Leymis Bolaños Wilmott is no stranger to telling stories through dance.
But she’s never told one that strikes so close to home.
Bolaños Wilmott, the artistic director of the Sarasota Contemporary Dance troupe, has taken on the formidable task of conveying her family history — and that of countless other Cuban Americans — in her latest endeavor entitled “Cuban Project: Historias.”
Both of Wilmott’s parents, Laida Bolaños and José Miguel Bolaños, immigrated to the United States as children during Operación Pedro Pan, a clandestine mass exodus of thousands of unaccompanied minors from Cuba in the early days of the Fidel Castro regime from 1960-’62.
Those children left everything behind for a chance at a better life, and their parents made an unfathomable sacrifice in sending them. As Bolaños Wilmott tells that story, every step will be laden with significance and every movement will be in service of a greater truth.
“There’s a sense of accountability. People have bought tickets,” she says. “There’s also wanting to honor my grandparents who made this sacrifice. There’s my parents, and this is the first time their story is being presented. They’re really personally invested in it too, even though they’ve come to my shows and seen their daughter perform. There’s all these other things I’m having to navigate, which can be extremely stressful because I want to make everybody proud.
“There is this sense of responsibility. I have this platform because my grandfather, years and years and years ago, made a sacrifice that I don’t know today as a mom I could make.”
Living and learning
Bolaños Wilmott has lived with this story all his life, but the urgency to tell it has increased over the last few years. She began speaking to her relatives about their journey, but her grandfather and uncle both passed away while she was gathering information.
The project got a spur two summers ago when Bolaños Wilmott sat down with her mom and conducted a wide-ranging interview. She learned so much she hadn’t known before, and she doubled down on the project by seeking out other stories. Enter Eugenia Titterington, a dancer at Sarasota Contemporary Dance and a former student of Bolaños Wilmott at New College. Titterington took on the role of playwright, which meant the hard task of seeking out more information and further perspectives to enrich the work.
“It’s interesting because we see dramaturges existing in the theatrical sense, but not so much in the dance world,” says Titterington. “It’s more niche, but needed here to provide a lot of that historical, cultural, social foundation for the entire team to build off as we move forward. …We want to talk about not just what Operación Pedro Pan was, but how we led up to that as well as understanding that the 14,000 stories told from the point of view of these children are nuanced; many of them hold conflicting emotions at the same time.”
Titterington, in her role as historian, attempted to do the best job she could in setting the scene. Castro, a former attorney, began by preaching democracy and fairness for everyone, but then rights began to be slowly eroded and stripped away from citizens.
The crucible for many parents, says Titterington, came when Castro made the decision to put the education system completely under state control. Now, with their children’s future in doubt, they had to begin considering an alternative that may have been unthinkable.
“A big focus is really capturing what kind of fear and anxiety and pressure that parents were under that led them to such a point that they felt the best decision they could make was to send — in some cases 6-year-old children, sometimes alone — to the US under the assumption that they should be reunited in about 30 days,” says Titterington. “And probably knowing that that may not be true.”
For Bolaños Wilmott’s parents, it certainly wasn’t true.
Her mom, Laida Bolaños, came over at the age of 10 with two younger brothers, and they were placed in an orphanage upon their arrival. Her dad, José Miguel Bolaños, had his own heart-tugging circumstances. He came over when he was 13 years old, and he was able to live with his aunts in New York City. When he finally saw his parents again, he was a totally different person.
Bolaños Wilmott said he thought he’d be reunited within a year, but it didn’t happen until he was 18.
“His mom didn’t recognize him. He was a man,” says Bolaños Wilmott of her dad’s story. “He remembers that moment. And I’m thinking to myself now, ‘Would I send my son now? And would he still remember?’ My dad still has an accent. And he came when he was 13. For me, having a child around the same age, it’s still indescribable and unimaginable.”
Art imitates life
Conveying those emotions—both the hope for a better future and the pain and anguish involved in sending your children into the unknown—became the major challenge of the piece. Bolaños Wilmott began recruiting people to help realize her vision, and she settled on a format that includes both live music and spoken word anecdotal pastiche.
The troupe brought in two guest dancers for the performance, Michael Foley and Brian Fidalgo II, and Bolaños Wilmott selected a pair of musicians to flesh out the piece. José G. Martínez served as collaborator and composer, and New College professor Hugo Viera-Vargas signed on to provide some of the live music that will be performed throughout the performance.
And the early returns were stunning.
Bolaños Wilmott danced in an early version of the project in Maine, and she found that it was way more personal than she had expected.
Hearing the voice of her mom interlooped with her 5-year-old daughter Valda’s voice sent her into another dimension.
“It was the first time I really heard my mom. It was one thing when I was interviewing her and when I was preparing to perform it. When I was performing, it landed for me,” she says. “I embodied it. It was so real for me. I don’t know if it was because it was my mom’s voice interlooped with my daughter’s. It was this generational, rooted, embodied trauma I was experiencing. I had never experienced anything like that, and I don’t know if I want to perform it again. I’m trying to find ways where I may need to be present in the work, but I also feel there’s an important role I need to play on the outside. And Eugenia has really been my backbone.”
For Bolaños Wilmott, born and raised in Hialeah, the Cuban experience has been an intrinsic part of his life. She says that it informs everything about her, from her literal appetites and mannerisms to the things she’s attracted to and moved by in art and music.
She’s never forgotten where she’s came from, and she’s never lost sight of what it means to assimilate to a new culture without losing your core. She’s a byproduct of the perseverance and sacrifice her grandparents made, but also of everything that’s Cuban.
“I was mentioning to the dancers that one of the things my parents have always instilled is the family unit,” she says. “No matter what, whether you disagree, you are there for each other. With some families deciding to send their kids and others choosing not to, that separated the heart of the Cuban family. Literally. What’s taken place years later is the family that’s here is helping the family that’s there. Slowly, more and more of our family is here now.”
So it falls to Bolaños Wilmott’s second family, the Sarasota Contemporary Dance troupe, to tell the story that brought her here to this space in life. She says that she’s so thankful for the heart and the soul that they’ve put into taking something personal and making it universal. And she’s warned her parents that the performance is bigger than just her family; she wants it to reflect not just their experience, but also the experience of thousands of other people who took the same journey.
It’s her story. It’s your story. And it’s our story, a vital piece of American history.
That’s what makes this performance — and the company performing it — all the more special for Bolaños Wilmott.
“My dancers are like my family; they’re my community. They inspire me,” she says, looking ahead to the performance. “I’m already so full just from being in this process. The other day at rehearsal, we were all in a circle and they were sharing things that stood out to them from the readings and videos that Eugenia has been providing. I was just like, ‘Thank you.'”