Growing-up Cuban and other prejudices – Part 1
January 1st, 1959. On this date, at 2 A.M., Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista boarded a plane that took him, his family, and close associates from Havana to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.
This event left the door wide open for Fidel Castro to take over power in that island nation, where I was born and raised. I had just turned 11 then. I remember it well.
Only two years later, my mother and I arrived on these shores, having stashed away a couple of American hundred-dollar bills in our clothing. I remember it well.
This time of year, as gloriously significant as it is for people of good will, brings back some sad memories. Imagine leaving the country of your birth for foreign shores, to different customs, language, and heritage. We Cubans did just that; we survived and eventually prevailed.
I’m proud to be a Cuban, just as I am proud to be an American.
Often I am asked whether I consider myself Cuban-American, Cuban, or American. Do I consider myself a refugee, even after 51 years of residence and citizenship in the U.S. of A.?
It took me years to realize why these questions bothered me so. The chief assumption behind them is that one's identity can be neatly packaged, and one can simply be either this or that.
I realize that, for natural-born Americans, most of whom have spent their entire life living in a single culture, it must be hard to imagine what it feels like to be an immigrant. It is difficult to absorb cultures other than the one a person was born into.
In many ways, asking this question is much like asking whether one’s tongue is for speaking or for tasting. Many things in life and in nature – like the tongue – cannot be explained in terms of either/or.
Being an immigrant in the United States is not an either/or proposition, but rather a both/and. No one ever ceases to be part of the culture from which they came, save for infants who are adopted and taken to another country shortly after birth. Immigrants add other layers to their identity, other "selves," and depending on age, personality, and circumstances, these layers or "selves" assume all sorts of different configurations in each individual.
I try to deal with this complexity in my daily life, and with the fact that one's identity is always fluid in exile, and that there are times when the different selves converge or collide. Immigrants know first-hand that the "I" or "me" is not simple or uniform; it is, rather, a riotous mess.
So, to finally answer the question point blank: I have a complex identity. Of course, I'm American. Of course, I'm Cuban. Of course, I'm Cuban-American. I'm also Spanish and European, for my maternal grandmother and her family were immigrants from Spain. She – and my parents and other relatives – always reminded me of the fact that I was not really Cuban, but a displaced European with various identities.
All I know is that my grandmother’s folks were Catalan. My father’s side is indescribable. I surmise that, since their Cuban roots date back to the 17th century, they may have been Jewish conversos, or perhaps Gallegos, or Basques, who knows.
This may partly explain my keen interest in European history and culture. The fact that I married the daughter of a Swedish immigrant takes me to Europe constantly, which oddly feels like home, and, at the very same time, like a double exile. Who knows whether a couple of evil invading Norsemen, in search of pillage and plunder, may have settled in Iberia in the 10th century? Maybe there’s some Viking in me, too.
I am still a refugee, too, and will continue to be one until Castrolandia ceases to exist. My parents and I came to the United States to escape from a nightmarish existence. As long as my place of birth remains enslaved by an oppressive totalitarian regime and the nightmare continues, I will not return; therefore I will remain a refugee.
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I’m often asked about difficulties I encountered upon arrival in the USA.
Getting rid of my accent is one. It’s more pronounced when I’m tired and/or have had enough to drink. It’s there, somewhat hidden, but there, nevertheless. On the other hand, I take pride in the disbelief exhibited by American acquaintances when they learn I’m Cuban born and raised.
Another great difficulty that I and every Cuban exile face is our constant encounter with ignorance about Cuba, and all of the monumentally stupid stereotypes that dominate American thinking about Cuba, pre- and post-Castro.
Having to contend with people, who see Cubans as some sort of backward primitive from an inferior culture, is just the tip of the iceberg. I encountered the very source of this ignorance in my school textbooks, all of which were filled with incorrect and very negatively-biased information about Cuba and Latin America in general. So, it is not really a question about ignorance that stems from lack of information, but rather of ignorance derived from false information, which keeps being drummed into young minds.
Many Americans still harbor all sorts of prejudices toward "Hispanics" because their exposure to the full complexity of the Hispanic world is limited and misinformed. Most natural-born Americans aren't really aware of the fact that their culture has constructed an artificial category – "Hispanic” – which is extremely broad and a gross distortion of reality.
Chief among the errors committed by Americans is that of conceiving of "Hispanic" as a race, or of all "Hispanics" as the same, more or less, despite the fact that there are 18 different Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America, each with their own particular ethnic mixture and culture. In addition, there is one European country in which Spanish is the official language, but in which other languages are also spoken.
Whenever I am confronted with any document or news piece in which "Hispanic" is conceived of as a "race," my head feels as if it's going to explode, for that is so totally wrong. Whenever this happens, I am also reminded of the one time that the mother of one of my high school friends expressed her prejudices openly, saying, with a sigh of relief, "oh, but you look just like all the other boys," when she first met me.
And that is just one such incident, though especially poignant; I've lost count of how many times I've been told that I don't look like a Cuban. And it's not just Americans who harbor these prejudices. I’ve encountered similar comments from Northern Europeans as well.
Part 2 coming up next week.