Howdy, sugar plums. Here’s one of my wishes: I hope 2015 is the year I finally go to Cuba.
I am not Cuban or even descended from Cubans. But I did grow up in Hudson County, New Jersey, which at the time had the highest concentration of Cuban exiles outside of Miami, so I’m something of an honorary Cuban.
I knew no other Argentinians growing up. But I was surrounded by Cubans. I did not feel the “Latino” kinship with them… they were about as different from my family as the Americans were. Their Spanish was barely decipherable to me. Their food was not like ours. Their immigrant experience was entirely different from mine, their past as exiles giving them both legal status and an undercurrent of anger and self-righteousness I didn’t share. They didn’t come here seeking a better life. They’d had a better life and it was robbed from them. Our different brands of foreignness separated rather than united us.
Their customs were strange. I remember going to one Cuban girlfriend’s house to pick her to go up for a high school dance only to be harangued for half an hour by her mom about the need for a sweater and an umbrella even though the forecast called for 70s and clear skies. So many of the Cuban people I met were always cold, especially the older generations. There was another friend’s mom who wouldn’t let us go dancing on a Saturday night until she’d watched Walter Mercado – an androgynous psychic who meted out astrologically-inspired instructions about what nights it was okay to leave the house. They were an unusual bunch, always afraid of catching cold and meeting bad people.
But they grew on me. I ate their rice and beans (exotic to me, coming from a meat and potatoes culture, but absolutely yummy). I went to their ostentatious sweet “fifteen” parties (“Los Quince”). Their parents regaled me with stories of their beautiful old island, a place none of my peers were old enough to have seen. Every Cuban refugee I met claimed to have been a millionaire before Fidel ruined everything. (Oh, the burning hatred for Fidel). They longed for Cuba like you can only yearn for a home you can never go back to. They infected me with their longing.
My first serious grown-up relationship was with a Cuban man. He insisted on a yearly pilgrimage to Miami, that home away from home for Cubans, just a stone’s throw away from the real thing and climatologically more in tune with the Motherland than New Jersey. His parents had a beautiful oceanfront condo there and I fell in love with Collins Avenue and South Beach. He took me to La Calle Ocho. I drank mojitos. I swam in warm pools. We went dancing in open-air clubs.
The relationship with the Cuban man eventually ended but my love of Cuban food and music lived on. I always imagined that one day the political tides would turn and I’d get to see what all the fuss was about in person.
So when President Obama announced recently that relations were to be normalized with Cuba, I felt like I was finally going to get to go visit the adopted second home I’d heard about but had seen only in pictures. I know my old Cuban neighbors are conflicted about this decision but I, for one, am thrilled. Borrowing and bending an old phrase I heard countless times growing up: “This year in Havana.”