like Tony, suffered from depression, sidled up to him. I wish he had called me. I’ve been there. I could have told him about this stuff.
Two weeks later, in the cruelest twist of fate, Armando was found dead in Miami of an apparently accidental overdose of psych meds.
Carlos and Ana were hit especially hard by Tony’s death because Tony had lived in Charlotte. They usually saw him every couple of days. “Every day of my life I think about it,” Ana says. “There should have been something we could have done but it just came out of nowhere. Carlos and I still talk about it and cry.”
Today, five years later, full-page, heavy-stock reprints of Tony’s obituary lie askew, rolled up on Carlos’s desk as if it had just happened.
Maybe it didn’t come out of nowhere. Carlos has replayed the last time he saw his brother hundreds of times, searching Tony’s last words for a clue.
“ ‘I’m done,’ that’s what he said,” says Carlos, managing a weak half-smile. “I guess that’s what he was saying, he was done with everything.
“He always thought he was a disappointment,” Carlos says. “But he wasn’t a disappointment.”
“Tony wasn’t a good communicator. He kept things too bottled up,” says Ana. Then she says the same thing as Carlos. “He always felt like he was disappointing everyone.”
Roberto Jr., the oldest, understands. He connects Tony’s lack of self-esteem with the way his family had to leave Cuba. He remembers better than any of the kids. “That affected me all my life,” he says.
“It’s like never being good enough. My whole life has been about never being good enough. We weren’t good enough to stay there [Cuba]. We had it all there, and when we left we lost it all. That’s been in my subconscious all my life.
“I’m sure this has been a major impact on my brothers and sisters,” he says. “Even if they don’t know it.”
Roberto Suarez never really recovered from losing two sons in two weeks. It sped up his Alzheimer’s until the man who once wrote fiery editorials in Miami every week—he collected an even hundred of them and published them under the title The Infamy of Castro—into his seventies, had to be coached to remember who Carlos was when he telephoned. Their conversations became so painful that Carlos finally stopped calling.
On July 6, 2010, Roberto, eighty-two, died in Miami. Once again, The New York Times put his picture in the paper, just as it had done fifty-three years ago for the freedom fighter.
Looking back, Carlos wishes his father hadn’t loomed so large in that great swath of history, that he’d spent more time at home. “All he ever did was work,” he says. “We had to find our own way to soccer games. Half the time they weren’t there.”
He quickly overcorrects, eager to give his father a pass.
“You don’t realize till you have your own kids …” he says, thinking back to the first and only time he ever saw his father cry. It was the day he and his twin, Miguel, turned eighteen. On their way to the party, Miguel was in a terrible car accident. At the scene, they thought he was dead. Then something moved in the backseat. They pulled Miguel out of the twisted wreckage. He had a broken neck. In the first hours at the hospital, he was in a coma, and they weren’t sure he’d live.
After a nightlong vigil at Miguel’s bedside, Roberto returned home. Carlos, who’d been riding in another car, walked in the family room just as Roberto collapsed in a heap on the sofa. When he broke down crying, Carlos was shocked. “I’d always seen him as the strict disciplinarian … always at the top of his game … protecting all of us,” he says. “Now I realized he wasn’t Superman, he was just a regular guy. I didn’t know what to do. I had to just leave the room.”
Carlos says he’s tried to raise his sons differently, tried to spend more time with them. But he admits that despite his best efforts he’s ended up doing the same thing his father did, missing a lot of their childhoods because of work.
“Work, work, work,” he laments. “That’s just the way I was raised.”
The difference is, unlike his father, Carlos has created something that his entire family is a part of. Son Jesse, twenty-six, bakes most nights while the shop is dark. Jesse’s girlfriend, Amanda, twenty-five, joins him. Her specialty is baking cookies and cakes, but she has already shown a gift for improvisation, like the best chefs, that transcends the written recipe.
Carlos Jr., twenty-eight, is the marketing/branding guy, working off-site. Barb comes in each week to do her cookies. Tony’s brother-in-law, Giacomo, comes in on Saturdays to help out.
Everyone seems to know what to do and is busy doing it. Dipping mini-éclairs in ganache, spinning dough, decorating a cake—there is no slacking. The smooth machine that is Suarez Bakery is no accident. Dyslexia now is spoken of not as a disease but as a “gift.” Websites crow about famous dyslexics like Bill Gates, Albert Einstein, and Bill Clinton, and studies show dyslexics are particularly well wired for starting businesses.
Perhaps that’s why Carlos survived the recession in 2009 by inviting another baker to share his space and the rent. Tiz Benson of Tizzerts is convinced this would never have worked with any other baker, citing Carlos’s lack of ego.
Out of all his siblings’ degrees, honors, and graduate degrees, Carlos is the only one who’s built something for the next generation of Suarezes—the cornerstone of Roberto Suarez’s dream for his children, as he wrote, “that they all build for themselves and their families a decent future.”
Savoring Roberto’s dream, Carlos has reached a moment of clarity, finally able to distinguish between the political Roberto Suarez and the private man who was his father. The man who left Cuba so his children would have much greater opportunity. “He didn’t just do it for himself,” says Carlos. “He did it for us.”
Jonathan Singer is a writer in Charlotte.