Growing Up Cuban: Laura Lacámara and Meg Medina

Photo of me & blond girls from class

My Cuban Evolution

By Laura Lacámara

Growing up Cuban-American in suburban Southern California, I teetered back and forth between feeling different, like I didn’t belong, and feeling exotic and special.

The feeling different part came mostly when I was little.

We spoke Spanish at home, while all my friends spoke English.

We ate lechón (roast pork), black beans, and plantains on Christmas eve (nochebuena), instead of turkey, stuffing, and yams on Christmas night.

Then, there was that same embarrassing question asked by all my friends who came over to the house: “Why are your parents fighting?”

“They are not,” I would respond, “they are just talking about what they want for dinner.”

In high school, being Cuban meant getting an easy “A” in Spanish. By the end of high school, being a Spanish-speaking Cuban had gone from totally embarrassing to super cool. I was the “exotic” one among my group of white suburban friends. (I knew I wasn’t really exotic, but I didn’t contradict them because I liked feeling special!)

Me on hood of carFinally, in college, came exploring my roots, and ultimately embracing (and being proud of!) my Cuban-American identity.

Of course, the whole Cuban roots and identity thing comes with the inevitable responsibility to comment on Fidel Castro.

So, when asked that obligatory question by my white, non-Cuban friends: “Don’t you think it’s great that Castro’s revolution has given every Cuban citizen access to a pair of shoes and an education?”

Rather than launching into a big political discussion about the whole embargo thing (which I am totally in favor of lifting, by the way), I now offer the following joke:

“Comrades, what are the three great successes of the revolution? Healthcare, education, and sports. What are the three failures? Breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”

Politics aside, being Cuban remains a very personal thing for me. Sometimes it has felt like missing pieces I can only catch glimpses of here and there, but never quite own.

As a Cuban-American author writing stories inspired by growing up in my Cuban family, I’ve been able to explore some of these pieces and the quality of what Cuba, or being Cuban means to me.

Yes, I have lived in the U.S. most of my life, and I can express myself (verbally and on paper) better in English than in Spanish.

But, deep-down, that Spanish-speaking part of me, the one that finds “home” in a plate of black beans and rice with a slice of my mom’s homemade flan, will always be Cubana!

Dalia Cover    Floating

Laura_photo_2015-300 dpiCuban-born Laura Lacámara is the award-winning author and illustrator of Dalia’s Wondrous Hair / El cabello maravilloso de Dalia (Piñata Books), a bilingual picture book about a clever girl who transforms her unruly hair into a vibrant garden.

Laura also wrote Floating on Mama’s Song / Flotando en la canción de mamá, a bilingual picture book inspired by her mother, who was an opera singer in Havana. Illustrated by Yuyi Morales and published by HarperCollins, Floating on Mama’s Song was a Junior Library Guild Selection for Fall 2010 and was a Tejas Star Book Award Finalist for 2011-2012.

You can learn more about Laura’s work at her official website.

 

Cheeseburger by Day, Guayaba by Night

Juan Medina and LIdia Metauten wedding_NEW copy

Meg Medina’s parents at their wedding

By Meg Medina

My parents left Cuba as part of the political exodus in the early sixties. I was the first person in my family born in the United States. I learned Spanish from my mother and English from Romper Room. I grew up biculturally: Cheeseburger by day, guayaba by night, so to speak. All to say that I find that I am Cuban to Americans. To Cubans, I am from the US.

When I consider Cuba, I can only rely on black and white photos and on dreamlike stories – perhaps even the obsessions – of my family. I cut my teeth listening to yarns about a place where you wore only a sweater in the winter, where mangos the size of softballs were heavy with sweetness. It was a place of rivers and beautiful ocean waters where you could see your toes. It was the place of tobacco on their fingertips, a place where my family was happiest and the place that broke their hearts.

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Two of Meg’s relatives on the streets of Havana

My own memories are these: Months of waiting for letters to arrive on thin airmail paper and my aunt’s voice reading the words aloud. A box of old photographs that arrived decades later, the images bored through by insects, and how those photos made my old mother cry. The odd catch in my chest when I see how dire need somehow got recycled into kitschy tourists waving from the seats of classic American cars.

People often ask: “Have you been to Cuba?”

I have never set foot on the island, but in a way, I have been there every day of my life. But how do we talk about Cuba as phantom limb? And, more important, how do we knit ourselves back together – los de aquí y los de allá – and move forward in search of new and better times?

 MANGO_jacket_for_Meg  Tia Isa

ad6df-yaquiMeg Medina is an award-winning Cuban American author who writes picture books, middle grade, and YA fiction.

She is the 2014 recipient of the Pura Belpré medal and the 2013 CYBILS Fiction winner for her young adult novel, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. She is also the 2012 Ezra Jack Keats New Writers medal winner for her picture book Tia Isa Wants a Car.

Photo credit: Petite Shards Productions

Petite Shards Productions

Her most recent picture book, Mango, Abuela, and Me, a Junior Library Guild Selection, has earned starred reviews in Booklist and Publishers Weekly, and  is included in the 2015 American Booksellers Association’s Best Books for Young Readers Catalog.

Meg’s other books are The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind, a 2012 Bank Street Best Book and CBI Recommended Read in the UK; and Milagros: Girl From Away.

Read a wonderful write-up on the Cuban inspiration of Meg’s newest book, Mango, Abuela and Me, at her blog, where you can also find information on her speaking schedule and much more.

Alma Flor Ada: Always Cuban

 

Island Treasures FINAL ART“Yo soy un hombre sincero

  de donde crece la palma…”

   –José Martí

During most of my life I have lived outside of Cuba, as part of the Cuban Diaspora, yet my being continues to be rooted in the fertile island where I was born and where I lived as a child, an adolescent, and a young woman.

AFA with braids

Alma Flor

In 1958, during the Batista dictatorship, my father’s dream of helping low-income families own their own homes was thwarted when the soldiers who had bought some of the accessible yet solid houses he had built with such care, refused to make their mortgage payments. Trying to find a solution, my father met with the garrison’s commander. Instead of support, he received a frightening threat that led us to flee to Miami.

At that time, Miami did not have the Latino presence it has today. As I wanted to study Spanish and Latin-American literature, I begged to go study in Mexico City. I was fascinated by the artistic and literary achievements of post-Revolutionary Mexico. However, my parents did not feel comfortable sending me to a country where we knew no one. Instead, they suggested I go to Spain, where my mother had relatives.

Spain became the third country where I lived. While the Franco regime imposed many limitations, I was immensely fortunate to be mentored by some extraordinary professors, Elena Catena, don Alonso Zamora Vicente, and doña María Josefa Canellada, who helped channel my thirst for learning. I will always be grateful for their teaching and their example.

A set of unexpected circumstances led me to Perú, which became the fourth country where I lived. In Cuba, I had delighted in being my parents’ daughter; in Perú I became a mother. In Cuba, I had absorbed my family’s commitment to education; in Perú, I became a teacher. In Cuba, I had learned the key role of education in striving for social justice; in Perú, I studied Paulo Freire’s words and became actively concerned with social issues.

While in Perú, I finished my doctorate degree. The topic of my dissertation led to an appointment as a research scholar at Harvard. There I experienced an exciting cultural milieu comprised of distinguished authors and artists who had left Spain after the Spanish Civil War, including the poet Jorge Guillen. Later, after two years in Lima, I returned to the United States with my children and became involved in several grassroots movements on behalf of social justice and education.

Each of these four countries left a profound imprint on me, as I learned to understand their different worldviews, to enjoy their colors and fragrances, and to love their people. I also learned to rebel against the unjust social conditions suffered by many in each of these places, and also, to admire the resilience, fortitude and creativity of the majority of the people I met, wherever I lived. But always, as the backdrop to all these life experiences, my memories of Cuba continued to nourish my deepest soul.

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Alma Flor in teen years

As a child, some of my best friends were trees. In the large overgrown gardens of the old historical house where I was born, many different kinds of living creatures inspired me to learn to observe and respect nature. Our colonial city was a microcosm of the larger world; there I learned to listen to those around me and reflect on what I heard. From my family, I learned the values of caring and compassion; kindness and generosity; friendship, knowledge, and justice.

The overgrown gardens have expanded and today I consider the whole planet my home. I continue to marvel at its richness and diversity, including the daily miracles of flower petals and bird feathers. I especially attempt to not remain indifferent to any human experience. Yet, no matter how far my circle of interest may expand, I never feel far from my roots; on the contrary, it is through being nurtured by them, that I can open my heart to everything else.

I learned about immigration from my own family. Both of my grandfathers had immigrated to Cuba from Spain. They each made great efforts to contribute to their new homeland and to defend freedom of thought. My maternal grandfather, Medardo Lafuente Rubio, used his talents for self-expression as a poet, public speaker, educator, and journalist to promote universal human values. During the despotic dictatorship of Machado, he was incarcerated for defending freedom in his newspaper. His time in prison greatly damaged his health and he died not long after his eventual release. My paternal grandfather owned a newspaper and also one of the earliest radio stations in Cuba. His words, whether written or spoken, always defended the value of free independent thinking that had been crushed in his county of birth by Franco’s dictatorship.

My grandmother on her graduation as a teacher

AFA’s grandmother at graduation from teaching school.

My maternal grandmother, Dolores Salvador, was the strongest influence in my life. Losing her when I was very young filled me with profound nostalgia. In response to the pain of this loss, I sought to protect and nurture my memories of her, as one would a tender plant. And thus I became a storyteller, sharing my stories again and again, sometimes orally, other times in writing, often in silence.

The feelings arising from my own experiences have inspired much of my writing. Even one of my more recent books, Love, Amalia, co-authored with my son Gabriel Zubizarreta, is rooted in the memory of losing my grandmother. Another source of inspiration has been the desire to continue to savor my own children’s childhood.

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AFA’s grandmother, surrounded by her children

 

 

 

I often remind teachers to encourage children to write, as each child has a unique perspective to share. I am very grateful to an editor of The Hungry Mind who many years ago, asked me to contribute one real-life childhood story for his publication. In response, I wrote my first three real-life stories and submitted them to him. He told me kindly that, while he could only publish one, he wanted to encourage me to write a few more. And thus, Where the Flame Trees Bloom was born.

It took the additional encouragement of my dear friend Antonio Martorell, an inspired artist and illustrator, to continue writing the childhood memoirs that became Under the Royal Palms, and which received the Pura Belpré Medal in 2000. More recently, when Simon & Schuster decided to re-print both of these books under one cover, Emma Ledbetter, my supportive editor, welcomed the idea of also including some new stories from my growing-up years in Cuba. Thus Island Treasures has come to be.

Flame TreesRoyal Palms

Like the mountain springs in Tope de Collantes, in Cuba, whose currents of clear cool water never stop running, all of our memories hold an endless number of sensations, feelings, faces, flavors, aromas, textures, and emotions, if only we are willing to turn inward, to welcome and honor them in some way. It is my hope that as I share my stories with you in Island Treasures, your own awareness of the people who have enriched your life and the moments that have helped shape who you are, will deepen. May you welcome and value your own stories as an intrinsic part of who you are, dear reader, while also rejoicing in who you have become.

 

Alma Flor AdaAlma Flor Ada has written countless books, most of which do not specify Cuban settings or characters, but which nearly always highlight Latino life. She is an author, educator, scholar, and internationally known speaker. Her life’s work includes advocacy for peace and social justice. A Pro­fes­sor Emerita at the Uni­ver­sity of San Fran­cisco, she is also a for­mer Rad­cliffe Scholar at Har­vard Uni­ver­sity and Ful­bright Research Scholar.

In the world of children’s books, Alma Flor is known for her poetry, narratives, folk­lore and non-fic­tion. She’s the recipient of many prestigious awards, including the Christo­pher Medal, the Pura Bel­pré Medal, the International Latino Book Award, and the Vir­ginia Hamil­ton Award, in recognition of her body of work for children. Learn more at her official website.

 

 

Welcome to Cuba Week!

 

Cuba PearlCuba has been very much on our minds during this year of momentous change and emotional headlines. In a gesture of love and great hope for the Cuban people on both sides of the Straits of Florida, we invited beloved Cuban American children’s writers to speak from their hearts about anything relating to cubanismo. Lucky us: eight authors responded to our invitation with ¡claro que sí!

Guest posts begin tomorrow and continue through next Monday. To whet your appetite, here are some details. You will hear about immigration journeys, life across two cultures, racial identity, remembrances of the Cuba left behind, and the books that sprang from these experiences. Get ready for gorgeous prose from Enrique Flores Galbis; a fresh challenge to publishers from Nancy Osa; nostalgia mixed with humor and biting reality from Guinevere Thomas, Meg Medina, Laura Lacámara, and Christina Díaz González; as well as stirring insights from award-winning poets Alma Flor Ada and Margarita Engle. These authors’ books have enriched young people’s reading lives. For that, and for the perspectives they’ve shared with us, we want to say ¡gracias de todo corazón!

Before we get started on the guest posts, here’s a visual reminder of some glorious children’s books that star Cuban characters and/or settings. Space prevents us from featuring a comprehensive list, but we urge you to add your recommendations in the comments section. To learn more about individual books, click on their cover mages.

Picture Books    

Goodbye Havana Queen of Salsa Martina Mango in Hand

Celia Bossy Gallito Tia Isa  Dalia Cover MANGO_jacket_for_Meg drum dream girl cover floating

Middle-Grade

Island Treasures FINAL ART The Red Umbrella  Oye Celia  Moving Target  My Havana The Wild Book  MountainDog.highrescvr  paperback cover

Young Adult

Cubanita  Tropical Secret    Hurricane dancers notable  Firefly notable  Cuba 15  Down to the Bone   Letters to my mother   Significant Girls  ad6df-yaqui  Surrende Tree Notable  Lightning Dreamer notable  Enchanted Air Poet Slave Dark Dude