GROWING UP CUBAN: HERE & THERE

(Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series recounting the heavy price paid by families as a result of Fidel Castro’s successful revolution on the Caribbean island of Cuba. Today, Jan. 8, 2012, is the 53rd anniversary of Castro and his revolutionaries entering Havana in victory.)

By Nick Diaz

JANUARY 1, 1959. On this date, at 2 A.M., Cuban Dictator Fulgencio Batista boarded a plane that took him, his family, and close associates from his palace in Havana,  to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

Former Cuban Dictator Fulgencio Batista.

This left the door open for Guerilla leader Fidel Castro to take over power a week later in the island nation where I was born and raised. I had just turned 11. I remember it well.

Two years later, my mother, Idania Diaz, and I arrived on these shores, a couple of $100 bills and some of her jewelry stashed in our clothing. How could I forget?

This time of year arouses sad memories. Imagine leaving your native land for foreign shores, different customs, language, and heritage. We Cubans did just that; we survived and eventually prevailed.

 I am proud to be a Cuban, just as I am proud to be an American. 

Often I am asked whether I consider myself Cuban-American, Cuban, or American. Do I consider myself a refugee, even after 51 years of residence and citizenship in the U.S. of A.?

Fidel Castro and fellow Revolutionary leader Camilo Cienfuegos enter the capital city of Havana, Cuba, Jan. 8, 1959.

It took years for me to realize why these questions bothered me. It is the false assumption that one’s identity can be neatly packaged, with one being either this or that. This compares to asking whether one’s tongue is for speaking or for tasting.

I realize that most natural-born Americans have spent their lives in a single culture. It must be hard to imagine how it feels to be an immigrant. We found out it is difficult to absorb cultures other than the one a person is born into.

BEING AN IMMIGRANT in the United States is not “either/or,” but a “both/and” proposition. My feeling is that no one ceases to be part of the culture from which they come, save for infants who are adopted and taken to another country. Immigrants add layers to their identity, other “selves.” Depending on age, personality, and circumstances, these layers or “selves” assume different configurations in each individual.

Author Nick Diaz (F.C.C. photo)

I try to deal with this complexity each day, considering one’s identity is fluid in exile and that there are times when the different “selves” converge or collide. Immigrants know first-hand that the “I” or “me” is not simple or uniform; it is, rather, a riotous mess. 

So, I admit to having a complex identity.

Of course, I am an American. Of course, I am Cuban. Of course, I’m Cuban-American. I am also Spanish and European. My maternal grandmother and her family were immigrants from Spain. She–my parents and other relatives– always reminded me that I was not really Cuban, but a displaced European with various identities. 

They explained that my grandmother’s folks were Catalan. My father’s side is indescribable. I surmise that because their Cuban roots date to the 17th century they may have been Jewish conversos, or perhaps Gallegos, or Basques, who knows. 

This may partly explain my keen interest in European history and culture. The fact that I married the daughter of a Swedish immigrant takes me to Europe, which oddly feels like home, while at the same time, like double exile. Who knows whether a couple evil Norsemen, in search of pillage and plunder, may have settled in Iberia in the 10th century? Maybe I have Viking blood in me, as well.

I am still a refugee and will continue to be one until “Castrolandia” ceases to exist. My parents and I came to the United States to escape a nightmarish existence. As long as my place of birth remains enslaved by an oppressive totalitarian regime and the nightmare continues, I will not return; therefore I will remain a refugee. 

Island of Cuba, 179 miles from Little Havana, Miami, Fla. (Rand-McNally New Millennium)

I AM REMINDED of my “refugee” status especially when asked about difficulties I encountered upon arrival. Getting rid of my accent was one challenge. It is more pronounced when I’m tired and/or have had enough to drink. It is  repressed, nevertheless it remains. On the other hand, I take pride when American-born acquaintances exhibit surprise when they learn I’m Cuban born and reared.

 We exiles also face ignorance about my homeland, including outrageous stereotypes about Cuba, pre- and post-Castro.

I object when Cubans are viewed as products of an inferior culture. I encountered this in my school textbooks, which were filled with incorrect and biased information and form the basis for misinformation drummed into young minds.

Many Americans harbor prejudice because of limited and misinformed exposure to the complex Hispanic world. There appears to be a lack of awareness that an artificial category–’Hispanic”–has been created and is a gross distortion of reality.

Those who should know better often interpret the term “Hispanic” as a race, indicating that all “Hispanics” are more or less the same. There are 18 Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America, each with its own ethnic mixture and culture. There also is one European country with Spanish as the official language, but in which other languages are also spoken. 

My anger and disappointment rage when I see a document or news item indicating that “Hispanic” is a “race.” It is a reminder of a high school friend’s mother, who expressed her prejudice when she met me.

“Oh, but you look just like all the other boys,” she said, exhibiting a sigh of relief.

That is just one especially poignant incident. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been told that I don’t look like a Cuban. I’ve encountered similar comments from Northern Europeans as well.

I will have more on Tuesday and Thursday. Join me then.–©Nick Diaz 2012

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This commentary was published in its original form Dec. 22, 2011 at www.thetentacle.com and is used with permission of the author and The Octopus, LLC.

You may contact Mr. Diaz at gssuzukiguy2004@yahoo.com

(Nick Diaz was born and reared in Havana, Cuba. He is a mathematics teacher at St. John Regional Catholic School in Frederick, Md. A graduate of the University of Dayton (Ohio), Mr. Diaz was retired in 2003 after 30 years with Frederick County (Md.) Public Schools. He is a member of the Board of Trustees of Frederick Community College, for which he served as chairman in 2011. He and his wife Marianne reside near Middletown, Md.)