my story as an immigrant

Posted by on Jan 9, 2017 in personal | Comments Off on my story as an immigrant

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
icons today).

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.

 

 

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