The Roots of My Cuban Identity

THERE is a name for people who must flee the country of their birth. It is exile. At age five, that is what I was. But in my case it was even more complicated, since the place to which I fled was also, in a way, already my own country. I was born in Havana, Cuba. I grew up surrounded by my father's Cuban family and friends. Thus, I was Cuban, spoke fluent Spanish, and began my life absorbing the tropical Latin culture of this Caribbean island. But I was also the daughter of my mother, an Irish Bostonian born and bred. It was in this American side of my family that I would find myself immersed when Cuba's revolution forced our family to pack up and leave our home and former lives behind.

For those of us uprooted at a young age from the country of our birth, life becomes a search. Throughout childhood, and maybe all our lives, we look for a way to belong again - a way to feel at home in the old familiar way in our adopted homes. But we want so much to be accepted that we may deny everything in our past that makes us different. Unless we keep alive that part of ourselves that is an exile in America, we will never fully know who we are.

If we're lucky, there will be someone in our lives to replant the seed of our lost identity. It may be a parent or a relative who speaks the language or cooks the food or tells the stories of our past - someone who maintains the traditions. My childhood friend, Anita, had a Christmas tree each year decorated with Swedish flags and candles from her parents' faraway homeland. Anita never doubted she was Swedish and told everybody so.

In my case, it was harder to keep alive that Cuban part of me. My mother, being thoroughly American, couldn't maintain a Cuban presence once we'd been transplanted. My father, an idealist with democratic hopes for Cuba, had been caught fighting Castro's communism and was executed. He would never join us in this new place. His absence, like a vacuum, seemed to suck out of me all memory of my first five years and all desire to look for clues.

AFTER two years in Boston, we moved to south Florida. Older now, I had apparently made the transition by becoming thoroughly American, abandoning any Cuban traits and memories. As I continued to grow up I always identified myself, when asked, as an American, and I changed the pronunciation of my exotic last name to make it as tame as possible for my school friends.

I was glad we lived far enough from Little Havana in downtown Miami to avoid the strong doses of Cuban food (I hated onions and garlic), the Spanish language (they spoke so fast and loud), and the whole Latin atmosphere of strong perfume and frequent hugs where I felt awkward and out of place.

Yet even while soaking up the suburban milieu of Anglo North Miami Beach, I was not really feeling genuine there either. As I competed in school spelling bees or pledged allegiance to the flag or ate Thanksgiving turkey with my American relatives, a part of me was wrong there too. It often seemed that I was neither Cuban nor American. There was no way to reconcile the two, especially as long as my Cuban identity remained dormant and unexpressed.

And then my Cuban grandparents, also exiles who had lost everything, moved to our neighborhood. Though hesitant at first, I went constantly to their house and reestablished the bonds we had known from my first week of life. It had been in their Cuban home that I had lived with my parents those first five years of life. Within the confines of their large stucco and ceramic tiled home in Havana I had been ``La Princesa'' and in their courtyard I had played with little Cuban friends and with 40 parakeets who lived in a huge cage. Now, five years later, my grandparents and I were back together.

From age 10 until I left for college, my grandmother, Abuela, and I spent hours together, forging a bond that to this day, 25 years later, has made us the best of friends and more. My grandmother became for me, not just extended family, but also a living reminder of a country that was traumatically torn from my grasp and which I have yet to see again. Thanks to her, I can see Cuba in my mind's eye because of hundreds of things she said and did. This vision is, of course, highly personal. Nevertheless, it is precious to me - a fragile identity that might never have come alive if she hadn't reawakened and nurtured it.

The way to her house was easy, and she was always there happy to see me. I would walk down back alleys overgrown with hibiscus and shaded by the fronds of tall palms. Her small yard was luxuriant with papayas she had lovingly grown from seed, with staghorn ferns as big as any trophy head, with pineapple plants, vegetables, mango and grapefruit trees, with purple bougainvillea and oleander flowers. She had lost her Havana villa and replaced it with a small, rented bungalow in a suburban neighborhood, but to me it always seemed like paradise.

Inside, the house was all cheerful confusion, except in my grandfather's room, which was immaculate. Having grown up with servants, she was too old to learn neat domesticity, much to his dismay. Bureaus overflowed with photographs and tangled jewelry and fat, dusty powderpuffs. The couch was covered with half-finished sewing projects, and if ever she had bought Comet, she didn't have time to use it.

But she loved to cook elaborate feasts of arroz con pollo (roast pork with garlic and onions), baccalao a la vizcaina (codfish stew), and other Cuban delicacies. Before long, I was eating the dreaded Cuban food and liking it. The house reeked of garlic and onions at every mealtime.

Everything we ate together we relished exuberantly, from the mango oozing sweet juice down our wrists to the salty, crisp banana chips fried in oil. For my petite and plump grandmother, preparing food and eating it with others was one of her greatest joys. A day would not go by without her favorite observation, ``I'm so weak. I have to sit down and eat a little something.'' ``It's because you're a growing girl, Abuela,'' I would say and we would laugh.

In reality, she probably ate so much in order to have the energy for her myriad projects that were always in progress. My grandmother would also say several times a day, ``You won't believe me, but I haven't stopped all day. I have so much to do.'' And she always did.

While I was there I would follow her along from project to project, a sort of learn-as-you-go school of life where the joy was in creating. When we weren't cooking or eating, we might be sewing clothes or crocheting shawls, making paper roses, or sketching still-life grapefruit and mangoes in a bowl. The house was full of fabric scraps, patterns, pins, and paints. And on the walls hung paintings that showed off her true artistic talent.

As a young woman my grandmother had been trained to be a painter. While her father was the Cuban diplomatic minister in Washington, D.C., she had been able to take advantage of art school and museums. She became competent artistically.

All her life she painted, and in Florida, along with portraits of neighborhood children, she painted remembered scenes of Cuba, such as bright orange flamboyant trees whose blooms seemed to burst into flame against a clear blue sky. Under her brush, the Latin vibrancy would came out in color and form. It was the way she was able to hold onto the past she had loved and transform her pain. Her paintings never sold because she gave them all away to friends and family, so that in homes across the country hang Graciela Rivera Torroella's visual legacy.

For me, the best times of all were spent merely talking incessantly and laughing about silly things. When I was with my grandmother, the shy, slightly melancholy child who didn't quite fit in changed. Maybe it was her childlike exuberance in all the simple things of life that drew me out of my shell. Or maybe it was the wild hilarity that we shared when we teased my proper grandfather by hiding his false teeth or bouncing on his bed as he tried to rest until he too would start to laugh.

When my grandmother laughed, she shrieked and both of us would be wiping eyes wet with joyous tears. Even in the face of hardship or disaster, my grandmother could laugh - something I've never forgotten when things have gotten tough. For example, one Christmas Eve, with a house full of relatives and guests, she dropped the roast pork as she was carrying it to the table.

We all watched speechless as my grandmother bent double in gales of laughter, while grease and onions slithered across the floor. Then she picked up the ten pound roast and proceeded calmly to the table.

As the years passed, my identity as Cuban imperceptibly took root. Unselfconsciously, I was identifying with the Cuban culture that was my heritage and my father's passion.

With my grandmother I took trips downtown to Little Havana and learned how to enjoy visiting her old friends from Cuba and shopping in stores where signs stated ironically, ``Here we speak English.'' I also heard her exotic stories of what life had been like in Cuba and of the people I might have known if we had lived there still.

I was no longer embarrassed to say, when asked, ``I'm American and Cuban'' and feel proud. In looks and speech and mannerisms I seemed Anglo - a fair-skinned, green-eyed woman who spoke Spanish a bit too clearly and was awkward in a crowd of other Cubans. But in my heart I heard the roar of an ocean and knew I would always want to return to the country of my birth.

My grandmother and I are separated now by a thousand miles. At least the telephone allows us to stay in touch, to talk about everyday things, to remember past exploits, and to laugh. And last month, when my daughter and I made the long trip to see her, I stood transfixed one evening at the doorway of her bedroom. There, sitting on the bed, was my shy five-year-old chatting happily with her great-grandmother, now 94. In one short week, they had become intimate. The sweet sad shadows of the past were all around me. As I stood there, I mourned the little time left to us. Yet I marveled at the richness that she, in her exiled poverty, had bequeathed to me.

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