American Cuban or Cuban American?

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.


    1. Y dilo! Muchas gracias por visitar el blog, Gastón. I imagine every first generation of immigrants suffers the same struggles for identity, and as you can see from my son’s experience, so does the second generation. Un abrazo.


  1. I remember arriving as a Cuban refugee 49 years ago, to live in exile in the United States. During the first decade or so, I spent the school years first in Dallas, Texas and then in St. Louis, Missouri, but the summers always in Miami. I felt alienated, Cuban among Americans, and American among Cubans. Then eventually, gradually, imperceptibly, over the next 39 years I became one more Cuban American. And if I were asked today why not American Cuban, I probably would give an answer very similar to yours. Thanks for sharing your experience.


    1. Elena, you are so right! Cuban among Americans and American among Cubans is the way I felt for a long time at the beginning. I ended up in California, Indiana and Kentucky. So Miami was home only at the very beginning of my exile and for quite a while when I visited I felt alien to the culture. Cuba and not Cuba. I like your use of the word imperceptibly for I am not sure when exactly I began to feel differently. Thank you so much for participating in the blog. I value your comments.


  2. Cuban American, that is why to be the President of the US one has to have been born in the US. We carry the “scent” if I may use that comparison…of the place we were born…there’s an ingredient in our personalities that we cannot erase…

    I don’t think we ever completely “belong” to Miami, or anywhere else. I lived in Spain to be closer to the land of my grandparents, because I cannot go to Cuba under Castro’s rule, yet I feel like Alberto Cortes’ song “No soy de Aqui, Ni Soy de Alla”. I think we can never erase the years we spent in our birthplace…we’ll always be a little “gypsy” in our feelings about belonging to any particular country.


    1. The closest I have come to a feeling of belonging in this half a century was on my trip to Spain last May. Perhaps part of it was the warmth with which I was received by my new friends and the total immersion in my native language. As you know many of us go back and forth between Spanish and English when we talk with each other. There, I had no choice but to stay in Spanish. The kissing when you greet strangers, the faces of the people so similar to the faces of my family….it was such a healing time for me. Still, not quite Cuba. I see what you mean….


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