A good friend asked me some time ago why I refer to myself as a Cuban American and not an American Cuban. At the time I must admit I had never contemplated calling myself an American Cuban. My initial reaction was a sense of confusion. Was I both? Perhaps.
I don’t wake up every day thinking of myself as a Cuban American. Before I came to this country I thought American meant that you lived in America- the all encompassing America- the one that includes North, South and Central America. Certainly when we sang God Bless America in our American school in Havana, I did not confine my imagined blessings to the Northern part of the continent.
In the short trip from Cuba to Miami I became not only a Cuban refugee, but a Hispanic, and to my great surprise given my Spanish and English heritage, I became “brown”. A few years later my blond blue eyed mother, daughter of Mary Fox, also became “brown”. But I digress.
I function as an American every day of my life. I speak English with a slight accent some people identify as Southern, but I have a good command of the language. I am a wife, a mother, and a grandmother and my husband, children and grandchildren are “Americans”. I keep up with the news, root for the Pittsburgh Steelers (since the days of Terry Bradshaw, Lyn Swan, and Mean Joe Green) and I reluctantly admit to the fact that I like to watch True Blood. Could I get more “American” than that?
I only think in Spanish when I speak Spanish and I even dream in English. I wonder if dreaming in English makes me more American than Cuban? The truth is that I don’t walk around every moment of the day trying to identify myself one way or another. First and foremost, I function as a human being. My spirit occupies a body that functions more or less like everyone else’s on the planet.
My heart bled on 9/11 and it bled last March when Cuban dissident Orlando Zapata died during a hunger strike in protest of human rights abuses in my native Cuba. But it also bleeds whenever I hear of any tragedy or injustice anywhere in the world. The Holocaust stories affect me deeply despite the fact that I am not Jewish.
I am afraid I am no closer to being able to answer the question. Nor are my children. My son Rick served in the U.S. Army in Kuwait. One day when in formation and for some unknown reason his Sergeant said: “OK , all you Hispanics line up on the right, and Americans on the left”. My son, always as honest as Abe, stayed put. His Sergeant said: “Ward, what are you?” To which my son answered: “Sarge, I’m a mutt.”
Perhaps I am too. At times an American Cuban and at times a Cuban American. If we’re talking a question of loyalty, I pledged an oath to be loyal to this country when I became a citizen. And I meant it. If it is a question of gratitude, I am a million times grateful to this country that has provided me the opportunity to live a life of freedom. But when I close my eyes and remember the clear blue ocean where I learned to swim, the incredible sights, sounds and smells of my beautiful island, its music and its people, I feel Cuban to the bone. In those moments I am definitely a Cuban American. An exile from paradise.