I used to be hyphenated. Many of us were. I was considered a Cuban-American. Others might have been African-American or Mexican-American. But now, the grammatical rule is to drop the hyphen. So now, I am a Cuban American. This may seem of little consequence, but it isn’t. The words were hyphenated because the first word modifies the second. In other words, what type of American was I? Well, a Cuban one, or a Hispanic one, or a Chinese one, or African, etc. But, people did not like being “hyphenated Americans.” So now, both words stand alone. Both are nouns. Both are equal.
This is interesting in today’s climate, where who we are and where we live is increasingly important for polls, voter registration drives and purges and political activism. I thought about this after a recent trip. When on vacation, it’s common to be asked where you’re from; it’s the most polite way to begin a conversation. While sitting with a group of tourists, we engaged in just this kind of small talk. When asked, most people name the state in which they live. There were visitors from around the country – Texas, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, etc. And obviously, there were plenty of people from Florida. Now here is where it gets interesting. When asked, people who lived in South Florida replied that they were from Miami, whereas people from other parts of the state simply said Florida. I wondered why. I don’t think that this is a conscious choice. I don’t think that people harbor any ill feelings towards the Sunshine State. At least I don’t. I thought about it and realized that whenever the question comes up in casual small talk, I too answer Miami. I’ve never even thought about why or even realized that it was different. So, why don’t people in say, Orlando, one of the state’s largest cities volunteer their city of residence? And why do South Floridians see themselves more as Miamians than Floridians? Are we different? Could there be something in our collective unconscious that leads us to categorize ourselves? What about others? Have they also realized that we do this? Do they also see us as Miamians and not Floridians? I remembered a visit to an art gallery in Sausalito, California the docent, asked the typical ice breaker question and when I said Miami she replied, “Oh how nice, from Miami; or, should I say Meee-ah-meee?” in her best attempt at a Cuban accent.
Okay, so maybe we are different. I contemplated this again the other day while watching reruns of No Reservations. Anthony Bourdain told one of the chefs that he visited that he considered himself a New Yorker first, an American second. Interesting. So there is something to this. We do naturally identify with where we live or, at least, some of us do. Miami: the Magic City, or a “third world country” as Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo called it, a diverse multicultural melting pot or a banana republic? It depends on who you ask. Growing up in Miami I never felt different. In fact, I never felt like anything other than an American. Not a hyphenated American, not a compound noun American, but simply American. Although my culture, heritage and background play a huge part in who I am, English is the language that I speak most, the one that I feel most comfortable with. It’s the language that I speak with my friends; it’s the language that I think in. So, it’s usually the language that I choose for entertainment (television, movies, music). I am not an arrepentida, a phrase that Cubans use to describe people who are ashamed of, and therefore reject and deny their culture, but my thoughts and beliefs are a product of growing up in the United States. And, growing up in Miami, I heard people speaking English, Spanish, Portuguese, Creole, Patuá, and countless languages and dialects. I had friends of all different cultural, ethnic and racial backgrounds. I was used to people of all shades and colors, and I thought nothing of it. I thought that this was normal. I always believed that Americans were people who left behind their old lives to begin anew, like my parents who emigrated to the US and worked to build new, successful lives. It is why I have always believed in the possibility of achieving the American Dream. My mother was only 19 when she arrived. She worked hard, went to school and is financially and professionally successful. For over 20 years she has worked in the business world and handled clients living around the world, and not just the Spanish speaking world, but throughout the world. Yet when she called a 1-800 number for help trouble shooting her computer, an operator in Tennessee was rude to her and complained that my mother’s accent was too thick. Apparently, not considering that, she too, had an accent and that my mother found her Southern drawl difficult to understand.
And there was the time in high school when a classmate who lived in Pembroke Pines was appalled that there was a Sedanos under construction in his neighborhood because, he said, it meant that “they,” presumably Cubans, were now moving north. But these incidents were always few and far between, so it was easy to forget them. As offensive as they were, I never thought that the “they” included me. I never had any doubt that others also thought of me as American. But maybe that’s simply because I have always lived in Miami where being American has more to do with living here and believing in American ideals — pursuing life, liberty and happiness, complaining about politics and government because we pay attention to it and feel that it’s within our power to change it, wondering how tax dollars are spent and hoping that our children and grandchildren will be better off than we are. Maybe if I had grown up somewhere else, somewhere where speaking with an accent is equated with stupidity, or where Americans only come in one shade, size and shape, maybe then I would feel differently.
Maybe we still haven’t let go of that hyphen. Maybe we still do need to explain what type of citizens we are. If that’s true, then I really am a Miamian.
posted on WLRN in September, 2013: http://bit.ly/UbfbYo