An Interview with Cuban Students at Brown University

This piece juxtaposes interviews with three Cuban-American students at Brown - one undergraduate, one doctoral student, and one medical student  - as a window onto cultural identity, intergenerational change, and mobility. *Interviews by Lily Hartmann.

What are your family’s and your own connections to Cuba?

Elisa Glubok González: My name is Elisa Glubok González and I was born and raised in Los Angeles, California. My mother was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1958. My grandfather worked as an accountant and my grandmother was a telegraph operator. In the early days of Castro, my family supported the Revolution and was excited about the promises of change. However, it was shortly thereafter that the rations for food ran short and my grandmother started being observed when she came into church, and so my grandparents decided to leave. At that point, my grandfather left for Puerto Rico where he tried to build a foundation for his family. But in the interim, the episode of Bay of Pigs happened, and my grandparents were separated for many more years than anyone had anticipated.

When my grandmother and her three children were finally able to leave, they lived in a refugee camp in Jamaica for three months and then traveled to Mexico with absolutely no money in their pockets. They eventually arrived in Miami where they spent a year living in a single-room apartment with no money. Around this point in time, the US government was giving Cubans one-way plane tickets to other cities in America, one of which was Los Angeles. My grandparents already had a close friend living in Los Angeles and decided to make the move. For many years, my grandparents expected to return to Cuba once the Revolution “blew over,” but, of course, that never happened. They became heavily involved with the Cuban community of Los Angeles and my grandfather was the head of the local Cuban Social Club.

Anonymous: I am from Miami. My four grandparents came from Cuba in 1961. So, my parents were born here. Everybody I knew growing up was Cuban, and so I grew up in a very specific Cuban exile community. I went to Catholic school and was in the same sort of schools that my grandparents went to in Cuba except transplanted in Miami. I feel very Cuban even though I was raised in Miami.

Diego Luis: I am actually only one quarter Cuban. My dad is half Cuban, Afro-Cuban, and half Chinese. His parents met in Cuba and his father is Chinese and his mother Afro-Cuban. His father came from China in the 1940s, fleeing political turmoil and revolution, and went to Cuba where he already had familial connections. He met my grandmother, and they got married and moved to New York City before the Revolution. They had my dad and his brother in Manhattan.

My dad’s Chinese father passed away when he was very young and his parents had gotten divorced before that, so he did not have much of the Chinese influence in his life. He was pretty much raised in an Afro-Cuban household. My dad went back to Cuba frequently, even right after the Revolution. His mother was a pretty hardline revolutionary nationalist from what I hear. When Fidel came to speak at Madison Square Garden, she dragged her two toddler children out to listen to him speak. My dad was also part of the first generation of Cuban-Americans educated in the U.S. to return to Cuba after the Revolution. He told me about receiving death threats from the exile community and that he had the opportunity to meet Fidel on his visit.

My mom is white, French-Canadian, and so I grew up not speaking Spanish. I heard it all the time and there was always salsa and old school Cuban music playing in my house. My dad’s Afro-Cuban heritage was more present over his Chinese heritage. This means that my connection to the Latino community is complicated because if you do not have the language then you are ostracized. As an adult, one of my major goals has been learning Spanish, especially through academic work.

What has being Cuban-American meant to you here at Brown or in academic settings more broadly?

EGG: Growing up in California, most of the Latinx community that I interacted with was of Mexican and/or Central American descent. During my mom’s adolescence in Los Angeles, my family spent a lot of time with the Cuban community and it was tight-knit. Through my mother maintained connections with these families, we also had our own gatherings of Cuban people, and it often felt like we knew every single Cuban person in Los Angeles.

When I came to Brown in 2010, it was the first time that I was meeting other Cuban-Americans my own age who were not direct friends of my family. Many of these people had similar backgrounds to mine in that they had one Cuban parent and one non-Cuban parent. This created a sense of connection between my peers and me because we could understand each other’s experiences.

One of the ways in which having a Cuban-American identity has been difficult at Brown is in conversations about communism and/or socialism. While I know that people are well-intentioned, I often felt hurt when people lauded communist governments like Cuba’s when I knew the suffering that my family had (and continues to) experience. I have also felt frustrated because, whenever I expressed this, I would be accused of putting capitalism on a pedestal and having no sensitivity towards the disenfranchised. This was also especially difficult in the aftermath of the death of Fidel Castro – many people whom I knew to have no connection with Cuba whatsoever were now weighing in with opinions when they had never really talked about Cuba in the past.

DL: I have never had a very strong connection with the Latino communities because of the language issue. I think it is really complicated[...]I guess people see Cuban-Americans as really complicated because there is this assumption of exile status, or even not knowing where you stand politically or culturally with Cuba. I feel like a lot of that uncertainty makes it a really complicated category, especially given the language challenge. That has been changing a lot recently now that I can speak Spanish. Those things mattered much more to me before and I self-exempted myself from certain communities.

Anonymous: It’s really different. At home, I didn’t really like being Cuban because that meant being conservative and Catholic, when I identified as a liberal, gay kid. I was more sympathetic to the Revolution for example than I might be now. Then, I came to Brown and there were so few Cubans. I started to listen to Cuban music and learn to cook Cuban food and I became really interested in Cuban history. Through this, I found my own reasons to criticize the Revolution.

You start to learn things about the Revolution that I never heard when growing up. The most important thing I have learned was Castro’s treatment of gay people. My parents and grandparents never talked about that. I knew I was not a revolutionary, but I don’t agree with my family’s politics. I did not identify with any segment of Cuban people until I read about Reinaldo Arenas, someone who was originally sympathetic towards the Revolution and then experienced incredible repression because of his sexual orientation. I started to appreciate being Cuban more as I spent time away from Miami. But I still feel defensive here of Cuban exiles, and when I go back home, I feel defensive of the Revolution.

In what spaces has your Cuban identity felt most salient?

DL: It is never not part of how I occupy a space. I mentioned that my mother is white and my father is half Chinese and half Afro-Cuban, but I look completely Latino. The way people receive me visually is very much based on that one part of my identity. If people want to show off diversity, they will use my image. If they want an opinion of a Latino, they will ask me but no one would ask me to speak as a Chinese-American.

EGG: My Cuban identity feels all the more important when I have no other Cubans and/or Latinx folks in the room. I spent a year living in Israel doing a program for Jewish students. Being the only person of Latinx descent, I was often asked to represent the opinions and experiences of such a diverse group of individuals. It has also been an important unifier between myself and other people of Cuban or even Caribbean descent. When I am speaking to my patients in Spanish, they often want to know where and how I learned Spanish. When I share my Cuban heritage, there is usually some excitement and a sense of relief to be treated by someone who has a deeper understanding of their cultural background and language.

During the six weeks I spent in Cuba last summer, I had this strange and wonderful experience of feeling like everything was familiar and unfamiliar all at once. There was a sense of home that I could easily find with Cubans based on shared cultural understanding, but there were several moments in which my American-ness seemed so blatantly obvious. The people I would meet on the street were usually very confused about me. For example, when I spoke, people had a very difficult time assessing where I was from. My accent has no hint of English, but it is different enough that Cubans would look twice and they would proceed to list countries. I also stood out because I am a young woman with short hair, something that I only saw once in the six weeks I spent there last summer. My choices in clothing and my general lack of knowledge in how to navigate Havana (at least in the beginning) also gave me away. The experience navigating the line between Cuban and American gave me a greater understanding of my own history and identity.

Anonymous: I think sometimes when you take a class on Cuba with a group of non-Cubans it’s really challenging. I’m in a class now on Latinx literature and we are reading Cuban short stories and everyone has an opinion on Cuban exiles. As a product of Cuban exiles, I sometimes feel defensive or that I know something personal about a topic that gets talked about a lot but not as many know in a personal way. It makes me feel proud - less ashamed. When I was in Miami, the last thing I wanted to be was Cuban-American. Or in political science textbooks it will say, “Hispanics are liberal except for Cuban-Americans.” Is that all you say about Cuban-Americans, that they are conservative? Being a liberal Cuban-American and knowing many others, I feel that I need to represent my community better.

When I go home now, it’s different too. I have this newfound Cuban identity based in being proud of who I am and a shifting relationship between Cubans in the exile community. My new Cuban identity shaped around liberal, queer, racially diverse cubanidad and you have to defend that idea to people at home who say that is not what cubanidad is.

Is there a particular moment when you felt your Cuban identity being questioned?

DL: For me, it is always in question because I am only a quarter Afro-Cuban, especially in the Latino community. When I am not around Latinos, I feel like I can embrace my identity more powerfully.

Anonymous: At Brown actually, I was talking to two other Cubans born in Cuba who live in Miami now. One of my friends introduced my to them and said I was Cuban. The person responded, “Where in Cuba are you from?” When I told them I was from Miami, they responded, “Oh, so you’re not really Cuban.” Even though I was not super bothered by that, at home everyone is Cuban, so I always felt that Miami growing up was just an extension of Cuba in a way, so it felt weird to have someone tell me that I wasn’t Cuban. I also need to understand that people living in Cuba now live a totally different life than I do and have different worldviews. Maybe I should not have been bothered, but my Cuban identity had never been questioned like that before.

EGG: Since I have fair skin and generally appear white, I am frequently met with surprised responses when I speak Spanish or disclose my Cuban identity. This is usually followed by questions that are tinged with some confusion or misunderstanding. I have also experienced and heard many instances of Latinx racism/discrimination because they assumed my whiteness. For example, when I was accepted to Brown, several different individuals told me that my application was enhanced because I was “lucky enough to the check the Hispanic/Latino ethnicity box.” I also had been told on several occasions why I was not “actually Cuban” or “really Latina,” when these people had no knowledge of my own identity, family life, or upbringing. It is incredibly difficult to feel as though I somehow am supposed to prove this core part of my identity to others, so for the most part, I try and ignore these comments.

Unfortunately, I also witness a lot of anti-Latinx racism in the healthcare setting. When I am involved in patient care as a translator, I attempt to counteract this discrimination through being the best patient advocate that I can. Some physicians will say things in front of the patient that they would not like translated, that they would never say in front of an English-speaking patient.

How do you think the opportunity to go to Cuba would change your understanding of your Cuban identity? Or, how has returning to Cuba impacted your understanding of your identity?

DL: Because I haven’t been to Cuba and because of my family’s relationship to the island, I feel some kind of idealism about the place. If I were to stay in Cuba for an extended period of time, I would probably learn something about the place that would check my idealism, particularly in the ways in which certain goals of the Revolution remain. From talking to my dad who has returned and interviewed a lot of young Cubans, there seems to be an apathetic view towards the Revolution and they want to seek opportunities abroad. I am really interested in the ways in which different Cuban generations think about the political past and the ways in which that is influenced by their own lives.

Anonymous: I really want to go, and I am assuming it will change my understanding of Cuba a lot. I think that, in the last few years, I have been immersing myself in what is going on in Cuba now, rather than growing up around hearing what Cuba was like in 1958 and 1959. I feel like I just have to go. My mom now feels ready to go and I would like to go with my family. My grandparents are starting to come around to the idea too. But they also think it would be depressing to see what it is like now and would rather remember Cuba as a place where they were happy and in high school and not deal with the politics of their leaving.

EGG: While our Cuban-ness felt like the core of my family’s identity, Cuba itself felt like this mythical place that only existed in my mother’s childhood. When I heard the stories of my mother’s cousins and looked at photos, I gazed wistfully at these individuals who looked like my own family and yet were mostly unknown to me. They seemed to occupy a parallel universe of possibility in which my grandparents had decided not to leave, as my great uncle and his wife chose to. If that were the case, I would most certainly not be here, but I sometimes wonder what the lives of my mother, aunt, and uncle would have been like had they continued to live in Cuba.

When we returned to Cuba as a family for the first time in July 2015, I remember looking out the window as we were landing and feeling this amount of disbelief that the 45 minute flight from Miami was all it took to arrive in a place that had felt forbidden for so long in my family’s history. It felt like we were traversing time because the Cuba I knew was the one in the stories of my grandparents, mother, uncle and aunt. That version of Cuba was now many decades past. While I had spent most of my childhood hearing stories about my Cuban family, I was still incredibly nervous to meet them for the first time. I feared awkwardness between strangers, but now I laugh at my naiveté.

From the moment of our arrival, I knew that we were family. They are my family not only in blood, but in the warmth and openness with which they greeted us and accepted us into their homes. The most surprising of all was to see the mannerisms, sense of humor, and joy of my grandfather in my cousins. It was like these moments were confirming a shared history, despite all the distance and time. Even just walking in the streets and seeing how people acted and spoke, I had all these strange emotions thinking – wait, this is not just my family? There is a whole COUNTRY of people like us? When it came to my own family’s way of being, I wondered where the Cuban ended and the González began, as there is no true line to draw.

After that experience, I decided to return to Cuba to participate in a summer research project on family medicine in Cuba. I stayed with my mom’s older cousin and was able to experience Cuba a little more in-depth and engage in what the daily life is like. The mother of one of my close Cuban family friends in the United States still lives and works as a family doctor in Havana. I was able to experience her daily life through her eyes, and came to know Cuba in a much more profound way.

Final Thoughts

EGG: One of the most interesting things to experience has been the generational difference between my grandparents, my mother, and myself. The attitude towards Cuba and returning is greatly different among the three generations. While my grandparents dealt with the tragedy and heartbreak of leaving their home and families as adults, my mother was a child and was much more open to reuniting our family and healing that pain in later generations. Since I was raised with largely her perspective on Cuba, I only knew that suffering on a second-hand basis and could take a perspective with a couple steps back.

While I completely understand and agree with most of my grandparents’ criticisms of Cuba, I do wish that we had greater access to health care and education here in the United States. However, if I were to express this to my family, I would immediately be met with accusations of sympathizing with the enemy, when this is not how I feel at all. Interestingly, I have seen the inverse in my family in Cuba. While older cousins grew up in the early days of the Revolution and greatly reaped its benefits, the cousins from my generation grew up in the Special Period and only knew economic devastation and constant food shortages as children. This has led them to have a lot of cynicism and bitterness about their country, believing that the access to education is no good if there is no hope for economic security for their families or progress for themselves.