Cuba

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.

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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”

 

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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/

 

 

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.