Cuba, Cuba, with the Spanish pronunciation of a hard u. What do I say?
Cuba feels like that long lost cousin you met when you were nine years old at your family reunion in the big city that you never had the pleasure of knowing. You sit with your little cousins at a picnic in the countryside, discussing everything and nothing. The entire family is together, you feel like a part of something. An intense longing is felt in your heart, yearning to know these things, but the way the details and stories and actions pour off of your cousin’s lips and roll out of her mouth, you’ve already been there.
“We thought you were like this!” they yell, holding their hands up to display how tall they thought you were, how long your hair was, where your birthmark was, etc. Everyone had differing opinions of you and lacked the truth. They pinch your cheeks, admiring how much you’ve grown, and how they had no idea. They saw family photos, your pictures on the Internet, but they’d never met you. And here you are.
Somehow, everything mentioned by the adults feels familiar, everything your father and mother point out in the car ride reminds you of something you’ve seen before. The large apple tree, the stadium in the distance, the uncle/ aunt you’ve never heard about, and you can’t decide if you made it up within your imagination or if you saw it on television.
This is how Cuba makes me feel.
Everyone looks like you; they have hair like you, round, full, round lips like you. Brown and black skin of every shade within your family, your friends. Even white skin. It’s all a mix, a shade, an entire blended country of people. A woman asks you why you call yourself “afro-americana” (African American), that Americans segregate themselves this way.
You don’t know how to tell her in her native language that you do not belong to something the way she will forever belong to Cuba, that America is a big melting pot, cultures gathering and grouping together for the feeling of community, of belonging, and the necessity to find safe spaces.
The Spanish verb pertenecer (to belong) sits in between your two front teeth and tongue, but you do not have enough energy to push it out.
You see a version of your mother and father, your brother, your dearest friends. You want to touch their skin, to pinch them, to see if they are real. You first grew up in a state where no one looked like you and then your family moved. Here you are at home. You embrace them and embrace yourself at the same time. You feel liberated. You sit and laugh. You cross the street like you are from here. Everyone calls you “mija” (my daughter) or “mi amor” (my love). You greet everyone on the street. “Buenos días,” you whisper.
You stand on a street corner under the shade of a palm tree with an older woman with brown curly hair, blowing in the wind. You count the ancient cars; you see the years of the 1940-1970 rolling past. Bright colors, a screaming red, turquoise blue, a purple Chevrolet, a light yellow Buick; you squeal in delight when a hot pink Dodge rolls past, its silver hubcaps. You observe the old, colorful buildings from the curb; buildings from the 1940s and 1950s.
The reflection from the hot sun hits the car rolling by and you have to squint. The woman laughs. She asks you in a heavy Cuban Spanish accent if you are okay. You tell her you are happy.
She hears your accent; a mix of a Mexican Spanish accent with a little Dominican twist that occasionally appears, and guesses that you are not from her homeland. When you tell her you’re from the United States, she smiles. “Siempre quería ir a tu país…”
“I’ve always wanted to go to your country.”
The words hang in the air.
Even though its atleast 95 degrees Farenheit outside, you feel chills run down your spine. Goosebumps.
She smiles, she reaches out and touches your right shoulder.
“Pero, sabes algo? Tu parece a mi hija. Igual.”
“But, you know what? You look just like my daughter. The same.”
She reaches in her wallet and pulls out a laminated photo. You stare at a replica of yourself, black skin, black hair, tall and lanky, and an identical smile. You stare and she never pulls the photo away. She tells you that she thought you were Cuban when she first saw you, and in that moment you have no idea what country you really belong to.
This is how Cuba makes me feel.
The vintage cars roll past. Cars you cannot name but cars that contain stories your father told you about. Cars he owned, repaired, cars that hold stories of morals and values he taught when you were younger, all attached to a friend he met, a personal experience, a relationship, and every car zipping past brings his childhood and adulthood to life.
You are suddenly in North Carolina in your grandmother’s kitchen; the smell of Oscar Mayer thick cut pork bacon fills the room with its amazing aroma. You hear grease pop off the skillet. You hear your grandmother’s laugh that you haven’t heard since you were seven years old. You peek around the corner of your grandparent’s kitchen’s enormous brown wall that separates the kitchen from the living room.
On a side street of the city of Havana, you see an older man and woman on the street, talking, completely absorbed in each other. No one checks their watch. You return to the same street an hour and a half later, and the same man and woman are still holding a conversation. One has her arm on the other’s shoulder.
“En tu país, todo el mundo está pegado a su teléfono,” someone says.
“In your country, the entire world is stuck to their telephone.”
You don’t have a rebuttal.
This reminds you of the days when your grandfather used to smile and open his newspaper in his favorite chair in the kitchen. He is a man of few words but calls you over and points at the TV, its fuzzy picture resembling a time in the 1990’s, without Internet, with cell phones the size of suitcases, and The Palm Pilot, a small handheld computer, a thing of the future. This was a time where people sat and talked without distractions. When you don’t know something, your mother hands you a children’s dictionary, with large illustrations, a thing you begin to love.
Your mother sits on the couch with your brother, the two year old, blowing large bubbles of spit. She has long, black hair and looks so beautiful next to the large painting of your grandparents. Your brother is smiling at nothing, taking in the sights. This feels like home to both of you, you don’t know that later it will actually be your real home. You hear your grandmother pouring Honeycomb cereal into a bowl for you, a forbidden cereal in the household of your parents, but here it is allowed.
Your father stands in the backyard in a pair of shorts with his older brother, your uncle; you look at his legs and realize you have your father’s legs. You hear their laughs; quite possibly they are discussing their old memories in their childhood home.
You smile and head to the kitchen, stand on your tippy toes and attempt to pull out a jug of white cow’s milk, also forbidden in your parents’ home. You’re long and lanky, nothing but 60 pounds, and almost 5 feet, at 7 years old. Your grandmother laughs again and yells, “Let me help you!” in her Southern accent different from the ones you hear in the North. She grabs the jug from you before you spill it. You look up at her, and feel the warmth of her smile. You want to stay in this moment forever, wrapped in her love.
This is how Cuba makes me feel.
… And then the man next to me on the plane, a 55-year-old Rico Suave looking type of dude, welcomes me as I sit down.
“Vas a Cuba?”
“Are you going to Cuba?” He says. I nod a slight yes and get settled in my seat. He asks me if I’m alone and I can’t figure out yet if he’s creepy. I lie and tell him in Spanish that my aunt is waiting on me. He asks if I’m Cuban, I tell him I’m half Cuban, half American.
“It’s so amazing that your family in the US taught you Spanish!” He introduces himself. “Jose,” he says. “Cuban born and bred.” He takes off his hat and nods at me. He makes it look super cool and like something Rico Suave would actually do and at that moment, I desperately wish I had a hat to return the gesture. 30 minutes after the flight takes off, I decide he’s not creepy, but I still let him think I’m half Cuban just for fun.
I step off of the airplane, the heat hits me immediately and I tug on the sleeves of my jacket. Ya. I wanted to clap when the airplane landed, but no one else did so I only clapped once. We’re herded like cattle or customers in IKEA to the immigration line. The airport is large, what shocks me is the colors. The airport is only painted red and white, but a loud, obnoxious, bold, red. A red that is in your face, screaming at you.
“A communist red,” I think, but later dismiss the thought. The ceilings are high and there are a few glass windows. The immigration lines are quiet, in fact, the quiet is almost uncomfortable.
I stand there for thirty minutes, the line crawling forward like the beads of sweat collecting on my lower back. I’m next in line. All of a sudden, I feel a tap on my shoulder.
I look up, or down, as there is a short man standing on my right. He is wearing an official Cuban immigration uniform. He shows me his nametag that reads “Enrique” and tells me that I’ve been selected for a random search. He asks me if I’m here in Cuba, alone.
“Si,” I whisper, my response trying to sound stronger than his, as if he is me and I am in uniform.
He makes direct eye contact and says, “Necesito tu pasaporte.”
“I need your passport.”
My heart drops in my chest.
I hand it to him and watch him walk through seas of people and his little blue uniform is suddenly out of sight…