Half of my genetics are non-Latino and, while I grew up in Miami, I spent part of my childhood with fair-haired half-siblings in a rural Midwestern town where my Cuban-ness was a curiosity.
In college, too, I was in the minority. On an Illinois campus of 25,000, I knew only one other Latino—a half-Cuban, half-Polish kid from Chicago who couldn’t speak Spanish.
So, you see, de jovencita I learned that if I was with the American kids, I aimed to be “just American.” Cuban kids? Then, I was Cuban, too. The duality allowed me to fit in with whatever group I happened to be hanging out with—the snuff-chewing country kids or the Spanish-speaking children of exiles at a dance hall quince.
It came to no one’s surprise when in 1991, at 23, I packed my bags, left a job and familia in New Jersey, and took a reporting gig in Nashville. I was prepared for the adventure in Music City, but fully unprepared to feel alien and a little solita.
THE ONLY AND LONELY
I suddenly began to notice that I was The Only One. For the first time, ever, I was away from la cultura for an extended period and I had no one to shift to the other side, the Spanish side, with me. I couldn’t even find black beans in the grocery.
You could say this is when my stalkerish behavior began. My ears always were pricked up in public, listening for the familiar sing-song of el español. On the rare event I heard Spanish spoken, I had no problem interrupting, whether it was at the mall, or in the grocery.
Here’s what I usually said: “Hi! Who are you? Why are you in Nashville? Do you know any other Latinos? HABLA.CONMIGO.POR.FAVOR!”
In those early years, I resigned myself to a new reality and spent a lot of time in my English-only brain. I let out the Cuban for pig roasts at my house and when rolling my Rs to conduct interviews for newspaper stories on immigration and exile as more Latinos moved to the South during a booming 1990s.
By 2003, hearing Spanish in Nashville was not that uncommon. By then, there were lots of Mexican groceries, South American professionals hired by major corporations, Latin-owned businesses of all kinds. And, I even had a few Latina friends.
CULTURE Y CULTURA
It also was the year I became “Mami” and the desire to express more of my Latin spirit grew.
I wondered how I was going to expose my daughter to la cultura without the full-on immersion she’d get in Miami, where I grew up, and where her grandparents live. I wondered if she would think being Latino in Tennessee meant only that you could order your quesadilla in Spanish? I panicked that Dora the Explorer was her only little Latin friend.
I went into full-on Culture Commando mode. I sang and read to my daughter in Spanish, I hired a Spanish-speaking nanny, and insisted my parents speak only Spanish to Maria. I even launched a Spanish children’s gift business, Los Pollitos Dicen.
And, once again, I stalked Latinas, looking around at the mall, grocery, park, for yet more families with whom we could connect. We attended cultural fairs and when it came time for preschool, she attended a Spanish-immersion program.
BILINGUAL AND BICULTURAL
I do not have to tell you how proud I was when my 4-year-old was reading in English and Spanish. But, it hit me a year or so ago to take a chill and not force, or over-think, the culture lessons.
My daughter is a kid with Latino roots growing up in the American South. She is learning to play the mandolin and she can hip sway fabulously during a merengue. She can roll her Rs and she can tell you what a meat and three is. (A meat and three, by the way, is a traditional restaurant where you order your meat of choice and three vegetable side dishes.)
Truth is, it’s not that different from where I started out so many decades ago, taking the best of the two cultures in which I was raised. Difference is, I don’t see her tip-toeing back and forth between her two cultures. She just is what she is.
Me? I don’t tip-toe back and forth that much anymore either. The identity I’ve grown into—thanks in part to Nashville-living and my own daughter’s example—is a melded, bi-cultural one: an American with Latin roots, a glorious combination of cultures, and a person “at home” wherever she is.
Siempre Americana. Siempre Cubana. Even in Tennessee.