Being Cuban. Being Woman. Being Lesbian. These are all concrete identifiable experiences for me that melt into a puddle of vagueness whenever I try to grab them and hand them over to someone else for understanding.
But, I think the best way to explain the Being Cuban part to someone not Cuban entails describing one afternoon of my life.
I was born Cuban-American a.k.a. a Cuban in the United States. Therefore, I’ve always lived at the point where two distinct worlds briefly brush against each other while on a rush to separate destinations. This dot in the space-time continuum is an unusual locale where two opposing atmospheres converge to form a rare hybrid of people: Los Cubanos-Americanos. I like to think of this planetary meeting place as my grandmother’s house.
Every Thursday from 1 p.m. – 6 p.m. for the last three years, I’ve hung out with my grandmother “Mamaita” at her home in a suburban outskirt of Los Angeles. She lives in a primarily middle-class/lower-middle class Mexican-American neighborhood. I live in a similar barrio five minutes away.
Her well-kept, peach-coated, wide 4-bedroom property faces a groomed yard adorned in pastel flowers, Aloe Vera plants, and heavy concrete ducks. During her 25 years there, she’s used the Aloe Vera to cure everyone’s everything — from derrieres wounded by poodle bites to minor burns to acne breakouts. If you really want to clear the acne for good, however, she highly recommends using Azufre three times daily.
As soon as you walk into her living room, you find yourself standing on a light-yellow shag carpet surrounded by shelves of books, family portraits, certificates of achievement, and aged trinkets from my childhood.
Her books are medical, psychological, and nutritional in nature and all in English. Although she mostly writes, speaks, and listens to the radio in Spanish, she prefers reading in English as a means of practicing the language. Her comprehension of the English language is impressively vast especially since she still struggles from time to time to wrap her mouth around the English translation of her Cuban phrases. Barack Obama becomes Arak Oama, in other words.
Our family portraits change weekly, but include us all – at one point or another – standing or sitting next to each other while looking pensively or forlornly off into the distance. Including the babies. Framed above us all, my great-grandmother, her mother, stands between two Alice In Wonderland Characters Tweedledee & Tweedledum at Disneyland, taken years back when she flew over from Cuba for a visit.
Mamaita’s certificates of achievement range from the University of Havana to college in Cali to an award she won for poetry in 1989, the Golden Poet award. A killer poet and bona fide book addict she can usually be found humming behind gold-rimmed glasses while writing with her left hand or holding a book she’s reading with her right.
When I arrive, the radio tends to blare ballads by Olga Guillot, Benny More, Celia Cruz, and Joan Baez from the “It’s a Cuban Chreeesmas” music mix I made her. Mamaita also enjoys ’60s American Folk songs and various genres of American music. One time I found her listening to Nirvana on the radio. She told me that hard stuff often helps her get the inner knots of AAH! out.
We then walk into the kitchen where she’s cooked the most delicious food I ever will eat. Hers are healthy versions of classic Cuban meals: platanitos fritos, ropa vieja, yucca, arroz prieto, y ensalada Cubana. And from behind a plastic child-protective gate, my grandmother’s heart-melting mildly obese dog “Angelita,” resemblant of a chubby little lamb, barks for me to pet her.
After petting Angelita, my grandmother and I sit down at her round 1970s dinner table. Sitting relaxed on her walker seat across from me, she cups her glamorous 1940s crop, lifts her classic gold-rimmed glasses from the tip of her nose up to her eyes, and begins gently twirling her Sagittarius necklace with her right pointer finger. Instantly, her left fist opens up and begins expressing all the ideas, memories, and feelings she’s started telling me about.
We speak about poverty in 1930s Cuba and surviving El Barrio de Jesus Maria, the positive effects vitamins and good nutrition have on the body’s different organs, and how my aunt Mamadina prayed as a little girl for La Cigüeña to bring her a little sister, and then my mom was born.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see a large Cuban coffee maker on the stove and know that after lunch we’ll drink her incomparable Cafésito Cubano con Leche de Cabra. After which she’ll recite a poem she wrote for me when I was very little and emphasize the line, “mi nietesita de ojos color caramelo.”
For me, Being Cuban means being Cuban-American one afternoon at a time.
Writer & filmmaker Vanessa Libertad Garcia has completed a myriad of successful projects in both the film & literary worlds. Her debut book The Voting Booth After Dark: Despicable, Embarrassing, Repulsive is available for purchase online at numerous well-known and independent sites. Ms. Garcia is currently in development for her first feature film based on the books’ characters titled Dear Dios, and her second book — a collection of love poetry. Her blog is Bloggimia.