Cuban Americans are as American as apple pie and as Cuban as pan con lechón

One aspect of being Cuban American that others have a difficult time grasping is that we can be fully American and fully Cuban all at the same time. I’m sure there’s other groups who can do the same, but none love both this nation and their ancestral heritage more than Cuban Americans.

In an interview with Crux, Cuban American Kristina Arriaga explains this phenomenon:

Cuban Americans cling to both U.S., Cuban identities

For 30 years, Kristina Arriaga has worked on the defense of freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief as a member of the U.S. delegation to the UN Human Rights Commission, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and the Executive Director of a U.S.-based public interest law firm. In 2016, the Speaker of the House appointed her to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, where she served 2 terms as vice-chair. She spoke to Charles Camosy about her life and work.

Camosy: Can you start by sharing with us a little bit about your background, and your family’s background, beyond the bio above? Can you say something in particular about why your family fled Cuba and what they found here in the U.S.?

Arriaga: In 1957, Fidel Castro was presumed dead, but a New York Times reporter, Hubert Matthews, resurrected him. In a front-page exclusive, Matthews reported he had snuck into Cuba, traveling to a remote rural enclave to interview Fidel, “the rebel leader of Cuba’s youth.” Arguably, this started the world’s love affair with one of the most sadistic rulers in modern history.

My mother, only 19-years-old at the time, was among the hundreds of thousands of Cubans cheering 32-year-old Fidel as he entered Havana on January 8, 1959. That night, Fidel delivered his first televised speech. (At the time, Havana had more television sets per household than any city in the U.S.) He spoke about equality and fairness, promising not a single drop of blood would be shed for the Cuban Revolution. As his hoarse voice reached a feverish pitch, a white dove descended to perch itself on his shoulder. The crowd went crazy with excitement, but Fidel did not acknowledge the dove, which lingered over an hour. Rich in symbolism, the dove has been the subject of much interpretation. Regardless, his regime perpetuated the incident as an anointment. That same week, Time featured Fidel on its cover.

After the speech, Castro acted swiftly and took the Cuban people, including my parents, by surprise. With a stable economy (the Cuban peso was equivalent to the dollar), free education, and a good livelihood in most cities, many Cubans never expected the Castro regime to last. However, within the first 30 days he executed 500 government officials who had worked for the regime which preceded him. He also arrested thousands of young men, women, and children, including my mother’s young aunt. Her crime? She was suspected of not supporting Fidel.


You recently had a piece in the USA Today arguing that we are facing a “cancel culture” here in the U.S. that reminds you of the cancel culture your family fled. What prompted you to write such a piece?

I wrote the piece hoping to instigate a bit of a wake-up call. I never realized I would hit a nerve. Within hours, the piece had over 100,000 impressions on Twitter. I received emails, texts, and social media messages from all over the world. Also surprising, all of the messages were in support of the piece. Then, Twitter tagged the piece as having “sensitive content.” Ironic, I may have been canceled because I wrote a piece raising concerns about cancel culture.

Fidel did not call it “cancel culture,” but that is what his regime did to anyone who dared disagree with him or even make a joke about him. Therefore, my family has never forgotten our good fortune or the debt of gratitude we owe to this country, which granted us asylum. Our freedom is our greatest possession—one that we will not give up easily.

In fact, when my two siblings and I were growing up in Puerto Rico, any complaint of scarcity was met by my parents with: “We are rich, we live in freedom.” In truth, for many years, we were poor. My father, at 32-years-old, was a lawyer with a thriving commercial business in Cuba. In Puerto Rico, he had to work seven days a week to make ends meet. Among his many jobs were a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman, a chemical products representative, and realtor. While we were young, my mother was a stay-at-home mom who sewed her clothes and ours.

Read the entire interview HERE.