Somewhere in the middle: My cultural identity

A couple of weeks ago Carlos and I were invited to a dinner party thrown by the gallery owner Carlos is set to show at in October. A small get together to meet up and coming artists in Montevideo along with local art buyers. I’ve been to a few things like this back in Miami, always the same pretentious art talk being thrown around, where I normally spend half the night trying not to throw up from all the bullshit. 

But this time, there was something different. Very early on the group divided between the art buyers and the art makers, those of us falling into neither category floating in the middle. Right at the beginning we met Juan, a Cuban artist that married a Uruguayan and has been living in Montevideo for a little over a year, and Nathalia, a psychology student from the department of Artigas living in Montevideo for over 11 years. In true man fashion Carlos and Juan pulled out their phones and started showing each other pictures of their work, leaving Nathalia and I to “ooh” and “aah” at every picture. Shortly there after we noticed that Juan did not have a typical Uruguayan accent leaving us to ask, “Where are you from?” Cuba. I quickly got excited telling him that my parents are Cuban including the towns they hail from but not before he asked, “Were you born in Cuba?” “Well no,” I responded. “I was born in Miami.” Juan, very politely, responded with, “Bueno entonces no eres cubana, tus padres si, pero tu eres estadounidiense.” (translating to: So then you’re not Cuban, you’re from the United States.)

My husband looked at me, waiting to see how I would respond, knowing that hearing that stung. I wish I could say that was the first time I had heard it. He’s not wrong in saying that I am in fact not Cuban but American. but as with everyone else who has told me that it was as if I was hearing, “You aren’t worthy of identifying yourself as Cuban. You are not one of us.” 

Growing up in Miami you would expect the melting pot of Hispanic ethnicities to create a warm and welcoming environment. The idea that they’ve all immigrated to the United States in search for a better life would bring them together. But it never really worked out like that. I grew up in an environment that divided Cubans from everyone else. Miami Cubans—and yes I am generalizing here—overall had this air about them that because Miami is known to be a Little Havana, that Cubans are THE best and all others are second class citizens. 

But I remember growing up and while I identified as a Cuban-American I never really fit in with the Cubans in school. I hadn’t immigrated to the States and while I may have spoken Spanish at home it wasn’t as if I was fluent. You would think that I would have found a place with other Cuban-Americans or Hispanic-Americans going through the same plight but I just didn’t. I didn’t listen to salsa or reggaeton, I didn’t watch Sabado Gigante or telenovelas on weeknights, and I didn’t go to loud family get togethers on Sunday afternoons. 

Then there were the American kids telling me that I was too brown to be their friend. That I wasn’t American enough to be American. “You came to this country for the ‘American dream’ well you’re not welcome here go back to your people.”

I spent most of my youth listening to bands like N’SYNC or the Backstreet Boys. I watched T.G.I.F. religiously and read Judy Blume books. Even when I did manage to build my tribe from 6th to 12th grade I didn’t have the same Hispanic experiences as them. Their parents made their culture known but apart from delicious Cuban food and my parents speaking in Spanish to each other, it wasn’t something that was common for me. My friends spent their summers in Cuba or Nicaragua, they only spoke to their families in Spanish, and they strongly identified as whatever their nationality is.

But me? I didn’t know what to identify as. I come from a blue-collar family. My dad worked three and four jobs at a time while my mom worked a steady 9-5 with good benefits but lacking in decent pay. We wore used clothing, had used toys, and my sister and I were constantly reminded that we needed to be better than our parents. I don’t feel like this struggle is a Cuban struggle or an American struggle because this is a human struggle; making ends meet, putting food on the table and providing for loved ones. At home we listened to oldies and classic rock. We watched English programs and my mom was active in my school work. If you asked me who Justin Timberlake was dating I could tell you Britney Spears in two seconds flat but ask me about whatever popular hispanic power couple and I would be as quiet as a country mouse.

It wasn’t until I met my husband that I had found someone other than my sister that felt the way I did. He was born in Nicaragua but raised in the States. When we go to Nicaragua they don’t consider him one of them, rather he’s a “gringo.” But if you ask any American if my naturalized husband is American they make it a point to differentiate themselves from him. 

The easy way to deal with this is to say, “I identify myself as a human. I have no cultural patrimony.” But that’s far from realistic. I think for right now I am comfortable knowing that I’m currently in-between cultural identities. My parents are Cuban, each with their own eclectic cultural backstory, I was born and raised in Miami but now I live in Uruguay. There are parts of each currently embedded in who I am and how I interact with others. I hope that one day I can figure it out, that I can give an answer that can please myself and not offend others. 

I’m thankful that I can have so many cultural influences, and that while my daughter may come across the same issues, that she will be proud of where she comes from. 

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