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!)
Finally, 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!
Cuban-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
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.
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?
Meg 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.
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.