This post is response to "The moment I felt most American" Open Call.
Growing up in Astoria, Queens, New York City in the mid-sixties, assimilation was the name of the game. We were Cuban immigrants living in exile. We were strangers in a strange land. However, while we were the only Cubans living on our block, we were not the only immigrants.
My neighborhood, at that time, was composed of Greeks, Italians, and European Jews. All were right off-the-boat immigrants. Our parents maintained their ties to the Old Country while we kids desperately tried to shake loose our ethnic roots and plant ourselves in the fresh soil, more like concrete, of the New World.
Clothes and language were the first steps to becoming Americanized. If your parents still dressed you like they did in the homeland, you would be brutally harassed by the other kids. In grade school, I remember a German kid who was terrorized by his classmates because his parents still dressed him in shorts with suspenders and lederhosen. He was chased home every day. I was lucky. My parents being very sensible dressed me in jeans, sneakers and knit shirts. Guayabera shirts didn’t (and still don’t) hold up too well against New York City winters.
While we dressed and acted American, we still practiced our native tongues and ate our ethnic foods at home. You ate what mamí cooked and you liked it or you went hungry. Ironically, when my Italian or Greek friends came over to eat, they liked my mother’s cooking just as much as I liked theirs. To be totally honest, I liked my mom’s cooking too, but to be an "American" meant you had to have a disdain for recipes from the homeland.
Language was easy to pick up thanks to television. The only problem was that most of us grew up watching old Western reruns that were on daytime television and Bugs Bunny cartoons. So every now and then you’d hear one of us say in our best cowboy accent, “Watcha’ fetching to do partner?” Or “I’m goanna saddle up and mosey on over to Irving’s and get me one of dem thar Root Beers. Wanna come?” Or “Watts up, Doc?” We also said things like “Youse guys wanna play some stickball or something?” In school, whenever we had to read aloud, we would switch to our best Mid-Western norm voices thanks to the Evening news. Slowly, but surely we lost our native accents and we adopted the ways and tastes of the American lifestyle.
By the time I graduated from high school and joined the Air Force, I was Cuban only by name. However, I was in an in between zone. I was no longer Cuban, in my mind, but I wasn’t American either. My name (which I would never dream of changing) kept me on the outside. In the Air Force, most people could not pronounce my first name so they Anglicized it. Because of my last name, New York mannerisms and Queens’ accent, a lot people thought I was Italian. Imagine that!
When I got out of the Air Force, I moved in with my mother and sister. My father had passed away four years earlier and my mom and sister moved to Miami, Florida. I earned my Associate’s Degree when I was in the Air Force and I wanted to get my Bachelor’s, so I settled in with them while I went to college. Talk about culture shock.
My family was living in Sweetwater which was a little municipality within Dade County. From my understanding, as soon as the Native Miamians (read “Crackers”; I know not very PC) had moved out, the Cubans took over. This was during the Mariel Boatlift of the ‘80s. In other words, Sweetwater was unofficially referred to as Northern Havana since the name Little Havana was already taken. Everyone spoke Spanish, except me. Actually, during this time my Japanese was more fluent than my Spanish. I spent my last three years in the Air Force stationed in Japan. I studied Japanese in night school and practiced it in the Tokyo bars. Good times. Honto!
I had a very hard time trying to assimilate into the Miami-Cuban lifestyle. For one thing, most of the Cubans who spoke Spanish only, spoke a rapid fire Cuban dialect that made it hard to understand. The ones that spoke English spoke mostly Spanglish. In mid-sentence, they would switch from one language to another as in “Abre la door.” Growing up in New York, Spanglish was forbidden. As a Chilean friend of mine once said, “We either insult Cervantes or Shakespeare, but never both.” However, being in college I met many Cubans, Central and South Americans who spoke both languages fluently and separately. I also took a course called Spanish for Native Speakers; it was designed for people like me. Since then, my Spanish has improved greatly.
The other thing that made me seem like an outsider within my own kind was that I acted…well…like an American. It may not be noticeable to a gringo, but there are subtle differences between a New York Cuban and a Miami Cuban. I notice it when my New York cousins come to visit. Miami Cubans are more clannish; they do not like to venture too far from their comfort zones. However, it has changed over the years. As a matter of fact, some of you living in the Southern United States might know some Miami Cubans. “Y’all want some chicharones with your boiled peanuts and beer?”
So to answer the question, when did I feel most American? It was when a girl I worked with said to a friend of hers behind my back, but within earshot, “El es un Cubano arrenpentido.” Loosely translated it means, “He is a Cuban who is ashamed (or not proud) of his heritage.”I am not ashamed of my heritage. It is just that circumstances made me this way. Actually, I am quite proud of the fact that I can relate to both cultures. It makes me more fluid.