Soy/Somos: "I'm Not Yelling! I'm Cuban!"

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From my blog Soy/Somos, a series that celebrates the many identities of Latinos in the USA. You can read the introductory post here: Soy/Somos: We Are Many

"The Cuban Consulate in D.C. is a beautiful old building with a huge Cuban flag. When I saw it, I thought 'This is me!.' Then I was told to go into a tiny building with almost no windows and bunches of people telling their stories. I heard the beautiful Cuban music of their voices. And I felt so American. It was my first visit to what was almost Cuban soil, and I was scared. Then I did this thing in my head, 'Soy Cubana, and I'm going to stand with them!' I have always lived with this confusion of who I am and where I belong.

"I was expecting to hear, 'You left. What right do you have to come back?' No one said that. There was a lot of waiting and going back to the seats and then to the line, and I didn't have the documents exactly as they wanted. A lady in the waiting room gave me Cuban courage. 'Lady do it. You have to be aggressive.' I ran to CVS, got new passport photos with the right color behind me. My documents were accepted minutes before closing time.

Carolina is 5'-8." Tall for a Latina. Her hair is dark, her skin tawny, her eyes the green of coke bottles with a little yellow limón in the mix. While we are speaking in English mostly, when she switches to Spanish, her Spanish is faster and more clipped than my own. Her "Cuban" is making me nostalgic for my family's voices in Panama.

"I was different from my mami and papi. She is 5'-2," my dad 5'-7," with dark brown eyes--and also my sisters. My father was darker than me. I took after mi abuelo and my tías on that side. I was casi casi an ugly duckling, but sometimes linda."

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Carolina's father was an artist. He painted advertising billboards on public buildings in Cuba. (Cigars? Slogans? Fidel's face?) At 28, with a young family, he petitioned the Cuban government to leave Cuba.

"When you told the Cuban government that you wanted to leave, they took your job away and sent you to work in the sugar cane fields. They did it to my father. He worked in the sugar cane fields for four years after that. He was allowed to come home to see us every four weeks. Through someone he knew he eventually got us out of Cuba. I was four years old when my family arrived in the United States.

"We left with papers -- derechos de salir -- and we lived in Miami for six months. But my dad was so angry with communism. 'There is too much of Cuba in Miami,' he said. So we left for New York. Two friends of his had gotten jobs as supers in residential buildings in Inwood near 218th Street at the northern tip of Manhattan. As a super he got an apartment in the basement -- and that's where I was raised.

"There were 75 apartments in my father's building. The majority of people in Inwood were Irish Catholic. My father spoke no English, and I heard some terrible comments when I was little that I have never forgotten. He put a complaint box for the tenants, and at night he'd decipher the pieces of paper with an Spanish/English dictionary that he carried with him always.

"I went to Catholic school. My sister and I would playact the English sounds meaning nothing. Later I dreamed of going away to college, though my father told me, 'El día que te vas de esta casa es el día en que te vas a causer.' ('The day that you leave this house will be the day that you marry.') I remember, of the four children I was the one to ask, 'But, why?' 'But why?'
'Porque te lo dije. Cállate la boca!' ('Because I said so. Be quiet!')

"In my 20's I wanted to be more American. I would say to myself, 'People have no idea I'm Cuban.' If they said I had some kind of accent, I'd say, what are you talking about?

"I didn't know what I wanted to do. When I finished high school, I went to work. I married a medical student whom I met at work. And, before my husband and I had children, I went to college. Here's a little Cuban girl and here's this doctor! My parents were happy. My mother kept saying, 'He likes Cuban food!'

"My husband is a Welshman. Welsh men don't dance." She laughs.

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Carolina, as a panameńa by birth I feel a strong pull to Panama, but l also feel deeply American. Does it have to be either/or?

"I have to accept the beauty of having both cultures. I have been going to Miami to visit cousins, and now my mother is there since my father died. I love being around the culture, and the food! We talk with our hands. We scream, 'No, I'm not yelling! I am Cuban.' We love and we embrace. We love music. I've been dancing since I was very young. In my culture, the men dance. With salsa the men have to lead.

"But my cousins who stayed in Miami, they are wrapped up in the Cuban rhythm. I am different. I am glad we left Cuba because of my dad. In this country, we have the freedom to become whatever we want to become, even if we have to work hard for it.

"My father had a hard time with the differences in the US. There was a different attitude towards men and women. He'd say to my brother, 'Qué eres? Un hombre o un ratón? Para de llorar.' (What are you? A man or a mouse? Stop crying.')

"I have wanted strong girls and sensitive boys. Here I find myself more American. Piercing the ears of little girls, so much pain. Also bands of ribbons on the forehead, earrings and bracelets. This is not me!"

*

"It's interesting what's happened to my children. My girls to whom I gave Spanish first names ask me why I didn't give them my Spanish maiden name. About Boston where I went to college and where one of them is right now, one of my daughter says, 'people here are too the same.' When my children fill out a questionnaire, they want to put 'Cuban.' Their friends are multicultural.

"Take my husband. His parents came from Wales. As a scientist his father came for a wonderful work opportunity here in the US. And yet, my husband's mother who's lived here for 45 years still refers to Wales as 'home.' I remind her of this. This is another immigrant story.

"When Hispanics come to my husband for surgery, the entire waiting room is filled with family. My husband is starting to learn something from this."

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Carolina, I hear you are a fantastic dancer. That you taught salsa dancing in your children's first grade classes. How did this happen?

"At the public school in our suburban neighborhood, they had winter programs at lunchtime. My son's teacher had this idea of pairing the fifth grade's poetry project with salsa dancing by the first graders. I taught the children to dance to "Carnaval" by Celia Cruz. At one of the performances many years back I remember feeling, 'Finally, I've brought Cuban culture to this American town where I live.'

I said to them, 'Salsa is not with chips. It's all in the hips. If you accept this, you can let the music take you away.'

*

Is there something I haven't asked you today that you would like to say?

"Well, yes, many things. For as much as I look American, I still respect everything my dad did for me. It was terrible for my father and mother to leave their parents in Cuba. My father lost siblings and his parents and could not go back. And we grew up without grandparents that are so important to children. Knowing this has helped me appreciate that things can be very difficult. Regarding fairness--we the americanos let the Cubans in who were being strangled by communism. But when the Haitians came dying in rafts, we sent them away. This was purely racist."

Why do you want a Cuban passport?

For three reasons. My dad is buried in Cuba. My mother wants to be buried there too. And I was born there. I want to know.

Carolina gave me a kiss on the cheek when I left.

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