Only In Miami

Voting Makes Me Nervous, Excited, Anxious

Election Day is exciting. It’s a ritual, trying to avoid eye contact and scurry past all of the politicians, campaign workers and people camped outside trying to convince people which way to vote.

There’s always an energy that almost emanates from the precinct. People stand in line – sometimes in long lines – confident, proud, and determined to contribute to the democratic experiment.

I am always nervous. I check for my license and voter’s registration several times before leaving the house. I carry an extra photo ID, extra pens, a hand-written list of how I plan to vote.

When I finally get to the voting booth, alone with my ballot, my heart races a little. I take a deep breath, absorb the gravity of the moment, and prepare to fill in my choices.

Politics has always been emotional: heated, partisan, negative; but, today’s political climate is so much worse, so much uglier, polarizing, violent.

That’s the backdrop of today’s vote: the weight I feel on my shoulders as I try to decide which candidate is best equipped to deal with our current reality, the pressure I feel trying navigate through the twelve confusing, complicated amendments, county and city referendums.

I have done my research. I read the newspaper, visited websites, thought through the options, talked them over.

And still, as i bubble in my choices, I’m nervous.

I finish, review my ballot, assuring that the bubbles are shaded in completely, that I’ve answered each question, that I selected the correct candidates. This too is, perhaps obsessive, trauma leftover from the “hanging chad” presidential election in 2000.

Then I feed my ballot into a machine — and wait.

I wonder, does everyone feel this kind of anxiety, excitement, pressure? If they do, they don’t talk about it.

Maybe it is just me, my own baggage – a first-generation American, the child of Cuban exiles that left everything behind in search of freedom and opportunity.

My father cherished his right to vote. It was a right that he never took for granted. My grandmother never learned to drive. After my grandfather passed away, she took a bus to the voting precinct.

There is something special about voting, especially when one has lived through the condemnation of free expression, the end of democratic elections, the criminalization of a free and independent press.

I don’t know if my own nervous energy, the pressure and sense of responsibility, is learned or whether – somehow – it is in my DNA, inherited from my family’s struggle.

That may be it. I vote because I can. And because I can, I must, not just for me, but in honor of everyone who could not.

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Publix Gets it & People Love Them

There’s been a lot of Publix love shared on social media, especially throughout the last week, and for good reason. Everyone in South Florida knows their sloshy, “where shopping is a pleasure.” And it is. The stores are clean. They have great quality products and excellent customer service. 

What’s not to love?

But there is more to it. Publix works hard to be more than a grocery store; they’ve worked to be a part of the community. All stores have membership rewards. Customers get coupons and stores collect valuable data that they use to market their products. But Publix works to make even that feel like a personalized experience. When I joined the Baby Club, I didn’t just receive age-appropriate discounts, they sent me a pediatric encyclopedia.  

When Hurricane Irma started barreling towards South Florida, Publix opened until the very last moment and many of their stores, including the one in my neighborhood, opened the following day. They emailed customers before the storm and immediately afterwards. They posted a message to the community on social media and took a full-page ad in my local newspaper. Yesterday, they announced that they opened one of the stores in Key West, because the community was counting on them.

We are in this together. That’s Publix’s message. I’ve thought a lot about that over the last few days, and not just because it is my favorite grocery store (which it is), but because it is one of those times when being good also makes good business sense.

Why do people love Publix? They love Publix because the store makes them feel good. Yes, this is good marketing, but it is also good people skills. And making people feel valued, that translates into loyalty.

As Life Begins, I’m Looking Forward & Back

My son is only three months old. He’s so little that even that phrase, my son, sounds foreign. Yet already I have planned imaginary future conversations.

Like so many, my family sacrificed everything so that I would never have to. What will he make of that? Will it inspire him? Weigh him down?

I’ve thought about time-outs during the terrible twos, about both of us blinking back tears on the first day of kindergarten, about homework and curfews, heartbreak, victory and defeat.

But today I find myself thinking about a whole other conversation, one that is much more complex. How will I teach him who he is? How will I instill a sense of culture and family history?

No doubt, many parents wonder the same. But, as President Obama shakes hands with Raul Castro, I wonder what my son will think of it.

My father was a political prisoner. He spent nearly 21 years in various Cuban gulags. His father was killed by firing squad. My mother’s father also spent years in Cuban cells. 

My story is hardly unique.

wall

Cubans came to Miami and started building new homes, new lives, and — eventually — the home of their memories. Little Havana, Florida. Photo by Amanda Delgado

I was born and raised in Miami, a place unlike any other, a city in the United States but somehow worlds apart from it. I grew up between English and Spanish, a bridge between my families’ suffering, loss and tragedy and a new life in a new world. Like many others, I inherited my family’s pain. Their sense of loss, their forever exile, is something I grew up knowing and feeling as though it were my own.

My parents’ Cuba, their parents and grandparents’ Cuba, became a place alive only in woeful memories or impassioned political arguments. It became an archetype, a place that lived in our collective unconscious, a place we knew and felt and understood because of the hurt and loss embedded deep into the core of our existence.

I wonder how to explain that, how to explain their sense of loss. I wonder too, how to explain to him my sense of loss, a sense of exile and estrangement from a place I never knew.

 

How do I preserve their history, their stories when even I grapple to make sense of it all? Especially as those stories become a little cloudy.

 

My father is gone. So are my grandparents. My mother doesn’t discuss her life there much. Some of those memories buried deep in her unconscious, the trauma too much for her to bear.

There aren’t family photos or ancestral artifacts to tell the stories of what life was like before, during and after the revolution. All those things stayed behind as families fled.

Histories were lost.

And now I rack my brain, trying to remember the good and bad, the laughter and the tears, and I try to imagine how I will share them with my son. Will I remember them? Will I do them justice? And what will he make of it all. What will he think? Will they form part of his identity? Will he listen patiently? Dismissively? Will he be curious? Will he feel Cuban? American? Both? Neither? Will he also yearn for a place that exists only in hearts and minds of a generation that is fading away?

If I lived between worlds, between languages and cultures, somehow — like the city in which I live — both American and not, what does that make him?

I don’t know.

Cuba begins to change. Whether that change is good or bad — whether it leads to democracy on the island, whether Cubans’ lives improve — is unknown; but, change is certain. 

And my parents’ Cuba, even the embellished romanticized memories, is even further away, less tangible.

Family stories, like history itself, fade away and I can only imagine how my son will see it, how he will see me, and who he will become.

Related Stories:

“The Power of Words & Feelings: Semantics of Cuban Policy”

“In Miami, Change is the One Constant”

 

Miami is a Mirage

My #PostLit entry for the WLRN / Miami Book Fair Literaty Project.

Miami is a mirage, attracting wanderers and exiles, adventurers and Dreamers. She was born here, her roots planted deep in the shifting sands, bridging Ayer and Tomorrow. She lives and grow between realities — between Sueños and Memories, somewhere between Cuban and American. And the waves, they just keep washing it all away.

In Miami, Change is the One Constant

They call Miami “the Magic City.” Fitting because, it’s always able to reinvent itself.

Neyda Borges on Miami Beach

Miami has changed a lot over the years; but, the allure of the sun and the waves lapping against the sand remains the same.

I was born in Hialeah Hospital in 1981. History is full of eras; but, this specific moment was the beginning of change, an almost traceable line of demarcation.

My mother fled Cuba in 1969 when she was 19 with her sister and my grandmother; my grandfather, a political prisoner, joined them five years later. She met my father after he arrived here in 1979, after 20 years as a political prisoner.

I belonged to two different worlds. I was an American. But, at the same time, I was Cuban. I didn’t quite fit either group. In many ways, it’s the story of the city in which I was born. Hialeah, a city in the United States that just doesn’t quite feel like the U.S. Hialeah is part of South Florida, a metropolitan area; yet, it feels totally different from Tallahassee, or Tampa, or Titusville, and worlds away from “the South.”

It is different. And the Hialeah of my childhood, even more so. Hialeah, like South Florida isn’t just one place, it is many simultaneously. As such, every major street carries at least three names. Red Road is NW 57th Avenue, West 4th Ave or, la cuatro.

In 1981, Miami was just barely recovering from a riot and an influx of Cubans that arrived on the Mariel boatlift — events that shaped public discourse, policy and dinner table conversation for years.

My parents’ first home was in a community called Lago Grande. It was so new that there was nothing nearby. In fact, it seemed like it was in the middle of a forest.

My grandparents lived in East Hialeah, back when there were no Spanish-speaking neighbors. To visit, we passed the Holsum Bread factory and the smell of bread filled the car. We passed Hialeah Racetrack, filled with photographers and Quinceňeras donning poofy white gowns, taking their iconic pictures, and visiting the pink flamingos and peacocks. There was a biandero that drove by and sold yucca and chorizo, as well as an ice cream truck whose Pink Panther ice cream bars with gumball eyes that, inexplicably, always tasted better than those at the store.

Hialeah’s 49th Street was always busy. Vendors walked up and down selling fresh churros — coated in fine granulated sugar that always managed to make a mess, making them contraband inside my father’s car – and little white paper cones of roasted peanuts. There was Lionel Playland, Luria’s and La Canastilla Cubana.

Most of those original stores and businesses are gone now, like Jumbo Supermarket — where Cuban bread disappeared as soon as it was out of the oven — and Latin American — where I first saw ham hanging from the ceiling. The McDonald’s where I met Ronald McDonald and had my face painted is still there. These two restaurants lay one across from the other and pretty much reflect the story of my childhood. They were the homes of my first Cuban Sandwich and Happy Meal.

The landscape has changed, just like the hot spots have changed.

Rodriguez family at the beach

An afternoon at the beach, circa 1982

Ocean Drive wasn’t as popular as it is today, but the beach was always full of visitors. I bounced over waves — wearing pink floaties and building sand castles on beaches — wearing Coppertone sunblock, because that’s what the little girl on the billboard used. We parked at Penrod’s, today Nikki Beach. And one of the major rites of passage into teenhood was taking a leap off of the South Beach pier.

Everyone loved the Dolphins, Don Shula and Dan Marino. Everyone remembered their perfect season. All this started to change in the 90s.

At 5 we moved, our family now included my new little brother, and I enrolled in a new school, Ben Sheppard Elementary.

In third grade we moved to Miami Lakes. Again, right next to the “forest”. This was the edge, and newest part of town. Everything south of NW 149th Street was filled with dense trees. It wasn’t uncommon to see a lost raccoon or possum run out from amongst them.

As kids, we rode our bikes into “the forest” and half believed we’d find monsters, wild animals, and maybe even Tarzan. We never did, but that didn’t stop us from telling tall tales of outrunning wild boars, moose and all kinds of creatures. Those were the trees eventually plowed down for new homes and for Barbara Goleman Senior High.

In the 1990s Art Deco became cool and South Beach was the place to see and be seen in. The Hurricanes became champions, we got a basketball team, and there was a struggle to protect decency; Sheriff Navarro banned a 2 Live Crew record, Palm Beach banned female hotdog street vendors wearing thong bikinis.

Like today, there were plenty of political scandals; somehow, hundreds of dead people voted in a mayoral race. There was an exodus of immigrants; thousands of Cubans braved the sea on rafts, tires and just about anything that would float, prompting President Clinton to enact the Wet Foot / Dry Foot law.

Hurricane Andrew arrived on what was supposed to be my first day at Miami Lakes Middle School. Other than downed trees, we were fine. But South Florida wasn’t as lucky. School was delayed almost two weeks and many kids were displaced, left homeless by the storm.

Eventually there was a building boom and Miami’s skyline changed. High rises went up. At that time, my mother was a Vice President at Capital Bank and excited to move into a modern building in the “new” downtown and even more so when it appeared in the movie Bad Boys. But, after 5:00, downtown died. Stores and businesses closed and shuttered their entrances.

I attended Hialeah-Miami Lakes Senior High before the FCAT, when kids carried beepers, not cell phones. Football was big. Everyone attended the game versus Hialeah High, our biggest rival. The coveted T Trophy always resided at HML.

After graduation I attended the University of Miami and completed a double major in journalism and English. My husband and I, high school sweethearts, married and moved to Miami Lakes. I teach at Miami Lakes Educational Center and he is a CPA with a small firm in Hialeah.

We stayed close to home. But home keeps changing. The Miami of my childhood doesn’t exist anymore; but, neither does the Miami of 10 or even 5 years ago.

The landscape changes, the cause of political strife changes, but Miami’s allure always remains. In many ways, Miami really is a Magic City; it is forever new and forever different, always changing, growing and evolving.

But some things remain unchanged; you can find anything that you need in Hialeah and all the streets there still have three names. But, la doce, Ludlam Road, 67th Avenue is now also Flamingo Road, but that’s a whole other story.

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This story First Appeared in The Miami Herald in April 2013, as part of their partnership with History Miami’s project: Miami Stories: http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/community/miami-dade/miami-stories/article1948842.html and on History Miami’s site: http://www.historymiami.org/research-miami/miamistories/miami-stories/details/neyda-borges/

 

 

What happens to a Dream Deferred? Students Immigration Status May End their dreams of college

G. Tejeda

Giancarlo was three when he moved to the United States, the only home he has ever known. Now his dreams of college are in jeopardy. Photo by Fabiola Santiago, The Miami Herald

There are thousands of students in Miami-Dade County that are forced to live in the shadows: bright, talented students whose legal status in the United States prevents them from realizing their dreams.  As educators, we often only hear these stories at the end of the school year – if at all — when graduation is upon us, and it is too late for us to help.  Too often these kids remain silent and afraid, because there is so much on the line.

This year, I met one such young man.

Giancarlo Tejeda arrived in the United States when he was three years old. His parents fled their native Colombia, escaping the bloody turmoil at home, to provide their children with the opportunity to grow up free from the fear of repression and violence.

It’s a story that is very American.  All of us are here because we searched for freedom.  Unfortunately, Giancarlo and his family are undocumented immigrants. For his entire academic career, he has kept this secret, concerned that if people knew, his family’s safety would be in jeopardy.  So he and his family have lived with the constant fear and anxiety of being discovered. They’ve worked hard at whatever work was available and possible, who now had to face the reality of starting anew in a foreign land.  Many young people face these challenges, and although their legal status and the need for reform may be controversial, the trouble they face is indisputable.

You would never guess at Giancarlo’s struggles by looking at him or observing his behavior in school. He is a fantastic student, excelling academically and socially. He is graduating magna cum laude, in the 92nd percentile of his class, and has — throughout his time at MLEC — won various awards in competitions ranging from programming and engineering to science and technology.

He never told anyone about his immigration status, not his friends or favorite teachers, not his school counselor, not even the schools to which he applied.  He never complained. He never asked for help or for sympathy. He always wanted to be held to the same high standards as everyone else.

I just learned of his situation and felt that I had to help. Giancarlo was accepted to New York University and the University of Florida.  NYU is not offering him any financial assistance because they consider him an international student, ineligible for financial aid.  This is yet another obstacle.  He cannot apply for federal aid or student loans.  He is worried that his dream, which is so close that he can almost touch it, may be forever out of reach.

I look at Giancarlo and see a talented young man with a long resume of academic success. He had the brilliance and steadfast tenacity to learn and grow and excel. Imagine what more he could have done with just a few more resources. Imagine if the fear of discovery had not been a heavy presence in his home. Now imagine what he will do and what he will accomplish with a college education and what an impact he can make on the world.

There are far too many students like Giancarlo in Miami-Dade, too many children that have grown up here, that don’t know any other home.  We have already educated and cared for these children in our public schools and in our communities.  Why not give them the opportunity to come out of the shadows and give back to the only neighborhoods they’ve ever known?

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To help Giancarlo achieve his dreams, visit his crowd-funding sitehttp://www.gofundme.com/rb6p5dtg?pc2

Watch his interview with CBS4http://cbsloc.al/1CtekSi

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