Thursday, March 15, 2007

To Be a Cuban-American Mami

Thinking some more about my previous post, I find myself drawn to the part about my being a Cuban-American mother and how that affects my place/feelings/attitudes about the mommy blogger community and my perception of motherhood as a whole.

First, I need to go back and do a mini-history lesson/commentary to explain why I define myself as being "Cuban-American" and not just "American", when I was born and raised in the United States. For those of you readers in So Fla, bear with me. You get it; you know why, but the folks outside here don't. (so feel free to add your take in the comments section).

The Cuban-American community was very insular back in the 60's, 70's and 80's. Those of us who are first-generation Cuban-Americans, that is, born in the U.S. to parents who left Cuba, were raised very differently than your garden variety American, and even differently than other children of immigrants, even those raised within tight cultural communities. From everything I've heard, other immigrant groups assimilate more easily and quicker than we Cuban-Amer. I think one major reason for this has to do with the fact that Cubans arrived in large numbers in this country as exiles, not immigrants. I mean, up until as late as 1980, many Cubans believed that their exile was temporary (I use 1980 semi-randomly, but I believe the Mariel boatlift did a lot to drive the point home that there was no going back. For some families, perhaps the "there's no going back" feeling hit earlier). I've read accounts of how those who came in the very early days of the Revolution brought and planned very little, because they believed it'd literally be a matter of two or three months.

Factor into all this the trauma that goes with exile. These were lives (in many cases, childhoods and early adulthoods) interrupted, families separated (by the time my father saw his father again - 20 years after he left - my grandfather was in the fog of Alzheimer's and didn't recognize him). These were people who otherwise would not have ended up in this country if it hadn't been for a brutal regime that was taking property, businesses, rights and lives in every corner of the country.

So when you concentrate all these folks into one area, what you get is a community that needs to keep its culture alive. Because of the sense of loss, because of the sadness, because exile can end at any moment. But then you have to factor in that Cubans are hard-working, enterprising people; and so while we waited for the end of exile, we hustled and got to work. You'll often hear Cubans say that Miami was a one-horse town before the Cubans got here, which annoys the Anglos but which is basically true. So while people like my parents set roots and flourished in Miami, they also retained a strong hold on their culture and traditions.

Enter my childhood. Beyond being so Cuba-centered that it wasn't even funny, it was basically how I would've been raised had I been born in Cuba. All my friends were CA like me; my school was the exile version of a Cuban one that Castro had shut down; and given that my mother had no familiarity with anything other than the simple life she'd led back home, she followed the traditions she grew up with.

All this to say that many, many times, I've felt like a stranger in my own country. While I was raised to be proud to be an American, to love this country, to follow my own American Dream, my family was a little short on actual experience on what it's like to be "American", and this became shockingly clear when I hooked up with an American boy you all know as Ben. Seriously, we're into our 9th year together, and I'm still constantly surprised at how much I don't know about American customs, habits, idiosyncrasies, colloquialisms, etc. (and by "American" I mean "white people", or "middle America" - the stuff most people can agree on). I'm embarrassed by this, but also understand that I would've never learned any of it unless I lived outside Miami (which I haven't) or traveled extensively (which I haven't) or knew a whole bunch of non-Hispanics (which I don't, but happily, I know more of them now than I did in my youth).

So now that I'm a mother, I realize that I'm mimicking a lot of the same stuff I experienced as a child (without my prompting - this is what's buried in my subconscious and is now coming out), and that I'm raising my son the "Cuban" way more than I am the "American" way. And it's kinda hard to explain exactly what that means, but an illustrative point is that Max gets a fever, and I wipe him down with alcohol (to Ben's horror, but whatever, it works). And the things like the nursery rhymes, songs, and sayings that sometimes don't even make sense? I'm saying them. I'm teaching my son to speak Spanish first because I know that once English enters his life, he won't want to speak Spanish anymore, and I insist that he have a foundation and basic knowledge of his mother's family's native tongue (and as it is, he's getting English from his dad, so while Spanish predominates, he's learning that language, too).

And since I've entered the blogging community, since I've begun to read more and more blogs by other mothers and exposed myself to what "regular, American" moms share about their lives, the more I've realized that the Cuban in me is the dominant force - in my personality, in the way I view life, in the way that I parent. It's a nuance that's hard to quantify, but it just is. Everything that made up my childhood buried itself somewhere deep inside me, and having my own child has brought it all back up.

Besides the obvious fact that my husband is American (though, as a Jew and as a white person raised in predominantly Cuban Miami, he certainly didn't have a "white America" upbringing either) and that through him Max will have a whole other set of traditions and customs to be raised by and to inherit, the difference between my experiences and my son's, I think, will be that I have the opportunity to take what is best from both cultures and create a beautiful mix of old and new, tradition and adopted customs.

And hopefully, I'll be able to do it in such a way that he doesn't feel the conflict I've felt my entire life.

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Posted by Tere @ 3/15/2007   | |


  • Blogger Joke posted at 3/16/2007 1:14 AM  
    See? This is where things get weird for me.

    While my wife grew up more-or-less along the pattern you describe (Miami, everyone was CA, etc., etc.) I didn't. I was born in Detroit and didn't come to Miami until just before high school. So, for all intents and purposes, my childhood outside the home was 100% WASP-like. (The first time my friends saw my mom stick a thermometer under my arm they freaked.)

    I wasn't "a" CA, I was the CA. I never felt bad about it, but I was always keenly aware I was the tuxedo in the blue jean world.

    But wait!

    My maternal grandmother was from Italy. So that adds a subtle layer of weirdness to the mix.

    I'm amazed I'm as normal as I am.

  • Blogger Tere posted at 3/16/2007 8:41 AM  
    I think your experience probably allowed you to better integrate both cultures into your life/psyche/personality/general knowledge base than those of us who've lived here all our lives. Because at home, you could be as Cuban as you wanted to be, but the outside world exposed to you to the "other side". For us down here, when you stepped outside your home, it was more of the same thing. There was no difference.

    Which was fine in and of itself, but I think it's helped cause a greater identity conflict that might have been less frustrating and angsty had I had more equitable access to both worlds.

    And out of curiosity, Joke, are both your parents Cuban?
  • Anonymous Adela posted at 3/16/2007 11:36 AM  
    Great post! It got me thinking of my daughter and how her identity will be shaped by Miami. I am CA but to add another level of identity crisis to the mix, my mom is from Spain and all 4 of my grandparents are Spanish also. Growing up, our traditions, food, etc. were always Spanish but I lived in a Cuban world. I also went to a Cuban school (La Progresiva) for 12 years, where we sang the Cuban national anthem before the American one. I wonder if our kids' Miami will be as Cuban as ours. I think it will. Oh, and my husband is Peruvian so my daughter will be faced with being half Peruvian and half Spanish-Cuban. Also, both of my brother in laws are married to Brazilians, so my daughter will have Cuban, Peruvian, Spanish and Brazilian cousins. Crazy, no?
  • Blogger AmandaDufau posted at 3/16/2007 12:27 PM  
    bien dicho, my friend. I know EXACTLY what you mean.
    Adela, I went to LaProg too. I was only there for kindergarten, 1st and 2nd. When did you graduate?
  • Anonymous Adela posted at 3/16/2007 1:44 PM  
    Amanda, I graduated in 92, so I was in 1st grade in 1980. Did you have Ms. Valdez (she later became Mrs. Seuc) for 2nd? We used to call her "Mrs. Valdez, la bruja del sauwes (SW)" hahaha.
  • Blogger AmandaDufau posted at 3/16/2007 10:08 PM  
    Yes I did have Mrs. Seuc!
    So you must be in the yearbook I have(84)...I found you!! Too cute! =) I remember you. Well, I may or may not have known you, but you do look familiar.
  • Blogger slouching mom posted at 3/17/2007 12:11 PM  
    Thank you for this. I learned something (and on a Saturday morning, that's pretty unusual).
  • Blogger Jenny posted at 3/17/2007 6:13 PM  
    This is Jenny but I'm having major comment-posting problems for some reason....

    I think my identity crisis has often hit the point of trauma. I was blissfully CA up until college, altho with a mix of public school and CA private school and living in Kendall, I was a bit more mixed Cuban American than just heavy on the Cuban. Still, it was much like what Tere posts. But I've since spent 12 years outside of Miami - at very "Liberal-Intellectual" universities (Carnegie Mellon, UC Berkeley) where my Cubanness has been challenged, stereotyped, confused, and then some. I have clearly been socialized and shaped into a more white-liberal-intellectual culture by becoming an academic, but my Cubanness both remains and is confused. My husband is from a white, hyper-educated progressive academic granola family, but he was born in Bolivia (where his historian father was doing his dissertation) and so considers himself also partly Bolivian and speaks Spanish. I wrote a post about my confused Cubanness but never published it because it was just too vulnerable.

    I often feel like I've lost a great deal of my Cubanidad. Like, I would have never thought/remembered to use the alcohol for the fever. And I regret and feel sad for that loss. Since becoming a mom and become exactly like MY mom, I've felt a great pull to get back to my roots. This is part of the pull to move back to Miami. At the same time, I like the changes that I've made in my life that have, in a sense, taken me away from that world.

    Ack, its a mess. I total mess. Any wonder why my PhD work is on shifting identities?!??!
  • Blogger Manola Blablablanik posted at 3/19/2007 4:34 PM  
    Tere, I also grappled with this for years. When I was asked to congtribute to a book on the subject, it took me two years to define my Cuban identity. I could never somehow get it right. I'm not in a relationship and I'm not a mommy, so it doesn't affect anyone else for now. But I do know this: it can be totally embraced and not feel contradictory whatsoever. Ultimately it's what you feel is right in your heart. Our parents came from a conflicted world where horrible things happened and yet with many good things to offer. We have moved on ... and can take the good for what it's worth. Home is really where the heart is even when you can't step on the land or return to the past.
  • Blogger Manuel A. Tellechea posted at 3/19/2007 5:48 PM  
    Do you think that the fact that all of you have married non-Cubans constitutes a rejection on your part of the Cuban male, and if so, to what do you attribute that rejection?
  • Blogger La Ventanita posted at 3/19/2007 6:14 PM  
    Ay Tere, I can definitely relate to this post. Like you I was raised in a Cuban bubble, but very far away from Miami. In PR to be exact. Everyone around us was Cuban; I was even chaperoned.

    If you ever saw Que Pasa USA, just take the English out and that was my family. And as hellish as it seemed them, it's so much a part of me today. And I know it will be something I transfer to my kids, together with the Spanish part from my father and the Chilean part of my husband.

    Manny to answer your question, at least in my case it wasn't a rejection. There was nothing more I wanted in this world than to marry another Cuban. My first two boyfriends were like me first generation CA. It just didn't happen, and it so happened that my spouse was Chilean. I don't think anyone chooses to marry outside your culture. God knows I've had a VERY hard time making my husband understand many things (so Tere tell Ben he has others like him since my husband is also a Jew).

    I think Tere sums it best when she says we were raised Cuban. Because our parents, at some point, expected to be able to pack us up and go back to Cuba. Our children will simply have a lot more in the mix, and will be all better by it.

    Amanda, how's the getting used to the new baby?
  • Anonymous Liz Balmaseda posted at 3/19/2007 9:33 PM  
    Hey, Manny! How are you doing, my friend? It's been years since we last talked, hasn't it? Catch me up on everything that's new in your life.
  • Blogger Manuel A. Tellechea posted at 3/20/2007 9:41 AM  

    Good to hear from you again, my good friend. Yes, my last visit to Miami was 10 years ago and speaking to you was the highlight of that visit.

    I have just completed my translation of Martí's crónicas norteamericanas and hope to have it in print by year's end. I'm still continuing my publishing battles with the Cuban government. First, they stole my translation of the Versos sencillos/Simple Verses and published it themselves; then they stole the collection of hitherto unpublished Martí articles which Carlos Ripoll and I first brought to light and turned it into volume 7 of the new Critical Edition of Martí's Complete Works, which they are currently publishing in Havana. To make matters worse, they even credited us. Well, plagiarism is the highest form of literary flattery, I suppose.

    But I don't wish to turn Tere's blog into a chat room. Please feel free to e-mail me at
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