Thursday, October 25, 2007

A Cuban at Heart

Someone must go first. As much as I hesitate to take the plunge, I hope and pray it is only me who will be left holding the nose, reader please be kind.

I would start at the beginning, growing up in South Florida in the years when Hialeah Race Track was an incredible array of pink flamingos and water gardens covered with gigantic water lilies. The smell of tobacco and wood in the bar filled the air as I would cling to my father's hand, staring wide eyed at the glass encased saddles of champions, and larger than life pictures of jockeys known around the world. Alas, the rest of my Hialeah neighborhood was not so glamorous as those memorable visits on family days to the track, every house on the block much like the one next to it. The smell of fresh tar clung to the blue air, and white sand was piled over hopeful blades of lawn above which sat shiny new swing sets. There were open air 7-11's, their dirty aisles littered with water bugs measuring at least 4 inches, mind you, not your common run of the mill cockroach.

What fun I had, finally with other children, so different from the little duplex down in Miami Shores with no one to play with. I ran carefree and barefoot everywhere, picking up cruel burr stickers, splinters in my feet, and bringing home dead duck eggs from nearby lakes. I brought home my first dog, a beautiful collie that was running on the streets as freely as I.

I was maybe no more than maybe five years old when asked my mother, what does spic mean? She told me not to worry, that even though she was Spanish, we were not from Puerto Rico. And besides, my father was not Spanish at all. So that would make me like every other American child born in Florida. Si? Do you understand? But in time, I came to understand all too well that although the other children played with me, when it came time to introduce me to their mothers and fathers, it was accompanied by the inevitable, she's the Spanish girl, see her earrings, they would explain. At first there would be silence, some whispers, this usually followed by kind offers of dinner, no doubt precipitated by one glance at my small, bony frame. Any silly fight would result in me running for my life while half the block yelled slurs.

I blamed my rejection on my mother. When my mother would cook pastelles my friendenemies would run out of my house gagging. For the longest time I believed this was why my mother was never spoken to very much at most school, or PTA functions. But there was a lot the smell of the pastelles could not explain. It could not explain my teachers' mispronouncing my name from the beginning, starting a snickering and taunting that was to continue for years. The pastelles did not explain why when Kennedy launched the Bay of Pigs the other children in school blamed me for the ruckus. Who was Castro anyway? In time I understood all too well, I was being punished for being the child of a Spanish mother, the only one such child in all of Hialeah. I would become sick to my stomach before going to school, and prayed to God that I would somehow fit in to be an American like everyone else.

But still there were perks. When my mother's family visited the house came alive with the chatter of parrots even as I struggled to understand. Some were from Spain like my mother, some from Puerto Rico, some from Colombia. Everyone had wine at the table, even us kids, and the smell of roasted pork filled the house at Christmas and Three Kings Day. My mother loved pork more than she loved us, and to this day I have never tasted anything like that first bite of hard crisped skin that could break off a tooth if you weren't careful. Of course there were other perks, like my older cousins who taught me to dance latin style, and trained me in the fine art of applying black eyeliner at age ten, as well as how to put my hair in a exotic french twist. And when the other Hialeah kids were vacationing in the boring mountains of upstate New York, I was navigating around beggars in the streets of Barranquilla, rolling down a sand dune at Cartagena. I eventually came to know downtown old San Juan like I knew the back of my hand.

But in Hialeah, as I got older things got worse, before they got better. In junior high I was not just taunted, but threatened. So I carried a knife, a butter knife stolen from the kitchen drawer. I only showed my butter knife once and before I could protest my mother enrolled me in a Catholic school run by nuns on the other side of town. Much to my astonishment there were many other Spanish girls in my freshman class, in fact almost the entire school was Cuban. My new friends were now Cuban, and before long I learned some Spanglish, feeling I was almost Cuban.

In time, even the neighborhood I grew up in, slowly but surely changed so that I was no longer the only Spanish kid on the block. As the Cubans immigrated, I had my revenge on every cruel taunter that had tortured me for years. With the Cubans' freedom came my own.

The Cuban people opened the gate, and with them came the flux of the South American nations, the Argentinians, the Peruvians, the Colombians, the Panamanians, the El Salvadorians, the Venezuelans....everyone from everywhere else that makes up South Florida. So much has changed from those days I ran for my life. There are Sedanos where there were once Kwik Checks, Cuban bakeries with cakes so sweet they ooze, and coffee shops smaller than my closet. The barren Hialeah ranch homes of yesteryear have evolved into elaborate concrete jungles, thick rolled roofs, and intricate iron gates, with statues of the Virgin in the front yard, complete with bricked pits to roast whole pigs in the back yard on Christmas Eve. My mother would have cried with delight if she were still alive to see.

As for me, I am no longer a child scorned and rejected for being different. My culture confusion firmly behind me, I can chant along with my favorite radio station as it proclaims, Yo soy Latino, and proud.


Jonathan said...

If you were really a cubana you'd cook us black beans for dinner every night! But since your not, you cook couscous... Now what type of south respecting latina cubana banana woman would do such things?? No couscous!!! Tu no eres latina antes vous nao cocina couscous!! Damn I can't write haha Very nice page mom... now add some important political events!

XKMan said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
XKMan said...

Interesting read; I grew up in n. Miami; all homes looked the same too.