- spending the day with friends
- walking on the beach gathering driftwood
- a nice quiet dinner at home
I’m grateful for every chapter in my story — good and bad, joyful and sad. Reflecting and sharing part of my family’s experience as political refugees — politically exiled Cubans in the early 1960’s — is only part of the complex series of events that comprise my life. I am grateful for it all, and while it is a part of my identity, it certainly isn’t the whole of it.
It seems the trend to label everyone and put them into a nice neat box, once an efficient way to identify demographics, has turned into a much larger issue that probably does more to divide than unite. I’m guilty of it loads of times. Too many, really, to have a clear conscience about criticizing it, but, it’s not the first time I hold conflicting points of view at the same time. I suppose that’s easy to do when you live in two worlds concurrently, even if they are in your head.
In a couple of weeks I’ll be celebrating the 51st anniversary of coming to the United States. I entered through San Antonio, Texas! Needless to say, Texas holds a special place in my heart.
And then, later this year, I will celebrate the 40th anniversary of becoming a naturalized American citizen. It’s like having a second birthday.
I’m grateful for the opportunity my parents found in this great nation. I’m doubly grateful to be a citizen of the United States, the country that took us in and said welcome home.
My story has a happy ending, so to speak. The U.S. is filled with stories like mine, generation after generation. And yet, there’s another truth, of stories cut short or unfulfilled. That is part of the migrant story, too.
a final little excerpt from Confessions of a Cubanita:
My husband’s uncle, Tío Humberto, was a classic character and a dear man. He passed away a few years ago, part of the old guard that came from Cuba early after having figured out that the coming regime was going to spell disaster in untold ways. Tío Humberto had some first hand knowledge of just how psychotic the despot Castro was, having run around in his youth in similar circles to that crazy bastard.
Tío Humberto was a dentist in Cuba, and like so many of the folks who came at that time, he had to find a different route for supporting the family because of language barriers and the difficulties of time and money for preparing to pass medical boards in the United States. Priorities and the pressing need to support a young family took precedence over personal goals and as a result, he never practiced dentistry again. I think that perhaps of all the indignities suffered by our loved ones in those days, not being able to practice the careers that they loved, and in many cases defined them, had to have been a terrible blow.
Tío Humberto’s case is certainly not an isolated one. When I was in high school, my Spanish teacher, Mr. Pedro Díaz, was another one of those displaced professionals. Mr.Díaz had been a lawyer in Cuba, and relocated to Nebraska during that mass sponsorship program that sent Cubans all over the United States in order to provide different avenues of support. I have to say that the idea of Tío Humberto and his spunky wife, Tía Esther, surviving harsh Chicago winters, and poor Mr. Díaz shivering in Nebraska is a little bit comical but a great deal inspiring. They did what they had to do.
One of the things that I have heard constantly over the years is that everyone who came to the United States during the massive wave of immigration that defined the exile community has a unique story to tell. The universities in South Florida, both public and private, have living history programs that capture these stories. When dressed up in the regalia of academe, these stories take on a profound level of authenticity. They become permanently etched in the history of an era.
Videotaping and documenting these experiences do not define their authenticity. The authenticity is defined on the porches, in the living rooms, and Florida rooms of our homes as our relatives reminisce and tell stories of their youth and their struggles as they learned to adapt to a new country, a new language, and a new culture. Regrettably, at the time when our loved ones had these memories fresh on their minds and the wounds were still raw from navigating the perilous waters of the Florida Straits, we cubanitos, obnoxious teenagers and full of our own angst in trying to bridge those waters and be true to our heritage while becoming more and more American, were turning a deaf ear to this living history.
We all had a Tío Humberto, the guy who would pull us aside at a family gathering and launch into a diatribe. Sometimes it was vitriolic bitterness about the way things have turned out. Other times it was poignant hurt over losses, real or imagined. And often it was a beautiful reminiscence of a bygone era, a rich remembrance of the good times, the adventures, the glory days of their youth.
We were too young and too focused on the future to stop and learn from the past. As youngsters, we turned it into an opportunity for mockery, and so we set up the Mr. Díaz’s in our lives to get going on a binge of memories and expound upon their experiences. It was an easy set up. Who wanted to learn about the proper placement of accents when we could derail the Spanish teacher and send him down memory lane? My friend Martha and I would get him started on a topic in first period, and then check in second period to see if he was still ranting. In retrospect it was a terrible prank, and if our real Mr. Díaz should read this, know that I am sorry. But here is the funny part. We thought we were being so clever in distracting him, but the joke was on us. We picked up more history and more culture in those distractions than we would have benefitted from the grammar lesson. I guess that what those tíos had to share was so powerful that they had to do it, even when they understood that at some level we were trying to ridicule them. They must have banked on the fact that we would grow up and those stories would be a part of ours. How right they were!
What became of all those stories? Well, here I am including them in my own story, a story that will perhaps be mocked by my own children and maybe, just maybe, be picked up in a decade or two out of curiosity. What became of Martha and her pranks? Together with her older brother, Juan, and her younger sister, Luly, they took their abuelos’ lament, “Ay, mi Cuba” and turned it into a board game of the same name. The game, a trivia challenge that encompasses all the generational experiences of exile, covers questions from a pre- and post-CastroCuba, as well as questions from the Miami experience of those Cubans who came during different waves of immigration. It beautifully captures the essence of the cubanito because no one can win the game alone. We need the older generations to build the foundation. It is who we are: part of the past, part of the future, trying to survive in the present.Read More
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.
My story as an immigrant is all over the internet if you know where to look. Some years ago I self-published a small book of essays, Confessions of a Middle-Aged Cubanita, that I compiled for my children about growing up bilingual and bicultural after emigrating to the U.S. from Cuba in 1966. The book is intended for a very small niche, Cuban-Americans with similar experiences to mine: coming to the U.S. as small children and navigating the cultural seas of being first generation Americans. Most of my memories are funny — and a few poignant, maybe even universal for all immigrants. It struck a chord with a few people, precisely because the need to hold onto traditions and what-is-known is like the lifesaver thrown to a drowning victim. We clutch it wildly, desperately, hoping that it will keep us from drowning in a sea of despair and hopelessness, misunderstanding and loneliness. It is a bittersweet blessing. A privilege. A miracle. A hardship. A salvation. An opportunity. A responsibility.
My friend Maria Scaperlanda, who blogs at Day By Day with María, is collecting these stories with the hashtags #MyMigrationStory and #NationalMigrationWeek. I don’t know what she’s going to do with it. There are millions of stories out there. I fear she will end up overwhelmed with hundreds of stories.
I tell part of my story in My Badass Book of Saints. It’s all over this blog. It’s all over my previous blog, and the one I had before that. Of course, my story is a part of me. It’s who I am. The chapters about exile and being a refugee, leaving Cuba for the only country in the world that would take my mother and me, and then waiting months to enter the U.S. to be united with my father reside comfortably next to the chapters about my first kiss, graduating from college, getting married, having babies. It’s who I am. But somehow, those first chapters are a heavy weight — with threads that run through other chapters, and cast, almost imperceptibly, a pall of sadness over the scenes. Their presence, out of the way and unobtrusive, is still there, a silent reminder that things might have been different.
On a good day, that reality is met with gratitude. It can, on some days, be met with bitterness. But it’s my story, and I’m comfortable with it, like I’m comfortable in my own skin. It is part of my identity, although not all of it. The strongest part of my identity is my faith.
I’ll share snippets of my story this week — you don’t want to read pages and pages all at once, do you? Here’s a part from Confessions:
This memoir, like many others, took a relatively brief
time to write, but a lifetime to compile. The cubanitas my age
are facing challenges at both ends of the family spectrum. We
are facing aging parents and aging children – the threat of
nursing homes and empty nests.
Our generation faced a multitude of “firsts” in our
youth. We were the first to fully venture into American
culture. Sure, we were raised bilingually and bi-culturally, but
unlike our brothers and sisters, cousins, or aunts and uncles
just 10 years older than us, we were the first to be fully
immersed in the new culture. Most of us were the first
generation born in the United States, or we came so young,
like me, that we might as well have been born here.
This is meaningful in simple and complex ways. We
speak English with no accent, having been educated
exclusively here. Whether at school, the playground, or
watching TV, the dominant language in those interactions was
English. Yet, we speak Spanish with no accent because we had
our parents and grandparents who insisted that we maintain
the language. The extended network of Spanish-speaking
friends further reinforced the language.
Even though we have often wished that our own
children would sustain our level of proficiency in Spanish, it is
often a losing battle. In the end, it is English that wins. We
were the first to fight that battle and grumble “ay mami” when
too many demands were made upon us, and in rebellion traded
our guayaberas for Izod Lacoste shirts. Even then we were
aware of icons (perhaps that’s why we gravitate towards other
The irony, of course, is that years later we have
embraced the language – the guayaberas – the icons of a
culture that we learned from our parents and grandparents in
the bas-relief of exile. Now that we are the ones aging and
trying to hold on to the things that have become dear to us do
we embrace the past. In fact, it is really not at all surprising to
discover that our cultural identity is built on nostalgia – a
distortion tempered with love. Love of country. Love of
culture. Love of family.
Our identity is as unique as the myriad stories told by
our parents and grandparents over thimble-sized shots of café.
However, our unique circumstances, when pooled, result in a
new hybrid culture – a little bit of the past, a little bit of the
future. In the present, we are what we are: cubanitos.
I seem to have lost all sense of time. That’s either very good or very bad. I’m going with very good. Ok. Maybe just plain good. No. Maybe it’s just not necessarily bad.
The holidays wreck my sense of time.
How are you faring in the new year? Any resolutions? I’ve resolved not to resolve anything. It’s quite liberating.Read More