Coming to grips with the forbiddenness of the Cuban or American other

Dear Editor,

When my mother arrived in the US from Cuba in 1962, she never dreamed that she would never in her lifetime set foot in Cuba again. My father arrived in the US from Guyana in 1968, and has enjoyed the privilege of unrestricted travel back and forth between Guyana and the US since. My father freely shares anecdotes and tales of his childhood in Lodge, regaling us with tales whether we are a willing or unwilling audience. In contrast, my mother’s childhood remained shrouded in mystery, largely due to the circumstances leading up to and surrounding her departure from Cuba. What I know, I have pieced together from conversations with my grandmother and letters that I salvaged. Additionally, I have been blessed to have traveled repeatedly to Cuba with my grandmother and on my own since the age of 13 to try to connect the pieces of my mother’s past.

In 1993, my grandmother’s joyous announcement that she was going back to Cuba after almost 35 years sparked the first and only argument that I ever witnessed between my mother and my grandmother. My mother vehemently vowed that she would never go back and it was two more years until she hesitantly allowed my grandmother to take me. Her fear that I would be detained was so strong that she called three times daily to ensure my safety during my first trip. When I returned safely after a week and proudly displayed what I thought were simple Che Guevara souvenirs, she cut them up and burned them. The stark contrast of attitudes towards Cuba from my mother and grandmother in addition to my own personal experiences with the Cuban side of my identity are what have colored my reaction to the news of the recent developments in Cuban-American relations. I am not celebratory, but rather introspective, as I ask myself, “This is a good thing, right?”

It is good that after 50+ years of separation, diplomatic bridges can begin to be built and fences mended. And yet, in place of excitement and satisfaction, I am anxious and it is an anxiety that gnaws at the core of my being. Political agendas aside, Cuban-American relations since 1959 have always and acutely affected families. My family in particular has been divided, sifted, and scattered leading up to and following the fortuitous events of January 1, 1959. We have been ripped apart, brought together, and at times pitted against one another. Our separation has been shaded by constant performances of ‘becoming’ in order to survive, emphasized by the loss of a common tongue as one branch assimilated into American culture, becoming Black over Latino in most cases and in others, existing in exclusive enclaves of Afrolatinidad. Away from the island, we maintained what we could, with Nochebuenas, quinceañeras and azabaches. There were reunions in faraway frozen lands, where the conversation was halted by the younger generation’s need for translation of their true native tongue, and reconciliations 30 years delayed. Another branch remained in Cuba, enduring the Soviet era, The Special Period, y después. And within those branches there were splinters. Those who “traveled” to South America, Europe and Canada and never returned. Defecting and becoming ‘gusanos’. The branch that was berated when they left with only the clothes on their back, those that were snatched by ‘Peter Pan’ becoming ‘orphans’ and ‘lost boys and girls’, and the other that snuck away via island routes in the middle of the night. My family includes all of these branches and their derivatives and we are the other side of the other side of the Cuban American story.

For all Cubans, Cuban-Americans and Cubans living in exile, for almost four generations our identity has been inextricably linked to the forbiddenness of the Cuban or American other.  We have been raised on the family histories, myths and fables of pre and post Castro Cuba, as well as pro and anti Revolution rhetoric. With the advent of recent developments in Cuban-American relations, the undergirding of our once firm identities and the concrete narratives that shaped and anchored our identities have been pulled from under us.

My anxiety towards the repercussions of these events are founded in the fact that although our family has endured through outdated photos, 3rd party updates, broken, inconsistent phone calls and creative imaginations, our identificatory calibration has been disrupted.  The question of ‘Who are we without the obstacle of the forbidden other?’ looms menacingly. Our narrative of political refugee, fighting socialism, stealing away in the middle of the night, and overcoming tyranny has been turned on its head. Will the theoretical normalization of the Cuban mystique make us “less special”? How will our representation and performance of our Cubanness adapt when we no longer have to ‘become’ or invent due to political disconnects?

To this day, my Spanish still has an indescribable hint of American-born, Cuban and despite a multitude of encumbrances, my family has persevered via features, traits and customs that crossed oceans, borders and generations. It is a familiarity that distance, time and circumstance could neither negate nor deny.  Because and in spite of these and many other circumstances, we are both Black Cuban and Black American. Although they are identities that have existed in a distinct harmonic dissonance since before my birth, we finally have an opportunity to reconcile the two sides of the same coin and for that, I am anxiously anticipatory.

Yours faithfully,

Aisha Z. Cort


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