After 44 years, I’m putting down my Herald pen. It’s time to be citizen Fabi | Opinion

There’s no easy way to say this, beloved readers and critics.

It’s time to retire from a newspaper that, more than an employer, has been my longest-lasting place of residence, 44 years, and longest-lasting relationship, a marriage more durable than the one my college sweetheart and I registered at the Miami-Dade Courthouse during the heady summer days of historic 1980.

This retirement thing is a “pinch me” kind of moment.

I’ve been working non-stop since I was 15, when my exiled parents and I lied to the owners of the Hialeah shop House of Notions and told them I was 16. I needed to save money for college, a car and coveted 6-inch heels.

I’m selfish, I know, to call it quits in an election year.

But I’ve already said all I wanted to say in the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald about the characters involved, and this presidential election feels like a replay of 2020 and 2016. Only this time, voters have already made up their minds, or so it seems from many conversations I’ve had in cities I visit often. People know who Donald Trump is. Ditto for his mini-me in Florida.

I will only be one less state voice reminding voters.

I’ve had a privileged, long run in journalism, full of seminal Miami moments.

I walked into the Miami Herald newsroom on March 31, 1980, a 21-year-old intern with lousy clips but a can-do attitude, recruited at the University of Florida by the good-cop, bad-cop team of metro editors Dave Nelson and Mike Baxter.

“Why should we hire you?” Baxter asked, after poking holes in a story in my thin portfolio, a profile of a fraternity house cook nicknamed “Funky George” who made a fortune gambling in New York and cooked for fun and camaraderie.

There was nothing left to lose at that point in the interview. I went for the jugular:

“Because I know Miami better than you. I know the community, and unlike you, I speak its two languages.”

Three weeks later, when the boats of the Mariel flotilla began arriving, I walked the talk, scoring my first front-page story about a group of teen boys who had left a Havana party on a whim to storm the Peruvian embassy. And when the deadly Liberty City riots broke out after the cops who killed Arthur McDuffie and covered it up were found not guilty by an all-white Tampa jury, I reported from Hialeah Hospital, as the injured arrived into the night.

My internship extended, and in June, still covering the boatlift and its impact on the convulsed city of Hialeah, I made two major life-changing decisions. I became a U.S. citizen and I took a long weekend off to marry and honeymoon at the Newport Resort in Sunny Isles Beach.

My “Journey to Citizenship” tale in Living Today — in which I confessed that “technically it took me 10 years” but “emotionally, it may take me forever” because I felt like I was losing Cuba all over again — brought me my first big batch of hate mail.

One man’s correspondence lasted years.

He addressed his letters in shaky handwriting to “Fabiola Santiago, Propaganda Minister for Miami Cubans, Miami Herald.” No address, but it always managed to reach my desk. When one day he stopped writing, I worried about him. Maybe he left this world — or realized, like so many of my column detractors have, that displays of hate only fuel commitment and passion for the job.

Writing opinion vs. chasing the news

I know it’s hard to believe, but I never aspired to write an opinion column like I’ve done the last 13 years, first for news pages, and in recent years, editorial ones.

I was a newsroom rat at heart, addicted to the adrenaline of chasing, discovering and keeping my front seat to unfolding history. Twice I flew in dinky little airplanes to the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo to cover the Cuban refugees housed in tent cities after they took to the seas en masse in 1994 on rickety, homemade rafts.

Decades ago, I wrote mostly about people, not party politics.

Although I covered the first all-Cuban Hispanic Caucus in the Florida Legislature, spending three weeks in Tallahassee, my favorite story from that stint was a feature: “Legislators in Love,” about the love affair and marriage of Cuban American Republican Ileana Ros and Democrat Dexter Lehtinen.

We weren’t so rabidly divided then, when Bob Graham was governor and Democrats held, from City Hall to Congress, the most important political posts in Florida.

READ MORE: Who Bob Graham was: ‘We work for all the taxpayers, not just the ones who vote for me.’ | Opinion

But the advent of President Obama’s Cuba engagement policy — I supported it in principle but was critical of execution flaws — moved me right into the political arena. The crushing division brought by Trump’s candidacy — and the hard-right turn of Cuban Americans in Miami — sealed the deal.

READ MORE: Carnival cruise to Cuba discriminates against a class of Americans | Opinion

I seldom lingered for years in any beat or post.

In fact, the secret to my staying power was that I re-invented myself as Miami — and my three daughters — grew along with me.

When the fledgling food scene became the rage, I wrote a popular food culture column named Gusto and an unforgettable feature-section cover story about Miami’s relationship with coffee.

It started like this:

Every morning, I stand before my coffeemaker and face my life.

Will it be American or café cubano today?

Yes, it has come to this: My coffeemaker defines me.

Like me, it straddles two cultures. On one side, I make my potent, sweet dose of cafecito. On the other a lighter brew of American coffee.

In every colada, every cupful, I brew a lifetime of love and loss; with every sip, I toast tradition and new beginnings.

Then, after the art scene exploded fueled by homegrown talent and artists exiled from Cuba, attracting the international crowds of Art Basel Miami Beach, I became the newspaper’s visual arts writer, a beat that nurtured my own creative spirit.

I’ve done it all, including accepting an editor’s position in the Neighbors section when I was very pregnant with my third daughter. That led to my being tapped to become the founding city editor of el Nuevo Herald in the middle of my maternity leave. I worked three months without a day off preparing for the launch. I brought the girls to the office on the weekends, baby Erica set up in the middle of the newsroom in her playpen.

My first baby, Tanya, was born during my last semester at UF, and I managed to only miss class on a Friday and a Monday.

The second daughter, Marissa, grew in my belly three years later while I was trying to prove that I was as good as any male reporter, but while pregnant and wearing heels. And so I ended up covering a packed demonstration in Miami Beach where the burly guy standing right behind me took out a gun. Lucky for me, a police officer, no doubt looking at the pregnant reporter, spotted him and deftly disarmed him.

I ran to the pay phone to phone in the story.

Another day, I ended up sweating profusely at the door of the accused No. 2 man in the Cuban terrorist organization Omega 7, a county worker who couldn’t deny a pregnant woman a glass of water, turning his “no comment” into something to report.

Finally, delivery day close, I had to ask my editor: “Do you think you could finish editing my story quickly? Because my doctor said this morning that I was already dilating.” A lifelong friend, she likes to remind me of this story.

I gave birth the next day.

Motherhood & journalism

I will miss writing for the two Heralds more than mere words can say.

But I’m excited about the new adventures ahead. Walking the Camino de Santiago set me on this path of exploration, of taking refuge from turmoil in nature. The death of my editor, Nancy Ancrum, three weeks after retiring, was a wake-up call.

READ MORE: In a world short on perspective and high on grievances, an ancient Camino shows the way | Opinion

Retiring while I still feel youthful and healthy at 65 means precious freedom to travel and spend time with family.

My retirement is my gift to my daughters and four grandchildren. They’ve been prodding me to do this for a long time, but I wasn’t ready. I am now. I’ve said in the pages of the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald all I needed to say. Time to pass the baton to the next generation.

My girls have no idea what it’s like to have a mother who isn’t synonymous with the Heralds, who isn’t on deadline, who doesn’t get calls from editors while on vacation.

“Hey, Gabriel García Márquez died — you want to chime in? Didn’t you meet him?”

“Hey, Fabi, there’s a credible rumor that Fidel is dying — can you handle it?”

It was a relief when the latter was true and I was in town.

I wrote:

The tyrant is dead.

I have to say it to believe it.

Al fin.

Finally, the guerrilla leader who rose to power on a promise of social justice but instead separated families, executed and persecuted opponents, and unleashed unprecedented misery on the Cuban people no longer exists on this earth.

I attracted the fury of the extreme left enamored of Castro-styled communist dictatorship the same way I now enrage the Florida’s fascist far-right.

But I don’t regret any of my writings. Though, no, don’t call me when Raúl Castro dies.

It’s me time.

I, a 1970s Cuban girl who rocked and roared to Helen Reddy’s “you can bend but never break me ‘cause it only serves to make me more determined to achieve my final goal,” became a mother when female journalists delayed marriage and babies for careers.

Master juggler that I’ve always been, I bought into the ‘80s notion that we could have it all. And I wrote about the supermom struggle in the feature pages of the Miami Herald while I covered immigration, all aspects of the Cuban exile, the rising Hispanic political power, and hurricanes.

Journalist Fabiola Santiago reporting on Hurricane Elena’s loopy path in 1985 coastal southern states.
Journalist Fabiola Santiago reporting on Hurricane Elena’s loopy path in 1985 coastal southern states.

Most moms fill their baby books with sweet musings about firsts.

But how many include, along with the first word spoken and fallen first tooth, a cut-out of the Herald’s front page with this Gulf War headline: “U.S. ships cruise war zone?” Followed by a note in red-ink: “First newspaper headline Tanya read by herself.”

No wonder my first-born became a journalist and a Herald intern at 16.

Baby No. 2’s book features a column my editor wrote about my rushing off to report in Panama the story of stranded Cubans and a fraudulent-visa ring — only seven weeks after giving birth to Marissa, my episiotomy not yet completely healed.

And, of the hundreds of pictures I’ve taken of baby No. 3, my favorite is still the one I took of Erica “reading” at the breakfast table an issue of Neighbors when she was barely 2.

Sure, having it all took its toll.

But my mother was my secret weapon and No. 1 fan. Without mami quitting her job to take care of my daughters for however long I needed and picking them up from school, I would’ve failed.

To her, I owe this career.

It’s time for me to be for my daughters whatever they need me to be, for them and for my grandchildren.

And it’s time for me to return to the book career I launched when Simon & Schuster published my novel “Reclaiming Paris.” Or to simply travel non-stop with no mind to the 24-7 news cycle and not worry about publishing another word. I love the way Cuban artist Antonia Eiriz protested censorship: She didn’t paint for 20 years.

Silence is also speech.

Whatever the future holds, I’m happy to be, for the first time in four decades, just citizen Fabi: one woman, one vote.