Although I was born in Miami to Cuban-born parents and attended arguably the most Cuban school in the world outside of Cuba (Belen Jesuit), I was not aware of how times were truly changing on the island until I attended the Cornell Conference and began my fellowship with Roots this summer. Up until that point I was so accustomed to and desensitized to the Cuban culture that I really had no intellectual curiosity regarding Cuba, its people still living there, and the state of politics and society. My parents left when they were little and my grandparents had to start a new life in Miami; none of them ever looked back, there was only time to move forward. As a result there was little pressure to learn about Cuba-present day, instead I heard stories of the old Cuba: the Cuba when the U.S. dollar and the Cuban dollar were at equal value, stories of the revolution, and most interesting to me, the romanticized revolution lead by a feared but respected figure, Fidel Castro. For some reason, I never felt I needed to look deeper.
I had traveled outside Miami and the country before but I had never lived for an extended amount of time outside my hometown. Living in Charlottesville, Virginia sparked an identity crisis, the identity crisis that has plagued many Miami-Cuban boys and girls who go out of state for college. I will admit, in high school I always had a thing against the cubanazos. In my head I would say “Come on, we get it, you’re Cuban! You live in Miami, not that cool.” But as the school year progressed at UVA I found myself looking back more and more often to the most Cuban aspects in my life. I bought a Cuba Carnaval poster for my dorm room, a cafetera to make Cuban coffee, and I even considered buying a Cuban flag to hang up. What was going on? I was becoming more Cuban than ever before, in the least Cuban place. And, on top of it all people were really curious about my Cuban background.
I thought about my parents’ culture shock stories when they left Miami to go to university in D.C. and the Northeast. It was definitely not sexy to be Hispanic. Because “El Exilio” dominated their cultural experiences, the American way of life was very foreign. It is safe to say that at least for their undergraduate years, it was very far from the typical “best years of your life.” I went back in my memory to stories my parents had told me about their lives before kids and so forth and none of the happy ones had to do with college. I began to realize that my experiences living away from Miami studying and working would be very different.
As I became involved with the Cuban American Student Association at UVA and later attended the Cornell Cuba Conference, it all began to make sense to me. It was almost as if my generation of Cubans, Cuban-Americans, and Cuba-lovers was the chosen one. The identity crisis characterized by feeling trapped in between two worlds, the Cuban and the American, was not a crisis or conflict at all. Instead I realized it was an opportunity, an opportunity to bring both worlds together in common interests.
Now working as a fellow with Raices and seeing firsthand the progress the organization made has allowed me to look further and see the vast potential we Cuban – American or lover – youth have to foster progress and change on the island. I am aware that the Cubans in Cuba are to be the authors of their own destinies, but I am truly excited to take part in making it possible to write that new chapter in Cuban history, or better yet, Cuban future.