Author: nborges24

Language Arts department chair at Miami Lakes Educational Center. I teach English I, Journalism and AP Literature. Adviser to the school newspaper -- The Harbinger -- www.mlecharbinger.com as well as the school yearbook, Alpha & Omega. https://www.linkedin.com/in/neydaborges

Breaking Through

Sun rays break through the storm clouds on Miami’s Turnpike

No matter how dark the skies, the sun always, eventually, breaks through.

It was a gloomy, overcast day. There have been many such days lately, both figuratively and literally. But, on the road, the rays of light broke through the wall of clouds and — as gushingly melodramatic as it sounds — I saw an allegory.

Bridal Showers Remain A Rite Of Passage Cuban Wives, Mothers Share

I recently attended a bridal shower, one of those consequences that I face as a result of accumulating too much bad karma. I am only half kidding. There’s just something awful about one hundred or so women in one room. There’s only so much gossip, small talk and platitudes that I can take.

mimosa

Bridal showers may seem frivolous; but, it is an opportunity for women to celebrate and share.

Anyway, to make matters worse I was assigned a seat in an “older” table. So apparently I no longer quite fit in with the young, hip crowd, making me all the more eager for the mimosas – the only respectable alcoholic beverage that one can consume at 11 in the morning while surrounded with flower arrangements and petit fours.

So at my table of mothers and grandmothers, working moms and homemakers, talk was pleasant. They discussed the bride, the décor, recently failed marriages, and the best recipes for torrejas, the Cuban version of French toast.

Then, as is usually the case in any and all gatherings involving Cuban exiles, it wasn’t long before the conversation turned to politics and talk of the old country. Ever since I can remember, there was not one party or social event, in my family or in any of my friends’ families, which did not involve at least one long and heated discussion about Cuban politics. Most interesting of all is that this seems to be an experience that is largely unique to my generation.

I was born here in the United States, specifically in South Florida. My parents’ generation struggled to begin anew and assimilate into a new culture. That’s part of being a hyphenated American. And I am definitely hyphenated, a part of a generation who is American, but still has an affinity for a land, a country, a culture that we never knew and no longer exists. I am a hybrid, which sometimes feels more like a violent clash, of cultures.

And so this environment of passionate debates about policy and past battles, errors and injustices, one that I am so accustomed to, is something that I don’t think that my generation’s children will hear much about, not to mention the generations that follow.

But today, at this bridal shower, the conversation was different. Not only was the volume significantly lower, but it also crossed a few invisible borders in the Cuban-American community. There are several unspoken, but definitive, boundaries that exist between exiles – mostly determined by the time period in which they emigrated to the U.S.

This conversation involved various generations of exiles. These women, of various ages and socio-economic backgrounds, arrived here at different times, ranging from the late sixties to the mid-nineties.

And so their views and experiences varied.
But the biggest difference between this discussion, and the countless others I’d heard throughout my lifetime, was the content. Being a female only event, the focus of the discussion was different. Rather than discussing politicians, dictators and ideology, the conversation revolved around the home and family. It had more to do with what one mother called a “lack of everyday needs.”

As the conversation evolved, I was struck – not only by the tragedy that is Communist Cuba – but by the fundamental difference between men and women, between the fighters, hunters and gatherers and the nurturers.

It isn’t that women do not care about politics. It is not that they do not appreciate the importance of a free press or that they don’t also feel oppressed. It’s that, for the most part, a mother’s primary concern is her family. So what she tries to do is make life as normal as possible. So, just like June Cleaver and Donna Reed baked cookies for their TV families, Cuban mothers bake flan. When they could no longer get eggs or milk, then they invented new desserts and new ways of making them.

When women could not go out to buy their children clothes, then they simply made them. When there was a shortage of fabric, then they took apart their own dresses, skirts and blouses to sew new outfits for their daughters.

Rather than discussing the suppression of free speech or the lack of freedom, the talk was about the rationing of food and the creativity required to bake sweets for one’s family when there is a lack of materials to do so. It was about mixing chicharo (split peas) with coffee beans before grinding so that the cafecito, a staple of Cuban culture, will last longer. The conversation was about the sadness that comes from not having enough fabric to sew a decorative – and therefore frivolous – bow onto your little girl’s dress.

One of the women said, “Life here in the United States isn’t easy, but there is hope. And in Cuba,” she said, “there is nothing to hope for.” And that made me feel sadder and yet, also more optimistic, than anything I’ve heard in a long while. 

And maybe this is really what bridal showers should be. Maybe if we simply look past the seeming frivolity, if we look past the gossip and triteness, maybe there is something to be said for seeking the wisdom of older women. Maybe there is courage in dressing up and putting on our best face and participating in rituals, traditions and events. Maybe in this way, we shower the bride not only with presents and unsolicited advice, but most importantly, with lessons of what it means to be a wife and mother.

Maybe. But, honestly, I am still grateful for the mimosas.

Originally published in Oct, 2013 on WLRN: http://wlrn.org/post/why-bridal-showers-remain-rite-passage-cuban-wives-mothers

The Power of Words and Feelings: Semantics of Cuban Policy

There is comfort in the cold objectivity of numbers.  Numbers are honest, stoic.  The number 53 is a value.  It can be measured, counted, defined.  But, add words and everything changes, becomes tainted with feelings.

Add to that 53: years of hostility between the U.S. and Cuba, 53 years of an economic embargo, sanctions and severed diplomatic relations, and it awakens thoughts, opinions, anger, sadness. Words matter. Unlike numbers, words mean far more than their definition. They carry emotional baggage. cuban - american flags

So when President Obama announced that he would “begin to normalize relations between our two countries,” he evoked a rapid response: shock, happiness, rage, disappointment, hope. Immediately, analysts, politicos and journalists raced to take the public’s pulse.  And, it seems that by and large the public supports the President on this.

But in Miami, it is more complicated.  Here people carry deep wounds, trauma.

My parents, like many Miami Cubans, are exiles. My father was a political prisoner that spent 20 years in a Cuban gulag.  Both of my grandfathers were also political prisoners.  One of them was executed by firing squad.

These stories are not uncommon here. And it is why there is such a vast division in public opinion.

The embargo has not succeeded in toppling the Castro regime.  It has not forced the brothers out of power.  It has not brought a move towards democracy and free press on the island.

It has succeeded, however, in providing a perfect scapegoat.

Rather than accept that the country’s poverty is due to their failed policies, they blame the U.S. for all its people’s woes. It is because of the “blockade,” as the Castros call it, that there are food shortages.  It is because of the “blockade,” they say, that medicine – ranging from Tylenol to prescription drugs – and reading glasses and bandages have to be sent to Cuba from family members living abroad.

However, the U.S. does – in fact – do business with Cuba, as does Canada and much of Europe.  According to the Census, the U.S. has exported more than $1.5 billion in goods to the island in the last five years. And Cubans receive upwards of $2 billion per year in remittances.  Obviously money does, in fact, flow into Cuba.  And tourists flood the island and stay in big hotels from which actual Cubans are banned.

I can understand the argument for easing economic restrictions.  Why shouldn’t American companies be allowed to invest?  Why, if other Western companies and banks are already there, keep a policy in place that is only partially enforced anyway?

I also understand the counter argument.  A change in diplomatic relations may not make much of a difference in the systematic oppression and human rights violations typical in Cuba.  Today, the Cuban government arrested, detained and harassed dissidents to prevent them from speaking at a rally, to prevent them from sharing their thoughts on what the future of Cuba should be.  Opponents argue that only the Castro government will benefit from increased trade.

And that may be true; but, we do business with plenty of human rights abusers around the world.  We even trade with countries that are, at least according to public discourse, our enemies.

In short, I am conflicted.  I understand the logic, like I understand numbers.  Hopefully, the flow of people and ideas and money into Havana will – eventually – bring about change.  This change will not be the result of American tourists sipping Cuba Libres while on lounge chairs on Varadero Beach.  If it comes, it will be as a result of Cubans that no longer believe that the non-existent U.S. ‘blockade’ of the island is the cause of all their woes.

This is something that Fidel Castro always feared.  It is why he worked hard to keep the embargo in place.  Whenever an American President moved to ease restrictions, like both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton did, Castro swiftly sabotaged those actions.

But still, there is the problem of words.

My family were exiles, not just immigrants.  They lost everything: their businesses and careers, and not just material possessions, not only money or land; they lost their home, their sense of belonging.  And that sense of loss, of displacement, never goes away.  It is something that we, the next generation, inherit.  It is a deep-seated sense that home is a place that no longer exists.

So when President Obama said that the U.S. would “normalize” relations. That word struck a chord. I felt dizzy.  Normalize: to bring (someone or something) back to a usual or expected state or condition.  Normal?  Now things will be normal?

And then again, that too was a play on words. He said normalize, but he can’t change much on his own. He can’t unilaterally lift the embargo. He has to with Congress to make these reforms.  That won’t be easy.

None of this is easy.

Logically I understand the data.  The embargo is a relic of the cold war.  There is money to be made in Cuba.  There is the opportunity to wield influence in the region now that Venezuela’s economy is imploding and Russia is dealing with its own sanctions.

So although many polls and media outlets reflect a generational chasm in opinions on thawing relations with Cuba, I venture to guess that those answers depend on the semantics of the questions these young people were asked.

I think the only honest answer is that we, the children of Cuban exiles, are torn.  I can’t quantify my feelings, because – unlike numbers and figures — emotions are difficult to define.

___________

featured in POLITICO’ Florida Playbook, July 2015

https://www.politico.com/tipsheets/florida-playbook/2015/07/poll-shows-bipartisan-senate-race-dogfight-candidate-mum-on-paramour-charge-pam-keith-on-pamela-bland-the-weekend-in-cuba-news-fl-bbq-police-strike-212543

Led to an interview with The Miami New Times:

https://www.miaminewtimes.com/news/a-cuban-american-writer-grapples-with-new-us-policy-family-legacy-of-pain-7786540

Miami’s Wynwood: Food, Art, Culture and — yes — Hipsters & Commercialization

Miami is the magic city because it is constantly changing, morphing, reinventing itself and attracting people who long to do the same, either because of political and/or economic strife and instability or because the sunshine, sand and surf lured them here. IMG_4008

The latest change to the landscape, as Miami — and its tastes — continue to grow up, is a concentration on art, culture and good food.  Ever since Art Basel first came to Miami Beach in 2002, art galleries, museums and public art installments have flourished throughout the city.

Nowhere is that more evident than Wynwood, the once blighted area north of Downtown Miami.  Today, it is a mecca to art lovers, tourists, and those eager to be a part of the latest trend.

Wynwood is one of those places that is thriving and suffering for the same reason: it’s the new hot spot.  And in Miami, when something becomes cool, it gets inundated.  That commercialization, some fear, will change what made the area special: it’s authenticity. (Watch: Wynwood, the Mecca of Art a short film that my students filmed and produced.)

That may be; but, as I walked the streets there today, as the first Basel tourists began to trickle into the city, I was happy to enjoy an amazing cup of Panther coffee, which roasts all of their beans in-house and brew coffee to order.  This attention to quality and detail produces an amazing product.  And Panther Coffee is well-known for their fair and responsible trade and sourcing practices.

IMG_4007IMG_4018No, this isn’t for everyone.  Plenty of people scoff at the long line, the cramped quarters.  Many will surely argue that coffee is coffee is coffee.  And I am certain that many of today’s patrons were there for the novelty, the hype, the cool factor.

But, so what?

Walking the streets, people were everywhere.  They were admiring the murals, photographing, and watching artists work, many of them with young children in tow.

So maybe Wynwood is a Hipster haven, and maybe it is incredibly ironic that this area that attracted artists specifically because it was affordable is now a hot piece of real estate that becomes more mainstream every day.  But it is home to great restaurants that focus on good, fresh and locally sourced foods.  There is art everywhere and people who just a few years ago avoided this part of Miami, now show it off to friends visiting from out of town.

So if the Hipsters change Miami for the better — forcing us to focus on art and culture, making us think a little more about ingredients — if only because it’s cool and trendy, I welcome them.

black and white  IMG_4011

Teenagers are selfish, we taught them to be

holidays

Black Friday now begins before Thanksgiving dinner is even over.

Teenagers are supposed to be self-centered.  As long as I can remember, and even before I was born, the stereotypical angsty teenager — the James Dean-like Rebel Without a Cause, the Breakfast Club, the mischievous too cool for rules Zack from Saved by the Bell – has been king.

And with good reason.

Teenagers are moody.  They are self-centered, bordering on narcissistic.  And a study published this summer claims that today’s teenagers are also more materialistic than any generation before them.

San Diego State University psychology professor Jean M. Twenge — along with co-author Tim Kasser, professor of psychology at Knox College published the study, using a sample of more than 355,000 high school students, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Although materialism began rising in the mid-1970s, the study claims that it is at historically high levels.

“Compared to previous generations, recent high school graduates are more likely to want lots of money and nice things, but less likely to say they’re willing to work hard to earn them,” said Twenge, who also authored the book Generation Me.

Why are they so superficial?  The better question is how could they not be?

For the first time, retailers are open on Thanksgiving. Social critics and grandmothers everywhere are fretting over the loss of family values and the rise of commercialism.  But that is short-sighted.

Yes, Christmas is earlier this year than ever.

Kmart aired their first Christmas advertisement in September.  Christmas ornaments decorated the mall in October.  Thanksgiving isn’t here yet, but pine trees already greet shoppers outside of home improvement stores.

Why?  A stubborn recession and the rise in online shopping hurt retailers’ bottom line.  And Christmas is big business.  It always has been.  From Coca-Cola’s Santa Claus to nutcrackers, advertisers know that Christmas sells.  So much so that in 1939 FDR moved Thanksgiving up a week to provide retailers with an extra week of shopping before Christmas.

In the movies, the holidays are about friends and family.  In our fondest memories, they usually are.  But, in reality, Christmas is about shopping.  People run out before dawn to partake in Black Friday madness.  This year they’ll work off the extra stuffing and pumpkin pie while weaving through crowds at their favorite store for some competitive shopping.

So, why are teenagers materialistic?  They learned it from watching us.  They’ve learned that the holidays are about presents.  They’ve learned to wait in line for hours, even days, to be the first to buy a video game console.  They’ve learned that despite a stubbornly high unemployment rate, Apple sold a record breaking 9 million new iPhone 6s on their first weekend alone. They’ve learned that things are important, that things will make them happy.

Adolescence is tough. Kids are under a lot of pressure – to get good grades, get into good schools, make friends, be cool – as they are trying to figure out who they are.  And we’ve taught them that the right pair of shoes and the perfect smartphone can help them do that.

The End of an Epoch, a World Without Film

Some of my happiest moments are caught on film. My childhood was one filled with the sound of 35mm film rewound — either manually or electronically — the slow, loud click of the shutter and the blinding flash, which was sometimes a magic cube, purchased separately, and attached to the camera. There was the excitement and mystery and anticipation of waiting to see what the photos looked like once they were developed.

Kodak film First, darkrooms across America disappeared as the Digital Revolution took hold. Kodak, once the giant that owned a monopoly on the memories that we keep, went bankrupt. And today, it’s hard to develop the moments we’ve seared on film.

That has slowly disappeared.

Photos are instantaneous. There’s no need to wait three days to find out that someone closed their eyes in the photo or whether the lighting was right or if we caught junior at the very moment he blew out his birthday candles. There are no limits to the number of photos we can snap or store. And sharing photos is easy now, just a text or a post away.

Although I love the convenience of digital, and I use my iPhone camera far more than my point and shoot or DSLR, there is something about film: some romance, or poignant emotional attachment. So, when I had film to develop, and had to call four different places to find someone who still develops film, and then found that my black and white exposures would have to go elsewhere, I was a little sad.

It’s the end of an epoch. And that is bittersweet.

I look ‘Different’? And other Lessons Learned

I read somewhere that more fugitives run to South Florida than anywhere else in the country. Apparently it has something to do with the weather. Since its genesis, people from everywhere have flocked to Miami searching for a new start amidst the ocean and palm trees and sunny skies.  It is a land of foreigners. In fact, there is such a fusion of cultures, ethnic backgrounds, and languages that no one, from anywhere, really stands out.

Growing up here, I had no idea how different Miami was from the rest of the world.  And I had no idea how different I was. 

I learned just how wrong I was a few years ago, while visiting Chicago. And, it wasn’t the absence of Spanish, that surprised me. It was how people reacted to — me. This was my first visit to the Midwest and, everywhere I went, people stared at me.

Chicago is a beautiful city; but, while visiting there, I realized just how far away Miami is -- from here, and everywhere.

f=”https://wordcountmiami.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/image.jpg”> Chicago is a beautiful city; but, while visiting there, I realized just how far away Miami is — from here, and everywhere.[/capt

This is not an exaggeration People STARED. And let me tell you, these were not the kind of stares that you enjoy. These weren’t, “Wow, look at her!” stares. To be fair, they didn’t seem like looks of utter fear and disgust either; but, they were STARES.

At first, I thought that I was being paranoid. I tried to ignore it. But when people turn around and look at you, whisper to one another, and then turn and stare some more, it is difficult to ignore.

I became incredibly self-conscious. Obviously it does not help that I’m a woman. Immediately that female disease – insecurity, you know, that disorder that is a result of producing estrogen – rears it’s ugly head. So I wonder, did I spill something on myself? Am I mismatching? Am I wearing something completely unstylish? Is my fly open? I mean, WHAT is it?

I told myself that it was just my imagination. People weren’t staring; I was just being too sensitive.

Then one night, I’d had enough. At the theater, a lady sitting in the row in front of us saw me, said something to the man that she was with and they both turned to look. This was definitely not my imagination. So I finally ask my husband, I try to phrase this question just right because I have also been guilty of that aforementioned female disease — asking “does this make me look fat” perhaps 100 times too many – if he’d noticed that people had looked at me funny.

“Oh yeah,” he replied without hesitation. “They’ve looked at you since we got here. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to make you self conscious.” Gee, thanks. “You probably just look different to them. They can’t tell where you’re from.”

I look different? Really? I’d never thought that I looked “different.” Then it hit me. I’m in the Midwest. I look different than most of the people there.  Chicago has a large Hispanic population. But, few of them live downtown.  Like many major cities, it is expensive to live in the urban core, where restaurants, theaters, department stores and companies abound.  And, like throughout the country, there is a wealth gap between minorities and White Americans.

So, on Chicago’s Miraculous Mile, there very well may be few Hispanics.  And although the Hispanic population continues to soar throughout the country, many Americans — particularly Midwestern tourists from Indiana and Wisconsin — imagine that we all look the same.  And, apparently, I don’t fit that image.

It all made sense. I didn’t have mucus hanging from my nose, I hadn’t sprouted a pimple the size of Mount Everest, and I wasn’t wearing two different styles of shoes. People in downtown Chicago had just never seen someone who looked like me.

There is a lesson in this.

There is certainly something to learn here about diversity, race and ethnicity.  There is, I’m sure, a lot to discuss about social stratification, or about the struggles foreignness and belonging.

But, right now, I guess I’m just glad that I’m home with all the other exotic looking exiles, immigrants and wanderers.  Even if there are fugitives among us.

Miami: sun, palm trees & embracing differences

My classroom doubles as a newsroom, work space, photo studio and home away from home.

It is the place where the kids brainstorm, write essays & articles, and — every once in a while — solve a few life crises.

This was one of those days. It was way after school and the editors were completing a deadline. But, that frenzy had subsided and the conversation had changed. Their tone was different. The volume was lower and the girls looked worried.

My girls, and their families, are from all over the world. In Miami, that's the norm.

My girls, and their families, are from all over the world. In Miami, that’s the norm.

Placing my counselor hat on, I ask what is wrong. Iqra’s eyes were wide and her face was folded into the saddest frown I’d ever seen. Gaby seemed just as dejected.

There really is no place like Miami.  At least that was the conclusion that a small group of my graduating seniors came to after visiting colleges across the country.

Many city-dwelling metropolitan teenagers find the rural areas where many of our country’s universities are located kind of, well, quiet.  But, it wasn’t the lights or the noise or the late-night entertainment that they were referring to.

“I’ve never felt like a minority before,” said Iqra, who is of Pakistani descent who is a minority even in South Florida.

“Apparently, I have a ‘Miami Girl’ accent,” said another, who commented that people who spoke in a Southern drawl thought that she “talked funny.”

The kids are actually right.  Miami is different.  Minorities make up the majority in Miami-Dade where, according to the Census, only 16 percent of the population is White, non-Hispanic.

This is very different from the racial and ethnic make-up of the rest of the country, and even from the rest of Florida, where Whites make up 63.4 and 57.5 percent of the population, respectively. And college enrollment rates are similar.  In 2010, 61 percent of college students were White.

The United States has always been diverse.  For hundreds of years, people travelled here to begin new lives.  And, the newest groups to arrive always struggled to adapt, fit in and overcome their ‘otherness.’

But these kids are different because they never knew that they were different.  They were born and raised in South Florida, where asking someone where they are from is the natural follow-up question to “what’s your name?”

They grew up in a place where different was normal — where different colors, languages and dialects made up the tapestry of their experiences.  These kids grew up in South Florida, listening to rock and salsa and hip-hop and reggae and reggaeton, where hijabs are almost as common as headbands, where a pot luck lunch means an international buffet and a trip to the beach meant meeting tourists from around the world.

So adapting to college life is going to be difficult for them.  It is difficult for everyone.  It is that moment where kids take that big grown-up step into the world and try to make it on their own.  Any kid packing their bags to move into a college dorm for the first time can attest to the excitement, anxiety and absolute fear that they feel.

This is only natural.  They are still young enough to remember their teen identity crises – scarred by memories of acne, braces, first heartbreaks and bad haircuts.  Now they find themselves in a whole other struggle.  Now these kids find themselves at the bottom of the social order again.  College freshmen — feeling the pressure to succeed, to select the right college major, to build a life for themselves, while learning to balance their social lives — which can be a pretty big challenge at some of these schools.

But these kids have a little extra on their plate.  Not only are they navigating through the regular rites of passage, they face another mini identity crisis.  Each of these kids was born here.  They never felt like anything other than American.  Now they’ve discovered that, in other places, many people don’t see them that way.

On their recent trips, some of my students found themselves reluctant ambassadors of a culture that they, second or third generation Americans, are only partially aware of.  They may find themselves explaining that not all Hispanics are Mexican, not all Asians are Chinese and not everyone in Miami is a “Cocaine Cowboy.”

They found that it’s not just their mothers’ home cooking that they’ll miss, not just the weather and the beach and the palm trees, but also the amalgam of culture that makes up their home.  What they found was that, as my student surmised, is that there really is no place like Miami.

 

 

Teachers Collect Moments

“Teachers get paid with love.”

I read that somewhere — maybe on a bumper sticker or poster — when I first started teaching. That turned out to be the truest statement I read that year. My first days of teaching were tumultuous. I juggled grading, lecturing, parent conferences and student crises that ranged from broken hearts to broken homes. I worked nonstop: at school, during lunch and at home.

And I loved it.

IMG_0117.JPG

Every teacher that I know collects notes, letters and trinkets that remind us why we get up and go to work each morning. These are the treasures that remind us that — despite changing standards and countless challenges — we can make a difference.

As the year came to an end, and the thank you letters and gifts — sketches, paintings, student-made figurines to place on my desk — my mentor, Mrs. Lawrence, gave me a box. “Put these in here. You’ll need this, especially on the bad days.”

And on days like today — when the weight of new standards, grades, tests, counseling, coaching, and all the responsibilities that we balance seem too heavy — I open that box. These are the moments that teachers collect.