I am borrowing the title of a song by the great Cuban singer/songwriter Pedro Luis Ferrer to tell this story. It happened in a shop in Miami, where families frequently buy fruits, vegetables and meats, all very fresh, attended to by a couple of recently-arrived young Cubans: attentive, always cheerful, capable of communicating with their regular customers in decent English, and their Spanish revealing countryside roots.
Perhaps for all these reasons, the business is really thriving. On that day she was running the store and for some reason I mentioned to her that I was Cuban, to which I added, "and proud of it." So agreeable as she went about her work, the girl's expression suddenly transformed, she stared at me and shrieked: "Well I'm not proud at all of being Cuban!"
I had heard about it so many times. But I had never had before me a young person who actually forsook their identity as a Cuban, either in the United States or in Cuba. From family and friends I know that there are more and more young people who are actually ashamed of being born on the “Pearl of the Caribbean.” A candid camera segment in Cuba even featured a group of children who, when asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, answered: "a foreigner."
Much has been written on this phenomenon, and much more will have to be written, and even more done, to make young people born in Cuba truly proud of their land. How have we reached a point where we deny who we are? And I must state for the record that it is not happening only with Cubans who have recently migrated to the United States. This abjuration is also occurring amongst the children of Cubans born in this land, embarrassed by their last names, accent, culinary tastes, and that involuntary movement of their feet when they hear the sound of a drum. It is painful to see parents who, able to teach their children Spanish, and to make them men and women benefitting from two great cultures, granting them more professional and social opportunities, speak to them only in their new tongue.
Self-denial may have begun in revolutionary Cuba as a psychological mechanism to deal with a schizophrenic situation: nationalistic, chauvinistic discourse, with the imposition of an feeble anti-Americanism while, at the same time, in real life, for Cubans "American" and "foreign" continue to connote a guarantee of quality, durability and good taste. It was one thing to be anti-imperialist, as in pre-revolutionary Cuba a segment of the intellectual and liberal wing always was, and quite another to hate "the Americans," reject their products, culture, sports and scientific advances.
The shameful differences between the foreign and the Cuban became evident when the "foreign technicians" - Russians, Bulgarians and Germans - enjoyed access to exclusive shops and places from which Cubans were barred. Although with a certain discretion, it was equally insulting not to be able to enter the Sierra Maestra or Hemingway Marina shops in those years. But I don't remember any child or young person ever saying he wanted to be Russian or Czech. I do remember many Cubans married to Russians, Czechs, Germans or Bulgarians living as "foreigners" in Cuba.
Castro's crusade against everything "outside," specifically the US, was unparalleled. In Cuba it was almost a crime to hear jazz played, or someone saying that a Ford was better than a Lada, or following Major League Baseball, or preferring Mickey Mouse to Tío Estiopa. But as often happens with fatuous and historically baseless rhetoric, all that came crashing down under its own weight. After the debacle of real socialism in Europe, also a non-sustainable experiment, the enemy's dollars became indispensable. The same dollars that landed many young Cubans in Cuban prisons for several years, and ruined their lives forever. Cubans began to dress, go out and eat thanks to the "enemy's currency."
As the dollar spread it was revealed that the emperor was wearing no clothes. Jazz fever reconquered nights in Havana, German and Asian cars surrounded hotels, it became clear that the Big Top was still standing, though they didn´t let people see it, and Disney characters, digitalized, returned to children's world. By decree, the foreign currency and, consequently, everything from "outside" (read that "capitalist") was welcomed. What had been called "the evils of consumer society" - like prostitution, gambling and drugs - came roaring back, but with new names to make them sound like something else: jineteras, games of chance, and bolá.
The consequence of so many inconsistencies has been a people who, outside the news and the official press, has learned to live with inconsistency, because it pities and does not really value itself, repudiates its history (the real one, the one it does not even know), denies its culture, which is only that which developed under the shadow of the Revolution, and is ignorant of its Judeo-Christian religious roots, and of those countless athletes, writers, artists, economists and professionals who shone in Cuba, and continued to shine outside of it.
Neither is the past irreproachable. The 1959 Revolution and Fidel Castro were not historical accidents. We must all be a bit like Castro, liberal, haughty and devious to have allowed this to last for over half a century. It is true that that arrogant, ruthless Cuba, lacking a third dimension, prone to sloppiness and shoddiness in some things, as Jorge Manach would say, lived and still lives in Havana and Miami, Santiago and New Jersey. He is the Cuban unworthy of honor or sacrifice.
If we who have lived a little, and, fortunately, are free, bear any duty, it is to remind the young girl and so many other Cubans, that our island boasts a great history, whose heroes and martyrs were men of shadows and light... but mostly light. That Cuba, the greatest of the Antilles, has lands, beaches, mountains and rich rivers that, if they were ably exploited, could feed twice the island's population today. Thanks to our geographical location, we were and could be a cultural and economic bridge for the Americas. Cubans are hardworking, creative and, mostly, kind, family-oriented, and friendly We have seen giants in sports, science, art, politics, religion and philosophy, comparable to anywhere in the world; true giants, whose shadows stretch beyond anyone's opinion, or any sociopolitical system's acknowledgment.
And, to avoid falling into similar contradictions, we would tell the young girl and many other young Cubans that the world is not as large as it seems, that "foreigners" are not so different from them, and never, no matter how " foreign" one aspires to be, does one’s Cubanness vanish, no matter where one lives. We are not perfect, or better, and this sad chapter of our history could spur us to love ourselves a little bit more, so that our salvation might come from being 100% Cuban ... and proud of it.