VOLUME 1 NUMBER 1
We gave my old couch to a family of Cubans who came to America, a family who could no longer go on living under Castro and still call their lives their own. It was tan (my mother called it beige) with brown, orange, and green stripes embroidered on it, and it pulled out into a bed, complete with a matching armchair. It was ugly. It was the only couch I’d ever known, however, and despite its retro-seventies look, it was functional and it was a permanent part of my life. Or so it seemed.
We had been planning on replacing it anyway, just needing a reason to finally do it, and my mother’s friend had called with what seemed like a solution at last. A new family had just moved in from Cuba. No furniture. No money for furniture. Our couch? Sure. They could come and pick it up. My mother was especially sympathetic to their plight, having been a Cuban refugee herself back when the crisis was still in its early days. She figured it would take them a week or two to come over and get it, and her mind turned to other things.
A few days after that phone call, I answered an unexpected ring at the door. Three skinny men and a woman, all with dark hair and faded clothes, stared at me. I stared back.
“We’re here for the couch,” they said in Spanish, with the sad smile of refugees who realize that a new beginning brings with it new problems.
“Mom… can you come here?” I called upstairs in English.
I think my mother was more surprised than I was. Our visitors moved with alarming efficiency. Introductions, a borrowed truck in the driveway, could I please hold the door open for them, one-two-three-lift, thanks so much, we really appreciate it. The transaction took less than ten minutes.
My mother and I stood staring in confusion at the indentations in the carpet (also tan/beige) where the couch and armchair had just been.
“Well,” said my mother after a few moments of silence, “I’ll just go get some lawn chairs then.”
I didn’t grow up eating the typical American diet of macaroni and cheese, hot dogs, Hamburger Helper, and delivery pizza on select Friday nights. At least five out of seven dinners in my household consisted of something with rice.
“Arroz is the staple of the Cuban diet,” my mother always said, stirring the huge, battered pot full of those wicked little grains. “You can eat it with anything.”
I watched as she added chopped vegetables, an assortment of meats, bay leaves, spices, and a liberal amount of garlic. My mother, like all good Cuban women, abused the privilege of using garlic. She also added saffron, a bright red powder that came in a tiny tin and turned the bland white rice yellow. She used the end of a teaspoon handle to scoop a miniscule dash into the pot and stain the rice, swimming in its contained yellow ocean. It was a mystery to me how all Cuban women instinctively knew how to make rice. I wondered if this would ever happen to me, if I would one day just magically wake up and know how to cook. If it involved rice, it was a talent I didn’t want.
All I did was eat arroz, arroz, and even more arroz. I felt like a poster child for Goya. I used to tell my mother, “But you aren’t in Cuba anymore, we don’t have to eat rice all the time.” I would have gladly sent my share of rice to the real Cubans, who might actually want to eat it.
My mother would shoot me the evil eye and give the pot another vigorous stir. “Tu eres Cubana,” she would say, “and so you will eat rice.” So rice it was, for years and years, until I thought if I ever saw another grain of rice again, I would go insane and be committed to an institution for first-generation Americans who overdosed on their mothers’ abuses of ethnic cooking.
I used to sit on that ugly couch, its rough, embroidered stripes scratching the backs of my knees like a frayed lawn chair, and look through an album of photos from my mother’s youth. The black and white rectangles in that plain blue album held bits of a life my mother left behind. It’s a tiny miracle that the pictures still exist, as Cubans were not allowed to take anything but a few clothes with them when leaving the island. My uncle had left several years before the rest of his family as part of the Operation Peter Pan airlift intended to save the young children paranoid Cubans believed the Russians would “steal” away, and he moved in with cousins living in New York. My grandmother carefully sent the collection of family photos a few at a time to my uncle, and thus was able to save the family’s visual history.
“What are you doing looking at those old things again?” my mother would ask, sounding disinterested, but she would usually join me in paging through the images.
Unfamiliar faces, mostly faces of people I only grew to know in two dimensions, stared back at me, sometimes serious, sometimes happy, sometimes laughing at a joke I would never know. Sometimes they were younger versions of faces I knew well, or felt like I knew well, and it was strange to think that these people had lived a part of their lives never imagining that one day they would leave Cuba, adopt America as their home, and have children who weren’t born Cuban citizens.
“Tu abuela, tu tio, mis amigas.” My mother listed everyone we saw, adding names and stories, talking about the situations framing the faces in the photos. “There’s your grandparents’ wedding. And your grandmother’s communion. And there’s my communion. There’s the beach where we used to go on vacation every year – we rented a house.”
I always marveled at the pictures of my mother on her fifteenth birthday when she celebrated her quinceañera, the Cuban version of the American sweet sixteen. Girls in frilly white dresses, looking like debutantes, smiled and surrounded my mother. I was shocked: my mother was once a teenager! My mother was beautiful! My mother had boyfriends! Her fifteen-year-old face smiled knowingly at me from the confines of her black and white paper rectangle.
“Look, here’s the new house my father had custom built for us, right before the Revolution really got underway. He had a feeling hard times might be coming, so he stockpiled any building supplies he could. For a while, we had toilet parts and plumbing things all over our back yard.”
As my mother talked, I found myself reconstructing bits and pieces of what her days were like. Like my grandfather’s stockpiled building supplies, I found myself building her life out of the parts she offered on these rare occasions when she revisited her past. It was strange to think that my mother had once lived in a world completely different from the one she lived in now.
And yet, despite the forced, stiff look to the picture, there is still a natural grace to it, a beauty that is not there because of the elegant pose, but despite it. This is a real family; these are real people whose noses ran and who cried and who sometimes got yelled at when they got on their mother’s nerves. These four people, sitting on the couch, innocently allowing a camera to capture a minute of their lives, had no idea that one day photographs would be the only physical memories of their homeland.
My eyes lingered on the photo. I wanted to ask my mother if she thought one day we would be able to pose for a picture together in any of the places featured in the album, if perhaps one day we would be able to recreate the two dimensions before us in three dimensions, if one day we would pose together elegantly on a couch in Cuba. Instead, I closed the album and put it away.
Thanksgiving is not a big deal in my family. Cubans don’t have any particular affinity for turkey, and we eat it “just because.” The bird is served and eaten sans fanfare. The stuffing comes from a can; the rolls are frozen, the salad bagged. The cranberry sauce sits in its can-shaped gelatinous glory on a crystal dish, untouched. Nobody cares enough to watch the game. Everyone feels better at the end of the evening because it signals Christmas is arriving in less than a month. And Christmas means only one thing: a real Cuban meal, free of turkey and a strict adherence to American rules.
When I was young, before my uncle moved to Key Biscayne, before my cousins got married and put a healthy distance between themselves and their parents, we celebrated Thanksgiving with my mother’s family, a lovable yet motley clan of freaks. On that fateful Thursday every November, my family and my aunt’s family would dutifully pack into our cars and make the two-hour sojourn to my uncle’s house in an upscale New Jersey suburb. Celebrating any holiday came with a mixture of required excited expectancy and pit-of-the-stomach dread brought on by the mere thought of relatives. The camera-happy aunt who was fond of taking action shots during dinner, or of my mother’s ass as she leaned into the oven. A morbid older girl cousin whose joyful duty it was to torment the younger cousins, and lock them in the basement every chance she got. An uncle who drank himself into a ruddy-faced laughing spasm and told dirty jokes at the table. This was the family who pretended to give a damn about an American holiday.
The year I was ten, however, the year it snowed, an overweight cousin once removed named Willie (who after his divorce had married a Jehovah’s witness and was the silent scandal of the family) came to visit and stirred things up when he decided to roast a whole pig in the backyard. He constructed an oven out of bricks and for hours tended to Petunia, as my morbid older girl cousin had affectionately named the pig, shoveling snow on top of it occasionally to make it sizzle sickeningly. I couldn’t help but watch.
This year, everyone was anxious to get to the table, because Cubans are pork people. There is nothing a Cuban loves more than good, tender roast pork, and my family was no exception. All afternoon, my relatives clamored around the back door impatiently, like a horde of ravenous cannibals waiting for the ritualistic sacrifice to end and the feast to begin. The pan holding the pig was too huge to fit on any counters or tables, so after the ceremonial carving, it was placed in the foyer blocking the front door. We were all enjoying the meal, forks clinking, tender morsels of moist, golden-brown meat being shoveled into mouths, sharing excitement over the fact that we weren’t eating turkey on Thanksgiving, when suddenly there was a piercing scream from the foyer.
My three-year-old cousin had just met Petunia’s leftovers, face to roasted face.
I used to wonder why a couch as ugly as ours was allowed to exist, why anyone would even want a couch so ugly. I imagined my mother thirty years ago, when her hair was long and her hips were narrow, picking it out at the store, deciding for some reason that this furniture monstrosity was appealing. She probably liked the matching armchair and the pull-out bed, and most likely it was cheap. My sensible mother, picking out something that was practical and affordable instead of something stylish and expensive.
Sometimes it drove me crazy that my mother had this habit of just going for something functional instead of something attractive. It didn’t help when we went shopping for my back to school clothes or when I opened my Christmas presents. For the longest time I didn’t understand why my mother didn’t seem to regard having nice things as a necessity. It drove me crazy to live in a house where things didn’t get replaced until they refused to work anymore. It embarrassed me to have televisions without remote controls and a kitchen furnished in avocado green circa 1979. Most of all, I was embarrassed by a couch that was older than I was and uglier than death. It was the first thing people laid eyes on when entering my house and the last thing they saw before leaving. It killed me to have an eyesore as my home’s most distinctive characteristic.
From the way people reminisced about how good they’d had it back on the island, I was positive my mother never had an ugly couch when she was in Cuba. But by the time her family left, she didn’t have much of anything at all.
Being a first-generation American means telling people I didn’t learn English until I was in preschool and old enough to grasp what was going on in Mr. Rodgers’ neighborhood. I was ashamed as a kid when my mother spoke English in front of my friends because she had an accent and I didn’t, and I just wished she would shut up and go away. As a first-generation American, I was embarrassed about being bilingual until I grew past the teenage years when anything making me different was bad. I spent every summer in Miami with ancient relatives who didn’t speak a lick of English instead of at a beach house down at the Jersey shore like all my other friends.
People think my family came over on a banana boat, or a rubber inner tube. They assume I smoke Cuban cigars, or have ever even seen a Cuban cigar in my life. People ask me to correct their Spanish homework assignments, and strangers always want to know what I think of the refugee crisis, and whether or not I ever want to visit Cuba (what with the way it’s deteriorated and all, they say so knowingly), and they assume that I hate Castro – which I do, of course.
But this isn’t what being a Cuban American really means.
Being a first-generation Cuban American really means watching my mother run out of the kitchen to the TV in the living room when she hears something on the news about Cuba. She slowly sinks onto the couch next to me, which is now a shiny, ivory color with pastel satin stripes and no pull-out bed. With her eyes glued to the screen, I watch her wring the neck of a dishtowel into knots. I can tell from her eyes that things aren’t the way they used to be, that she remembers things getting bad, when they had to wait in lines for hours for what they could get – moldy rice, a fistful of flour, shitty toothpaste, no milk for anyone older than seven. I know she remembers her high school being closed halfway through her senior year and having to get a job instead, washing her hair with a bucket of rain water and a bar of soap instead of shampoo, fleeing to America with only a few years of teenage English and the clothes on her back. “El Nautico, Neptuno, El Malecón, Varadero.” I hear her say the names of the places she knew, places she hasn’t seen in decades, places that are dead now, because a man in a green military suit with a beard and cigar killed them. Now these places are like ghosts of their former selves. They are places she tells me about, places she hasn’t seen since 1966, and places I will never know.
My mother, who held my hair back when I got sick and puked my guts up into the toilet, who trimmed the crusts off my sandwiches every day, who brought flowers to my dance recitals even though I was terrible and who didn’t understand why I never fell for any Spanish boys. My Cuban mother, who I always thought of as having it all together and never being vulnerable, sits there, clutching the cool, smooth edge of the couch watching the TV like it’s all she has left. It is all she has left. My mother is crying.
Being a first-generation Cuban-American means I watch my mother cry for what they have done to her country, and there is nothing I can do but watch, watch her tears and watch the TV, because I will never really know what it means to be Cuban.