Soy/Somos: Una Cubana Takes Off Her American Suit

01/09/2018 08:45 am ET Updated Jan 13, 2018

Soy/Somos, a real-life collage of Latinos in the USA.

“In Cuba, the mornings fall into afternoons, into evenings, into morning. So I said, ‘I’m going to enjoy this nothingness.’ I’d watch the kids who spend the entire day outside. Like the sun--it comes up here and goes down here--and they are playing marbles. Sometimes the older guys are doing the whole marble thing too. They ask my mother, ‘Did you bring me any marbles?’”

I bumped into Carolina at a little grocery in our neighborhood north of New York City this past November. I’d written about her in March of 2016. At that time she’d just returned from DC with her brand spanking new Cuban passport and spoke with such longing about Cuba, a lost piece of her story. Carolina’s parents had left the island when she was a little girl, and she’d been raised in Inwood, at the northern tip of Manhattan. Read my first interview with Carolina here: Soy/Somos: “I’m Not Yelling! I’m Cuban!” Today Carolina is just past fifty and 5’-8”tall for a Latina. She was glowing when she told me that she’d made her maiden voyage to Cuba and was about to fly back for a second visit. We agreed to meet on her return.

Here’s our conversation:

Carolina, tell us about your first visit to Cuba. Where did you stay, what did you see?

“Since my dad died and was buried in Cuba, my mom visits several times a year. I went with her. Bought my ticket with Jet Blue. I do this on the computer. Things pop up—ten questions—reasons why you’d want to go. ’Cultural experiences’ is what I said. You have to know where you’re staying.

“My cousin picked us up at the airport near Havana and drove us on a long road with billboards of Castro and Ché on the way. It just went on and on.Taking the exit for my family’s town took me on a time warp. The roads were terrible--tiny roads full of potholes. I saw my grandmother’s house where one of my aunts lives now. Houses were one floor, painted in bright colors, turquoise or pink, yellow, and green. Very Caribbean. But inside, they were badly run down. Bedrooms don’t have doors.

“You shower the way I used to bathe my babies, with a bucket of water--what can fit in a rice cooker, that size. Cubans don’t take water for granted. It’s delivered once a month.

“I recognized some of my aunts and cousins from pictures. I come from a big family on both sides. Both my parents come from Pinar del Rio, a province on the west side of the island two hours from Havana. That’s where I stayed. I have twenty first cousins in Cuba on my mother’s side. Ten on my father’s. I met the neighbors who grew up next to my family all their lives. I did a lot of walking. ‘Hey prima!’ my cousins would yell. That’s a great feeling. I slept five hours the whole trip.

“But things were so different. I was overwhelmed. People do chores, friends come for a cup of coffee, maybe dinner. This can get very boring. People don’t have cars, so they can’t travel to other places in Cuba. They might want to cook an arroz con pollo for dinner but might not find pollo, so they have to make just arroz. Everything is done with pork. The cow is sacred—only for the tourists. People who don’t have a family outside live in dire poverty.

“Right away I said, ‘I can’t compare what I see here to my life in New York. I have to do something in order to survive. I have to take off my American suit.’ The family want to make you feel that everything is about the same. Mom told them I like salads. They bought carrots for me. They don’t know what to do with carrots! Next time, I said, I’m going to eat only what they eat.

“On my second trip—that’s after you and I met at the grocery—I was set on listening to my cousins. I brought a lot of candy. Candy is a luxury. Gum, they love gum! I bagged candy in separate zip lock bags to hand out: Hershey’s and M&Ms, mints, Jolly Ranchers, Life Savers. I brought things I tell my kids not to eat. I also brought envelopes with ten or twenty dollars per family. My mom always brings coffee, because Cuban coffee is rationed and mixed with dried peas. It’s called chícaro. Also towels, and medicine. You’re allowed to bring twenty-five pounds of medicine.”

I wonder about “things,” Carolina. I can’t imagine Cubans are dependent on things quite as Americans are. Are there many toys, for example? Is there work for everyone?

“There really aren’t toys. Not like the bunches of stuffed animals that so many of our kids have here. I bought one of the boys Hot Wheels cars and told him they’re from my son. No basketball hoops. I saw a soccer ball a couple of times. Baseball is very big.

“Outside at night the men would be watching baseball, looking in from the open window into my cousin’s bedroom. That was one TV. The women at my aunt’s house next door were gathered in rocking chairs--all kinds of chairs--in the living room watching la novella on my aunt’s TV. There are two soap operas going on, the Cuban and the Brazilian. I think it’s in the Brazilian one-- the guy’s black, and he’s very handsome. And all the women that you see stop and say, ‘Did you see the show last night? Isn’t he handsome?’ Also they ask me, ‘What are your views about Trump?’ But I never say much because you don’t know who’s listening. I try to be good when it comes to politics. Even about Cuba itself. Am I saying too much? For the first time I actually got scared. You are sitting outside. You know. Like I don’t know who is listening.

“One of my cousins works at a church, another at a nursery. One is a barber. Another is in medical school. There’s one that fixes cars. You can own your little business, but you have to pay a lot to the government, often more than you make.

“You can identify who has a family outside in the US. I love clothes. If you have a taste for it, you have it. An aunt had one wardrobe that looked like a lot of clothes but it was clothes for three people. They borrow from each other. Shoes are more important. They wear down. My cousin wears his Converse sneakers for special occasions.”

I grew up with Cuban music in Panama during my childhood. Carolina, tell me about the music.

“Cousins took me to a club, government owned, but also private. You see the guys in green berets walking around. I got a sense of a live salsa band and all that dancing. But you don’t really hear a lot of old Cuban music, at least where I was. What you’re hearing is bachata [Dominican] and reggaeton. [Puerto Rican] It’s not the music from before.

“They have this thing called el paquete. You have an external drive. Someone comes and picks it up to fill with next week’s content and leave you an updated one, and you pay them. Every week this is done. They have TV shows, movies, baseball, and music from the United States. They say that the Tropicana in Havana is the best place to go for that sense of real Cuban music you are thinking about, and the women in those feathered dresses and all that.

“When I left after one week--the first time--my cousins said, ‘Don’t forget us.’ I got very emotional. It’s not easy to get to Cuba. Would I return? So I took off my left chancleta--you know, flip flops--at the house of my aunt on my mother’s side. I love to go barefoot. Day-to-day in Cuba you go everywhere in chancletas. I left my right chancleta at my cousin’s from my father’s side. ‘I am coming back to get them,’ I promised.

“You do feel when you are there that everyone has forgotten Cuba...old cars...old bicycles... You feel they’ve been left behind. Cousins in Miami have no interest in going back, or some go for a max of five days. Their way of living is different. Why would you want to go back? Some people say, ‘I go back because now I can see my Cuba. It’s not giving money to the communist government. I can see things and go places. Before I wasn’t allowed.’ To me that makes a lot of sense. But some people, they’re feeling too much emotion to do it.

Carolina, I read between the lines of what you’ve said. I see your need to hold on to the joy of discovering Cuba. I see that while you are finding new family, you and other Cubano-Americanos have to set aside—suppress--the terrible memories of communism, the complicated and painful history.

Also, we’ve talked before about living with a mixed identity, the richness of it and the difficulties. Do you feel more Cuban since you traveled to Cuba?

’Tienes el Cubano?’ that’s how they say it. Do you feel Cuban?’ I’ll say, ‘yes.’ I find that more and more in me. During this last trip I didn’t have anything American, none of the Starbucks coffee my mother brings. I am here and want to be Cuban. ‘Let me do the dishes! I don’t want you entertaining me.’”

How will you stay in touch?

“It’s hard with my cousins in Cuba. The have an IMO that’s equivalent to WhatsApp for calls, but they have to go to a park for Wi-Fi, and it doesn’t always work. And we only have a few minutes when we can talk.

“Just Carolina talking right now. I spent last New Year’s in Miami, and I set up a group chat for my six cousins on my father’s side that live there. With their spouses we are a total of fourteen. ‘Can we find one day just for a cousins’ dinner,’ I asked. We’ve never done that. These are the things in life that really count.

“When I came back from Cuba, the biggest thing is... Those bonds. That simplicity. There’s something there. And you really can’t buy it.”

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