The Composition

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.

Teacher, given two years to live, fighting cancer eight years later

We all piled into the school gym wearing our new, originally designed t-shirts, made in our school colors, teal and white.  The sound system was on, the bleachers were down and the photographer was set up and snapping away.

Only, this was not an average pep rally.  This one was special.  This one was for Ms. Susi.  Jennie Susi has stage four ovarian cancer.

When Jenni Susi was diagnosed with cancer, doctors said she had two years left to live

When Jenni Susi was diagnosed with cancer, doctors said she had two years left to live

According to the American Cancer Society, ovarian cancer is the fifth deadliest cancer in women, partially because the symptoms are so common to other illnesses — they include swelling or bloating ,and  pain in the belly— that it often goes undiagnosed far too long.  Something that Jennie knows from firsthand experience.  Four different doctors told her that she was fine.  It was the fifth doctor that finally diagnosed her cancer.  He instructed her to get her affairs in order because she’d have, at most, two years left to live.

That was eight and a half years ago.

Jennie decided that “statistics are just statistics. I’m going to be one of the positive statistics.”  And, in so many ways, she is.  She has fought this disease and undergone several surgeries, chemotherapy and all of the physical and emotional ups and downs that accompany treatment.

And cancer is not the only hardship she’s faced.  Her husband has Multiple Sclerosis.  Her parents both passed away, within a year of one another.  Each of these alone is enough to break someone’s spirit; but, not Jennie.  Through it all, she’s never lost her zeal for life.

“People always ask me ‘How do you do it?’” she says.  “And of course, there are days and times when I’m upset, but what good is that going to do? How is that going to help me?”  So, in her weakest moments, she allows herself a “one-hour pity party.”  Then, she chooses to get up and look on the bright side of things again because no matter how bad things are, she says, life is a gift.

Jennie credits her family for her inherent optimism.  Her parents who taught her to be positive, even in the face of adversity, and her brother who taught her how to be happy.

“I have an older brother who has Down Syndrome and he’s just SO happy, and pure in his joy. He was my greatest teacher. I try not to be wasteful of the gift I’ve been given – the gift of life. His purity radiates to me so I can be happy with my life, just the way it is.”

These are the lessons that she brings into the classroom.  She teaches American History, but she goes above and beyond – not only to prepare them for the End of Course Exams (EOCs) – but for life.  She went to school on the days that she was scheduled for chemotherapy and – if she was able to pull herself out of bed – was back at school the next morning.

So when Jennie didn’t come back to school, it was difficult for her students, friends and colleagues.  Doctors found more tumors and she had to have surgery to remove them and resection her colon, forcing her to take a leave of absence.

But even then, she did not forget her students.  She assured them that she was okay and would “stay calm and chemo on.”

“Ms. Susi is one of the most inspiring women I have ever met… even though she wasn’t able to come to school, she made sure that we were in good hands and she always sent us updates on her health and surprise emails to encourage us and tell us that she believed in us; it’s like she was always thinking about us,” said Carl Hughes, who was a student in Susi’s American History course and has kept in touch with her ever since.  Carl’s own mother lost her own battle with cancer, which made Susi’s struggle feel even more personal for him.

She made sure that he and all of her MLEC family knew that she was alive and recovering, and that she was thinking about them.

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Jenni Susi’s MLEC family sits for a portrait, urging her to ‘Stay Calm, Chemo On’

And all of her school family was thinking about her.  So when her students created a design for her catch-phrase, “keep calm – chemo on,” Helena Castro, the school activities director and Jennie’s friend of 17 years, had an idea.  She had the design printed on t-shirts.  Teal and white, our school colors, are also the colors for ovarian cancer awareness.  She also included #teamjenniesusi, the hashtag trending on Twitter while Jennie was in surgery.

Hundreds of shirts were purchased and all of the proceeds went to the Ovarian Cancer Society.  Then, once Jennie was well enough, her school family surprised her with a pep rally in her honor.  She walked into the gym to find us all wearing our shirts, and we posed for a big MLEC family portrait.

“Too often we honor and immortalize posthumously,” said Castro.  “Jennie lives life fully and demonstrates compassion and resiliency and it is that zest for life that has served as a source of hope and inspiration to so many.”

originally published on July 2, 2013 on wlrn.org

 

Millennials: Super Students, Super Humans

Gabriella Nuňez graduated near the top of her high school class.  Her resume rivals that of many college graduates.  She juggled rigorous courses with part-time work, myriad extracurricular activities and a thousand hours of community service.  She held various leadership positions ranging from class president to design editor of her newspaper and she began her college career this summer with over 24 college credits under her belt.

And, she is not alone.  The 21st century teenager is increasingly dynamic, and they have to be.  Although the Millennial Generation, usually defined as people born between 1981 and 2000, is often criticized for their narcissism and sense of entitlement, new research shows that this generation is actually much more complex than what they’re given credit for.

class of 2013

Millennial face an insecure and increasingly competitive job market; but, they are amazingly optimistic

Yes, today’s young people do seem to “grow up” later, as they put off traditional rites of passage such as marriage, family and home-ownership.  And they also have shorter attention spans.  Both are, at least partially, due to technology and the Great Recession.

Today’s teens and young adults are more confident and connected than ever before.  And they have reason to be.  Whereas teens growing up in the late 60s believed that anything was possible after witnessing Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, this generation very much believes that they can know all there is to know.  This is a generation that does not know a world without computers.  Moreover, they don’t remember a time before Google and graphing calculators.  So, are they spoiled?  Perhaps.  Are they a little self-centered?  Probably.  But, in their world, the President of the United States is only a Tweet away.

And the Great Recession taught them to have less faith in the “grown-ups” and traditional measures of adulthood. They watched their parents endure the real estate melt-down and double-digit unemployment. The Federal Reserve reports that between 2007 and 2010, the median net worth of American families plunged 39 percent.

And the news gets worse.  Although this generation is generally more educated than ever before, with more Americans holding college degrees than ever, Millennials are disproportionately unemployed or underemployed.  At the height of Great Recession, the unemployment rate among 15 to 24 year-olds was over 20 percent.

And although those numbers have improved, a 2009 Yale University study indicates that students who graduate during a recession earn 10 percent less, even after a decade of work.

According to a report from the Economic Policy Institute, inflation-adjusted wages for young high school graduates declined by 11.1 percent between 2000 and 2011, and the real wages of young college graduates declined by 5.4 percent.

But the news does not seem to discourage them.  In fact, it seems to motivate some students to work even harder.

“When I got to high school, taking rigorous classes meant sacrificing a social life and sleep for study time to fulfill my various duties and responsibilities,” said Lisabet Esperon, who graduated this June and will begin school at the University of Florida as a sophomore, pursuing a degree in accounting.

Sacrifice is not usually the first word that people associate with the Millennial Generation; however, they are saving more and spending less.  Millenials are driving less and, increasingly, living within their means, carrying less credit card debt than their parents did.

Despite facing grim employment prospects, mounting tuition costs and rising student loan interest rates, today’s young people remain optimistic.  According to a Pew Research Study, 41 percent of them are satisfied with the way things are going in the country, compared to only 26 percent of those 30 and older who feel the same.

And they’d have to be optimistic as they graduate high school to find that being top of your class does not guarantee admission to their school of choice at a time when college applications are at an all-time high.  Then they graduate from college to enter an incredibly competitive work force.

So, it’s not that Millennial are lazy.  They are used to the competition, the stress and the hard work.  They just expect to see results for it.  And they don’t necessarily measure success in dollars.

Nuňez was often incredibly stressed in high school.  “There were tears and hair pulling and late nights with piles of homework” she said.  But she doesn’t expect a huge paycheck at the end.  “I want a meaningful career.  I want to give back.  I want to feel fulfilled.  Really, I just want to be happy.”

Millenials then, are a paradox.  They want more: more free time, more travel, more experiences; they want more out of life than a house with white picket fence and a two-car garage.  And, at least for now, they are willing to trade immediate financial success, getting by with less money, to achieve more happiness. How idealistic.

_

Originally published on WLRN in July 2013

Forty-five years ago, man walked on the moon. Do we still reach for the stars?

moon walk

In 1969, NASA made “a giant leap for mankind…” as astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon

In 1961 President Kennedy announced that an American would land on the moon within a decade. It was certainly an ambitious, lofty and seemingly impossible goal. Space, after all, was the last frontier, the great unknown. 

I imagine that many scoffed at the notion.

But, sure enough, it happened. In 1969 Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. The American flag was planted securely into the ground. 

I wasn’t alive to watch those first lunar steps on television, but I can only imagine the sense of wonder and pride. I imagine families — not just in the United States, but around the world – sitting in silence, knowing that they were witnessing an unbelievable and pivotal moment.

I imagine that as we not only flew in space, but bounced, spoke, walked on our moon, as we achieved that seemingly impossible goal, as we basked in the glory of achieving that, to borrow a phrase from Fitzgerald, “last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath … face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”

ny times -moon

Man had conquered the final frontier. The impossible, suddenly seemed possible.

All things must have suddenly seemed possible. If only we put our nose to the grindstone, if we wanted it bad enough we could – and would – achieve anything. The United States entered the space age. We reached for the stars, not just believing – but knowing – that we would reach them. 

Fast forward several decades.

Three years ago, the Space Shuttle Atlantis returned to Earth for the final time. There will be no more shuttle missions. NASA will never again send an American into space from our own country. Our days of adventuring, exploring and conquering just for the sake of adventure and bragging rights are over.

And I can’t help but be sad.

Yes, the shuttle missions were incredibly expensive, the value of the missions – especially in today’s economy – questionable at best. Much of that money could be well invested here on earth.

But my youth was filled with the idea of endless possibilities. The belief that humans would live on Mars. That somewhere out there were Star Wars-like beings that we would soon encounter and travel at the speed of light to see. That the Hubble telescope would uncover secrets that we had never imagined, perhaps even some of those intergalactic beings. That one day I too might stare back at our little marble planet while floating among the stars.

Yes, this is far-fetched, impractical. Not economically sound. But dreams don’t need to be. I am not only sad for the lost jobs, not for the loss of the inflated ego that the US achieved in that first “small step for mankind,” but for what has changed in us.

In 1961 we were involved in the Cold War, an arms race. This was a race for supremacy. Horrible vanity. But, we believed in ourselves. We believed in the American spirit and ingenuity. We believed that we truly were that “shining city upon a hill,” the best country on earth. “The Force” was with us.

What do we believe now? Now, when the economy is shaky, we’re involved in two wars, American teenagers are falling behind their peers around the world in education, American confidence and optimism are at near record lows, our country is frighteningly close to a government default, and our leaders cannot come to an agreement, in fact, cannot even seem to be civil with one another.

Do we still believe in ourselves?

The shuttle missions ended and almost no one batted an eye lash. Something nags at me. Maybe what saddens me so is not just the end of the shuttle missions, maybe not even the end of the Space Age. Maybe what saddens me the most is that something else has changed, something much more profound, something within us.

Life on the Hyphen: American or Miamian?

Miami Miami, an amalgam of language, light people and eccentricity.

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. Grammatically, 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. Yet, whenever the question comes up in casual small talk, I too answer Miami.

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.

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.

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posted on WLRN in September, 2013: http://bit.ly/UbfbYo