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002. soy balsera

Updated: Jan 12, 2021

In this one Carmen tells her immigration story.

When Fryda and I set out to make a podcast about being Cuban-American we knew it was important to present identity in the most authentic way we could.

We both grew up in Miami (which I often refer to as Cuba Part II - with a lot of love in my heart and an eye roll so big you'd think I'm having a seizure). Then we both moved out of Miami as adults and realized that many of the people we met along the way didn't have much of an understanding of what it meant to be Cuban, and more importantly to be a Cuban immigrant in the US. They are quick to share that they'd love to go to Cuba - before it gets "ruined" or “before it changes.” They want to tell you about the best Cuban spot in town (spoiler alert - I'm probably going to hate it, don't invite me there), they want to know if I'm voting Republican, if I can dance salsa...

And while I’m flattered that you’d like to relate to me, this narrative exoticizes the complex communities living in and out of the island. I want to share my story with you, since it is one among many Cuban-American stories of exodus and struggle. And while it doesn’t begin in 1994, it certainly takes a turn that year.

The Cuban Exodus of 1994 has been so extensively documented that for a long time I doubted I really had anything to contribute. But 20+ years later I've come to realize that I have a first-hand account of history. Our episode, “soy balsera,” relies heavily on my memories and the things my family has told me.

We ask, why would perfectly normal, sane people leave behind everything they know - their families, jobs, friends, all material possessions, and more - to come to the US?

You can (arrogantly) say it's because the "US is the best country in the world," or because life in Cuba was so abysmal, that there were no opportunities there - but the more I think about it the more clear it becomes that any other life would have been a better one. That is a universal sentiment that is echoed across many immigrant experiences, whether or not they ended up in the US, and whether or not they came from Cuba.

These experiences continue to be relevant even though it happened so long ago - the way the US deals with immigration, racism, censorship, how history (the Cold War specifically) has and still shapes many attitudes that permeate across different levels of policy and society. Things never change overnight.

These experiences provide a different lens for looking at and understanding things close to heart - when your mom cringes at the thought of you throwing food away, it's not just something silly that moms do. I mean maybe it is to some extent; who wants to be actively wasteful? But with our moms, it's so much deeper.

This lens can also zoom out and explain more complex things like intergenerational trauma and what that looks like when we're talking about the "Cuban vote."

There is so much we want to talk about, there is such a rich field of topics we want to dive into. This is just the beginning of a much bigger story we are eager to tell and share with you.

One of the clearest connections here and now is that there are millions of immigrants in detention in the US with the same sense of uncertainty, the same hope for their future, the same desires for their families that my family had while we were in Guantanamo. I was only there for 6 months, but some of these immigrants are often there for years before they have any idea of what will happen to them. My story happened 25 years ago, but it is really not that far away.

I titled this episode "soy balsera" because no matter how old I get, where I move to, or who I'm surrounded by, I’m Cuban-American but I live in that hyphen - not Cuban enough to some, and not quite American. Even in that there are multitudes. How I got here is the beginning of that identity. I don’t think much about those rough seas, being stuck on an island for three days, or being detained for 6 months very often now. And wow - what a privilege.

“Valio la pena la balsa.” - My dad

Links referenced in the episode:

S01 E02

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