I was born in Havana in the neighborhood of La Víbora. My parents’ house was on the same property as my grandparents’ and I spent most of my time at my grandmother’s house. Eight adult family members, two maids, a chauffeur, and my nanny surrounded me.
La Víbora was not a swanky neighborhood. The house we lived in was fifty years old, but spacious and full of conveniences and great charm.
My first memories are of resting my little head in the arms of a black woman, my first nanny. I remember lying in her arms in our beautiful porch, feeling the ocean breeze caress my skin. She smelled of talcum powder in her white nanny’s uniform. I am one of those people, for better or worse, that remembers her “babyhood”, to include teething on the railing of my crib and tasting what was hopefully not lead paint.
Hortensia, my nanny, was heavyset and her ample figure provided a soft cushion for my little body. I spent most of my waking hours with her while the family went on about its business, their lives not significantly changed by the new addition to the family. My memories of Hortensia are of her scent, her coal dark skin, her deep voice singing lullabies in my ear, and her sweet laughter. I am told Hortensia left when I was three years old to live in Matanzas province with her new husband. One day she was there, and one day she was gone, quickly substituted by Vicenta, a white Spanish woman newly arrived from Galicia, a topic for another day.
Perhaps because my nanny was black and being in her arms was such a loving experience I grew up with little prejudice. That is why in April of 1962 I boarded a bus in Miami, FL and sat in the back of the bus comfortable with being around people of color. In fact, it wasn’t until many of them began to protest my presence that I realized I was the only white person in the back of the bus!
At first I wondered why no one warned me that blacks didn’t like whites in the U.S. I sat there paralyzed as the blacks shooed me and the whites stared me down. It appeared I had done something to offend both groups. At fourteen I was already equipped with the usual insecurities about my looks and in my new role as a refugee I was just beginning to redefine myself. I burst into tears.
A very kind older black woman said: “Go move to the front, you don’t belong with us black folk”. Having been taken over by fear, I got off the bus at the next stop and walked the three miles to my destination. How was it possible that blacks and whites didn’t sit together in the land of the free?
Much has changed since that day in Miami, and not much. Now we don’t like the Mexicans and as it is impossible to distinguish an illegal “alien” from a legal one, we choose to judge them all the same, and don’t make any of them feel welcome. I can only imagine the experience of being a middle eastern or Moslem in our country today.
Yes, the face of America has changed since 1962. There are more people seeking freedom from repression and poverty in their countries, and our population appears to be and is more diverse. As the face of our population changes, our fear level soars. But wait: is this not the country that issued an invitation to the world – an invitation that to my knowledge has still not been rescinded?
“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset hates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lighting, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon hand
Glows worldwide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
I fear for Lady Liberty’s safety in the current mood of intolerance. We should repeat her message like a mantra and remember that ALL of us are here at her invitation save the Native Americans, and that the land we now claim as our own was once the refuge of at least one of our ancestors.