another story from my childhood

Posted by on Jan 10, 2017 in personal | 2 comments

I tell another story in this except from Confessions of a Middle-Aged Cubanita. I share how my friends and I grew up bicultural — and we didn’t even know that was a thing. We just knew it as our lives. Typical Catholic: living the both/and experience to the fullest!

I can’t really say my parents worked hard to protect us from anything. On the contrary, the worked hard to provide for us and give us opportunities for success in our new home. For some of my peers, it was very hard times. Maybe it was very hard times for my parents, too. If we were poor, I never knew it. I knew “no” for sure, but I never knew hunger or cold.

I knew love. And that’s the important thing.

Imagine my schizophrenic childhood. When everyone else was flocking to Union City (don’t you love New Jersey?) and Miami, my father chose the Deep South in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement. A classic move, if I dare say so.

In retrospect, I admire his decision on my many levels. He had a job – who could argue that practical point? Economically, it made sense: you go where you can get work. He traded his linen shirts for a wash and wear waiter’s uniform. Was I scarred? Not really, but to this day I admit that I am a sucker for a man in a tux, reeking heavily of Brut aftershave and Mennen deodorant. Hey, we all have our demons.

Culturally, it really wasn’t that bad. We lived in a neighborhood where we were surrounded by Cubans in the same dire straits – mainly, people working hard to eke out a living in a new country, and doing this, I reflect, under the pall of desperate and heart-wrenching exile. How did they do it? Only now can I begin to fathom the depth of their despair, their fear of the unknown, their pain at their loss. I owe my parents and that whole generation a heart-felt thanks for their sacrifice.

One of the amazing things to come out of that experience I can attribute to my parents and vecinos in that little neighborhood we called Pastorita. I never developed a sense of being different because I never thought that I was different. Almost everyone spoke Spanish, so I thought that was the norm. By the time I started school, I was speaking English fluently, thanks in part to my next door neighbor, an americanita named Elizabeth, and our little black and white TV, which brought me the joys of Saturday morning cartoons and afternoon westerns. This period in my life was important because I learned to be American. Consider this, I spoke Spanish at home (not Spanglish – that came later), ate comida criolla, and played with other cubanitos in Pastorita, the pastoral symbolism of the name lost on us (years later I learned that the adults named it after projects in Cuba, how’s that for self-deprecating humor?)

Imagine if you will, Leave It to Beaver with subtitles. “Oye tu” became a universal call to arms. At home I was free to be “me.” Nobody had labeled me yet, so I played and fussed and got into trouble and was loved in about equal parts as everybody else that I knew. And everybody else was just like me: cubanitos.

At school I was still “me.” I spoke English – with a drawl! I ate the school lunch. Consequently, I acquired a taste for black-eyed peas in addition to frijoles negros; mashed potatoes with gravy and that other side dish, congri; corn on the cob and platanitos maduros. I learned everything and accepted it all because nobody had suggested otherwise to me. In short, I was well on my way to becoming bi-cultural, only we did not have a name for it. We called it our lives.

By the time I was old enough to observe differences in culture, it was too late, luckily, for the negative affects of this knowledge to have a hold on me. I was a creature of both worlds. Cuban and American. Me. It was a beautiful time, and lasted several years before I was plagued with self-doubt and ambivalence about my identity. I had been labeled by both sides and realized I belonged to neither. I was too American for the older generation, too Cuban for my American friends. I found some solace with other cubanitos my age, but we lacked the sophistication and maturity to recognize that we were friends merely due to our circumstances. We fit nowhere else.

2 Comments

  1. Sweet story, Maria. And God was right there beside you the whole time.

    • Thank you! Yes! I believe He was!

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