I am standing in two worlds at once. Here I am, living this life I have created for myself while simultaneously mining the past I thought I had left behind. In the last few weeks, I have reconnected with a number of people I went to high school with and it's been great. People are posting old photos (the clothes and the hair!), telling old stories and roaming the virtual halls saying "HI!" The timing is interesting, especially since I am mining my memories for this memoir project. It's like I've brought these people back into my life with my thoughts.
As I said before, I knew a lot of these people all the way from kindergarten through senior year of high school. Many of us are part of what I call the "American Dream" Generation. Our parents came from other countries to start over in the US. Most of us were born in this country and are the youngest sibling, with brothers and sisters anywhere from five to fifteen years older. We are tied together by a connection to a place many of us have never been to through language, food, music, photos, families stories and hope. Hope that we would grow up, go to good schools, get good jobs, marry and create families. And, every December 31st, hope that next year we would return"home."
What I know about being a Cuban born in the US is that there is longing; a deep rooted desire to go back to a place we have never lived in, to be with people we don't really know. As a child, it was confusing to me. I wondered why my parents and their friends talked about going back. Wasn't it bad there? Isn't that why they left? Do I have to go too? I don't know anyone there. I like it here with the ice cream truck and Saturday morning cartoons. When I think about my one and only trip there, it all makes sense.
My father took me to Cuba when I was eight years old. I met my grandparents, my aunts, uncles, cousins, and my half-brother. I remember a lot of it, maybe because I knew there was a strong possibility that this was a one-shot deal. Here's what I remember the most: everything was in color. I have a pretty good idea of how Dorothy felt in the Wizard of Oz when she opened the door after landing in Munchkinland. I walked off that plane into the heat of Havana and WOW!I had only ever seen black and white photos of Cuba, so I suppose I got it in my head that everything there was...black and white. Amazing.
We arrived at my maternal grandparent's house and, like any child that had been traveling all day, I told my father I was hungry. He relayed the message to my grandmother who asked, "What am I going to give her? She's American. Doesn't she only eat hamburgers and hot dogs?" "What do you have in the house?"
"Rice, black beans, pork and plantains."
"Put a plate of that in front of her and see what happens."
Apparently, my visit was a big deal. The gringa was coming to meet everyone! Word spread that I had arrived, because the house was full of people waiting to see me. Correction: the kitchen was full of people waiting to see if this American child would eat. Oh, I ate! Man, did I eat. We stayed for three weeks (standard allotted time for Cubans visiting Cuba). I met everyone my family had ever known, saw where my parents had lived and got to know my extended family. And I ate very well. My last meal in Cuba was arroz con pollo (chicken and rice) made especially for me by my mother's mother. I found out later that a neighbor lady had killed one of the chickens in my grandparents' backyard especially for my farewell meal. Hard core.
I realize now how important that trip was. I can't imagine how hard it was for my parents to leave that life and start over with nothing. But, the more I read and hear about what Cuba was like fifty years ago, the more I understand why they had to do it. I also know that, as much as they embraced the American lifestyle, they never really left the old ways behind, not in their hearts and not in the life they created here for me and my siblings. They couldn't be there, so they created as much of that world as they could here. The food, the club, the language, the music was all there for me to absorb. I soaked it up and I take it with me no matter where I go. And every time I hear Celia Cruz sing Guantanamera, I understand the longing to go home.