Voices e/ Magazine / Letras


Groundless: growing up Cuban in Puerto Rico

I.   Oh father!

     Today my father called as he usually calls every week and we talked about the same things we talk about almost every week, the recent packages he sent to Cuba with a detailed inventory of the soaps and hairpins he sent to his sister, have I written to my aunt lately, how is my work, any news from my siblings (which I get first hand anyway but I pretend not to know, so he can still feel part of the gossip beat). We don’t talk much about my love life, which is curious, not that I have much of one lately but his denial is so intense that when I had a boyfriend it took him six months to register his name. By the time I socialized my father to learn his name and forgive him for loving me; he no longer was a part of my life. My ex was complicated, his name wasn’t.

     My Cuban father, he repeats things ad nauseum. For example, I sent my aunt a Christmas card (the last I heard in Cuba they celebrate Xmas in July, who knows). So when my Dad asked me if I had written recently to my aunt, I was prepared with my story. I said I had even sent her a picture of my graduation. He asked me, ¿what stamp did you use? Well Papi, the ones I got at the Post Office. He reacted: “NO, NO, NO, you got to send the ones with the American flag; those are the only ones that get through. They steal everything, particularly bulky letters. You have to put in the envelope: CONTAINS A FAMILY PICTURE. As if a stamp with an American flag has a better chance of surviving the treacherous blockade!” Discussion for a couple of calls, I feel utterly helpless.

     My sister says yes to everything my father argues, as he is highly opinionated. My sister recalls that when we were kids the best way to get him to give us money for clothes, was to sit right next to him in his enormous reclining reading chair and with great poise and confidence confess: “Father, when I grow up I want to be an astronaut, a scientist or better, an engineer.” The bills would fly out of his pocket, fairly automatic reinforcement. We actually did everything we wanted. My brother regularly defied my father’s poor business judgment and became a banker, my sister dropped out of Engineering School and became an Architect, and I did not do Industrial Psychology, but ended up working with children. I grew up thinking that maybe I could outsmart my dad in some way, read something he hadn’t, talk to him in speedy cocky English, forget it, for each one of my attempts he had a counter-story from his childhood (lengthy ones) from when he went to school, word to the wise, if you need advice, my father will tell us story number 35, sit down and listen it’ll only be an hour.

     But he is usually at our side particularly if it means questioning the Establishment. The nuns of our catholic school thought my sister was a behavior problem. In fact, she was ahead of her class and perhaps even smarter than the nuns. One of the Sisters called my father in for a teacher/parent conference. The Sister said that my sister was very good in Math but maybe she should leave the school, because she was a behavior problem, my father listen attentively and in a tone that feigned agreement, he readily replied: “Sister, now you and I have a problem”. Maybe it was the Math whiz thing that stirred him into family loyalty. Loyalty is a vital survival tool for an immigrant family. When my sister obtained university acceptance to almost every school she applied for, except Princeton, he retorted, PAF, those silly guys (she did get into Harvard with a scholarship).

     I once escaped my job in New York for a few days to take care of my ill mother in Puerto Rico. I had no choice I was working in New York and she was dying. The official line I gave my boss was that I was terribly sick and couldn’t get out of bed for a couple of days. (Actually I found out later that I was entitled to family license). I lied, and was in sunny Puerto Rico with a giant hat and plenty of sun screen on to avoid a sun tan by all means necessary. As to be expected, somebody from the office called my mother’s house, maybe I had listed her phone number in case of an emergency. My mother was very sick and I felt confused so I forgot about screening the call that time and oops there she was, the Assistant Chairperson, I hung up terrified and consulted with my dad. He said: no problem we’ll change the phone number. Fools!

     I had a dramatic oedipal time. This reminds me that when I was 5 years old, they use to beat me up in kindergarten. You know those precocious bullies. I used to get home black and blue but never stroke back, because early on my family had stamped me with ladylike reserve. My father conferred with me again. It is time for a change he said. He couldn’t go to school every day, so this was the game plan. I was to beat them all up, one by one bring their heads to my father. In exchange, I could get whatever gift I wanted. It was way before Christmas so I figure out that this was a great deal. So the little creeps got their beatings and I went to collect my proceeds. My father and I shopped for a lovely kiddy dining set that graced thereafter my pink room. I was thrilled but not exempt of the paradox of juxtaposing the civility of a dining set with the bloody revenge I exacted from my abusers. They never hit me again. After that, I learned how to trick them. No wonder after such early head hunting I became a shrink!

     That wasn’t the only time my father hired me for a beating. We had these friends, the sons of dear friends that used to beat my sister up, one of the boys would hold her and the other one would smack her. My father, without hesitation called his Charles Bronson daughter into action. He said: “I’ll give you, what was it $3 or $4, if the next time those boys come to the house the first thing you do is to take care of them. Unfortunately, they came January 1 to visit, with Happy New Year hats on and noise-makers, cheerful little devils. So I waited like a hunter right behind the door, the minute the primary culprit stepped in WAM, I punched him. I was in shock but somewhat glad. The older boy had always kicked me and left me almost invalid by crushing my feet which even under my orthopedic shoes hurt a lot. The boy who received my deliverance was stunned, his mother and my mother started crying. My survival instincts told me to cry also. By then, I had learned to walk both sides of the fence. I apologized but collected my fee anyway. That evening as I delivered my mafia report to my father he called the boys father up and in no uncertain terms said: “MY DAUGTHER JUST KNOCKED YOUR KIDS, LET ME KNOW IF YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT.” It went Ok, we are still friends.

     Non-verbal skills are my father’s forte, particularly when they contradict whatever he has to say. When we arrived to the United States via Tampa, my parents needed to feed me, so he went to a store and repeatedly asked for a NORSERI BATTLE, of course the poor clerk couldn’t get it, finally my dad made a drawing of an infant drinking from a bottle, which was later interpreted as NURSERY BOTTLE. Multimodal communication they call it. By the way, I told my dad I was doing this vignette, he said: “don’t give out my phone number or address.”

II.   The burden of knowledge

   During my last trip to Cuba I don’t understand why, or perhaps I pretend not to, why am I with my eyes closed in all of the pictures,. This may sound a little pretentious since I have made only two trips to Cuba with more than 40 years of difference between these. Let’s not deny the fact that I was hoping for a great shot to reproduce, enlarge and circulate to rest of the world. But what did it mean to have my eyes closed on the pictures? Being a psychologist, I ventured, it must be an opening of unconscious material, my scientific side claimed that it might just be a reaction to the flash; finally, I called my aunt in Cuba, to ask her what she thought of this. Unbeknownst to me maybe she had been in psychoanalysis in Cuba because she easily bounced back the question to me. I checked all my old pictures to confirm this effect. No question about it, I was in a dreamy state.

     Returning to Cuba, made me feel scared and happy. Scared to know that I might be committing myself to additional future remittances. This ended up being true. Intergenerational loyalties placed me in this position. Nevertheless, happy to learn more about my parents, to be able to elongate my self, to see traces of my ancestral genes from a two-part story. A story that had abruptly stopped. My father left his family in Camaguey and my mother left hers in la Habana. So, I needed to organize my trip very carefully, between my academic responsibilities at the Women’s Conference at the University of La Habana, my students, the family I left at home in Puerto Rico (with included a hungry husband and a curious little child), and a scattered set of relatives to be visited. Given that I tend to be reserved and shy with people until I know them better, I was wondering how would I fare with these hugging, knurling, competing tribes on my mother and father’s side. It was unspoken, but they were competing for my time and gift giving capacity, which is very deep. My aunt from Camaguey made me call her everyday when I returned to my hotel in La Habana. The bill was astronomical, this is the person who insisted that I should not spend too much money taking my family from La Habana out to dinner. In turn, my aunt from la Habana was obviously disappointed when informed, that I would make the stretch to Camaguey first since it was easier to take all the planes at once. I had politely asked my aunt before going to Cuba, what she needed, and she shocked me with her unhesitant response, Um electrical appliances? Oh yes a television. I discontinued that topic in a rush and later called my brother in a panic. Brother I have herniated discs, scoliasis and limp under stress, how am I supposed to carry a television, I am sure she does not mean a miniature one from Topeka. Being the logical businessman that he is, my brother made the suggestion, that each aunt would give get an additional $300 after the trip, (ah, more money!), one would get a TV and the other one a washing machine. Did we open a wish box!!!!!! After returning home I got a letter requesting assistance to have a whole family relocated to Puerto Rico. I could not even breathe after this, nights of guilt driven insomnia. How could I say no without being cruel and irresponsible, but how could I say yes without being cruel and irresponsible. I offered an in between situation, which my cousin had the nerve to reject, and I still kept the endless bills of long distance calls to Cuba. After all, in his mind, WE SHOULD HELP, is this not Disneyland, are we not there yet? Pointless, because now I hear that the other side (I am sure they are in complicit communication) is planning to leave through some kind of refugee program, and I am scared and happy; we’ll see about the rest.

III.   Homage to the Cuban Mother

     Hail to all Cuban mothers because I am one of thee! For years I have been flirting with writing this piece but the emerging stories would carry me in a vortex overwhelming any expanse of paper. If you are lucky enough to have had a Cuban mother, you are surely smiling to the heavens, knowing yourself lucky beyond reserve. But perhaps this grand feeling is compensatory since us daughters of the exile also lived with a phenomenal sense of obligation, relentless guilt and surrounded by phantom limbs. I am certain my parents never regretted moving to Puerto Rico, but lets’ see, as we got out of the plane my laconic mother said with enthusiasm, Oh this is just like La Habana, which of course just made it right. As a child, I thought we had arrived to some form of tropical paradise (until I started to be attacked by the mosquitoes). When we asked our mother about Cuba, she was evasive, that was a question of the past, and now we are from here. Therefore, the blockade instilled in us a grave sense of there and here, before and after. A discontinuity between time frames and an ambiguous sense of loss. What about this Cuban goddess, my mother? For quick reference, let me qualify that she was also confused with Greta Garbo, and that we were NEVER able to fool her (besides, she never told us her age). She was sharp as a blade and a lioness defending her cubs. One example should suffice. When we arrived to Puerto Rico since I did not really know how to read or write in my second language, Spanish, (did I tell you my parents had me convinced that I was American), my mother persuaded the principal of school that their idea of delaying me a grade would be traumatic because I was too tall for my age. Tall?? Nice try. Chubby? Maybe. No task was too small for her children and she never overslept. In her eyes we were direct descendents of the Sun and she was the center of our Universe. We fought for the favors of Her Majesty, and even when she was sick she was unable to look sloppy, gliding through life with careful grace. This is the woman who thanked the nurses before dying in the Hospital, and knowing she was going to die, asked to get ready for her passage while clipping on her earrings and combing her hair. Impossible to underestimate this resourceful woman, who spoke little and never learned English although we lived more than seven years in New York. She was full of surprises, the special drawer that awaited me back in vacations, little gifts my mother saved for me, cute little perfumes, makeup, fans, patchouli, hankies….She always had words of kindness for her neighbors and never did I see her gossip, which she thought was a waste of time, living her life with a profound sense of dignity, that I suspected all Cuban beauties had, secretly knowing they were special. She tantalized my father, she took his breath away, and he was always eager to dance with her, the boleros, the Conga lines… Nothing made me happier than to watch my parents dance in a loud, loud Cuban party. When she died, even her demeanor in the casket was regal, surrounded by her best jewels, her children. During the funeral she gave me yet another gift, as I saw layer after layer of our life peeled away, the oldest set of our friends were mostly Cuban and Spanish, and then slowly precipitating the waves of Puerto Ricans from different parts of the Island. How to describe the bonds of solidarity of these old friends, the howling of my aunt Nena during the burial, and that before touching the ground I read a Cuban poem (by Pablo Milanes of course). How could my mother who was a homemaker know so many people? Where did she find the time to help so many persons while raising three small children? After her death, I read her diary and really learned the extent to which she lived with constant physical pain during her illness. She never burdened us with her cares, when she could no longer go to Church; she had the Communion brought to her house. She ordered the food by phone and went shopping for Christmas gifts in a wheelchair. Even when given a death sentence she felt entitled to bargain with God to let her live longer until her children were well settled in school, even if this might mean never meeting her grandchildren. When my daughter was born, I automatically became one of those clannish and ferocious Cuban mothers who push their children into the stage, comb their hair three times before settling on a hairdo, and insist on overprotective sports gear. A worrier, indulgent and quite demanding Cuban mother. After my daughters’ birth I was also somehow drained of ambition. Now I bargained with God, shall anything happen, let it be me, and spare my Cuban-Puerto Rican little girl. Amen!

©Elsa B. Cardalda



Letras Vol.01/2010

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