Last week, I had what Enrique Iglesias would call “una experiencia religiosa” or a religious experience. And to set the record, it had nothing to do with a religious dimension, but with an incident that triggered overpowering emotions that mirror those found in a spiritual revival. But unlike those emotions of exuberance and empowerment that are present in the latter, I felt anger and disappointment.
On a sunny and cool September day, I was having lunch with Cristina, a Puerto Rican colleague, at the Parque Español of the U.S. Department of Commerce in Washington, DC. I have christened this area Parque Español because it reminds me of the parks where I used to ride my bicycle in Havana, Cuba. It’s outdoor, with well-manicured gardens and fountains all around. Its diverse ambiance creates a drastic contrast to the uniform architecture of the indoor cafeteria – where homogeneity is the norm. It is the diversity of the Parque that I seek and enjoy most, as it relaxes me from the rigidity and single-mindedness of most bureaucratic decision-making.
When I was deeply immersed in a conversation with Cristina, I saw Roberto – whose real name I’ve changed to protect his privacy – approaching our table. I greeted Roberto warmly, and introduced him to Cristina. Roberto is an executive at one of the bureaus of the Commerce family. After we exchanged a few pleasantries, I indicated to Cristina that Roberto had the high distinction of being a Cuban-American – which, in my mind, surpassed the importance of being an executive. And, it was at this point, when the conversation took a turn for the worse.
Roberto went out of his way to correct me and emphasize with a sarcastic smile on his lips that being Cuban-American “was a thing of the past!” Needless to say, from that point on, I erased Roberto from the C:/ drive in my brain – as I am most selective as to what I store in it. I was embarrassed for myself, for Cuban-Americans, and for Cristina. Thank God that Roberto left our company shortly after he made his insensitive remark, and before I had time to recover from the emotional turbulence that I experienced.
To check myself, I asked Cristina what she thought of Roberto. She responded that if Roberto had reneged on his Cuban-American lineage to impress her, he failed miserably. I knew then that I was on to something.
You can joke around with Cuban-Americans with just about everything you can think so. Most are well-grounded individuals who know how to have a good time – which mainly comes from their exposure to the sea, to sugar cane, and to the Afro-beat of their music. But the thing that Cuban-Americans have no tolerance for is when someone questions or feels embarrassed of their Cuban identity.
It is the Cuban culture that gives Cuban-Americans their uniqueness. When they were in Cuba and announced their intentions to emigrate to the United States, they suffered discrimination because of their political views. They got fired from the state-controlled jobs, they were called pejoratives like gusanos (worms), and they were forced to turn over all their personal belongings to the Cuban authorities for merely wanting to cohabitate with the alleged enemy, with the Great Satan, with the United States of America. But their Cubaness was what kept them going. It was the Cuban culture of seeking freedom and democracy, of sticking together as a family, of looking after each other in good times and bad times, of wanting something better for themselves and their children, of having an equal opportunity to excel at anything based on their God-given talents, that made them one of the most successful immigrant groups in the Nation.
It was that pride, according to the PEW Hispanic Center, that made Cuban-Americans, when compared with the rest of the Hispanic population in the United States, have a higher level of education, higher median household income and higher rate of home ownership. In fact, native-born Cubans had a higher median income than non-Hispanic whites ($50,000 vs. $48,000). About 61% of Cubans owned their home, compared to fewer than half of all other Hispanics (47%). Among native-born Cubans 25 and older, 39% were college graduates compared to 30% for non-Hispanic whites in the same age group. It was that “si se puede” mindset that despite being 1.9M strong in the U.S. population and 3.7% of the U.S. Hispanic population in 2012 had placed four Cuban-Americans in the U.S. House of Representatives and two in the U.S. Senate. This, by itself, was an impressive display of political power! It was this sense of gratefulness that made Senator Marco Rubio praise, at the 2012 Republican National Convention, the sacrifices that his Cuban parents made to ensure that their children lived in the land of freedom and opportunity. It was the sense of unity as one people that touch us deeply when we heard the “Azucar” shouts from the late Queen of Salsa Celia Cruz during her musical performances or the song “Nuestro Dia Ya Viene Llegando” from the incomparable Willy Chirino. And it was this sense of the audacity of hope in a better tomorrow that made Cubans throughout the world celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Virgin de la Caridad del Cobre in September of 2012 and pray for better days for all Cubans in the near future.
Cuban-Americans have a lot to be proud of. This is what has made us survive and thrive in unwelcoming environments for so long. We recognized early on that there was no home country to go back to. We had to survive in foreign countries on our own and rely on the solidarity of our own people. And by holding on to our core values of country, honor, and family, we became the paragons of a people who looked adversity in the eyes and came out as victors against all odds. America and the world love winners, and Cuban-Americans are one-of-a-kind winners.
So, Roberto is an anomaly, a mutation within the Cuban-American community. He wants to be everywhere, but he is nowhere. He wants to be American, but he lacks the attributes that Americans look for and admire. He wants to be Cuban-American only when he can benefit from his Hispanic ethnicity. He is a lost and lonely mariner in search of a safe location to drop the anchor. He is a desperate man without an identity. He is a Cuban-American of changing colors, but those colors are not the red, white, and blue of the American and the Cuban flags! He is inconsequential!