When Michelle Obama walked out of the Blair House today on her way to church, she took my breath away. Not simply because she was on her way to becoming the First Lady or because of her lovely lemongrass ensemble, but because of what that outfit meant to me. Here's the thing: the woman who designed that dress and who has now been brought to national, if not global, prominence was once a Cuban girl from West New York, New Jersey. Just like me.
Whenever someone mentioned how much they liked Mrs. Obama's dress today, I beamed. And maybe I bragged...OK, I totally bragged, "I know the designer! She's my sister's oldest friend and she used to babysit for me AND she is amazing!" Yes, today was a monumental moment in our nation's history. And yes, the matter of what the First Lady wore today may be considered minor, even trivial, to some. But, to the people of a small town in New Jersey (not to mention the contingencies in Miami and Camajuani, Cuba) this is HUGE. This is "yes, we can," Latin style. And what it means to this Cuban girl from West New York is immeasurable. Because it's family.
Isabel Toledo has been a part of my family's life for as long as I can remember. Our families were tight when I was growing up and Isy remains very close with my sister. They went to high school together. They were at each other's weddings (my sister was her maid of honor). They catch up the way all best friends do when they can get each other on the phone or send a quick email. It's never "my friend, the fashion designer," with my sister. It's just Isy.
I on the other hand, might be considered a bit of a stalker. Not a scary stalker, just a very avid fan and follower of her career. It still amazes me that someone I know, someone I grew up around and always looked up to, is...famous. I still get a thrill when I open up a fashion magazine and see her work. It's beyond cool to me. I know she's just a person, but she's a ridiculously talented person who gets paid to do what she loves and has had great success at it. Like I said, beyond cool.
I have mentioned before that Isy's parents, Bertie and Felix are two of my favorite people of all time. I will say it again here. I loved them the way I love my own parents. They were loving and hard-working and hilarious and they treated me like I was their own. Felix, tall with silver hair and a dark mustache, looked like a movie star to me, like Gregory Peck. I remember he laughed through this teeth. I can hear it now. I remember my mother always called Bertie by her maiden name, "Berta Perez," but I couldn't tell you why. I remember spending afternoons at Abuela Casilda's apartment on the 22nd floor of one of the senior housing buildings with my mother, Felix and Bertie. We played bingo for pennies (cleaned out Parkay tubs are good for holding the loot), drank Cuban coffee and had a lot of laughs.
I wish Bertie and Felix had lived to see this great day, to see their girl achieve this great thing. In my heart I know that they, together with my father and all those old Cubans who raised us in that giant extended family in West New York, New Jersey, are smiling down, saying ¡Si, podemos!.