Guinevere Thomas and Christina Diaz Gonzalez: Two Versions of Cuban Childhood

Mom and twinsGrowing Up Q-Ban

by Guinevere Thomas

To grow up Q-ban…it was and still is an experience.

There are probably things that all American-born Cubans share in common. But my childhood environment may not mirror another Cuban-American’s experience, because to explain how I grew up Cuban, is to also explain how I grew up Black.

I was born in Miami, Florida. It was the 80’s and my mother was a teenager doing the best she could in a harsh environment. Folks from Florida know the humidity is a killer. You could never “beat the heat,” but when you’re a kid your tolerance is higher, and much like the heat, nothing really affected me negatively before the age of six.

I was a naïve kid. So naïve, that my mother, bless her heart, told me that every single person in the world was Cuban too, and I believed it. Years later, I sent my mother sarcastic greeting cards about how she totally doomed me for life, but I see now why she did it. While no generation gets off easy when it comes to racism, her generation and those before hers experienced it in a different way. She was hoping I could navigate through the world more readily if I believed everyone was like me.

Uncle

Photobombed by an uncle!

Miami made this fantasy easy. I was surrounded by everything Cuban, or at least by closely related cultures that kept the illusion going–Puerto Rican and Haitian, to be exact. Of course, I’d always known I was Black. I just never saw myself as different from other Black kids, because most Black kids I knew in Miami were Cuban too.

Then most of my family uprooted to Jacksonville, Florida, and my naiveté fell away. I realized for the first time how split my identities were, and race and culture became challenges for me. In a city that was mostly composed of non-Latino White and Black American, my family was no longer surrounded by a common culture. We were the other. And it sucked.

In a few ways, we did fit in. In Miami, growing up with coarse hair, I’d stood apart from my mixed race or White Cuban friends whose parents didn’t spend hours on their children’s so-called pelo malo, an offensive term used by Spanish speakers. But in Jacksonville, this was the norm for non-Latino Black girls and boys. Yay! I wasn’t different in that sense anymore!

But then there was that 3rd grade field trip…

We were encouraged to bring snacks, and I asked my mother to make empanadas and ensalada criolla (my mom’s famous mix of delicious tropical veggies and fruits).

“This isn’t salad, there’s no lettuce in it.”

“Why would you put guava paste and cheese together?”

And those were some of the nicer things said about the food.

Strangely, much of the backlash came from my classmates’ parents. I was so embarrassed. Many kids shared my appearance, but they didn’t connect to me on other levels. My food was disgusting to them and they considered my name weird, especially when I went by the full version, Guinevere Zoyana.

Cuban flag

Guinevere’s bedroom as a teen included the Cuban flag.

For years, I’ve debated about which way I should identify. To most of the world I am African American, which is not bad at all, and for a big portion of my middle school/high school years, I solely chose the term Black, because this made it easier for other people. But as an Afro-Cuban, I’m part of an amazing culture and history. It sucked to hide my full identity simply because people don’t readily view me as Latina.

Even now, I struggle with identity. Growing up Cuban shaped how I saw things: How people treated me based on my appearance and the fact that I was actually Black and Cuban-American. My blended culture even had an impact on my politics.

I know some folks think being Latino is all the same, but even language isn’t enough to make Latinos a monolith. We have different colloquialisms that get lost in translation. For example, my Latino friends who aren’t Cuban think it’s weird I say “Que Bola Asere!” to a complete stranger who my sister’s old boss’ cousin mentioned might be Cuban!

Although kid-lit is producing more books highlighting the Latino experience, this doesn’t mean the stories will mirror everyone’s reality. For a very long time, the Afro-Latino experience was nowhere to be found in books, and this is why I think it’s so important to publish these stories.

Current photoI co-write with my twin sister, Libertad, and despite our experiences, we still haven’t mastered writing for Afro-Cuban teens. But our plans for 2016 will be filled with teens of various Afro-Latino backgrounds. One of our first planned releases features a Haitian-American girl and another puts an Afro-Puerto Rican girl front and center. It’s definitely a journey making these new voices heard and I’m super excited about it!

book coverGuinevere Thomas is one half of Twinja Book Reviews, a book blog that celebrates diversity in books by day, and slays ninjas by night. Diversity is her strong point. Procrastination is her weak point. If you know anyone who’d like to join her My Afro-Latino series, email her at guinevere.libertadthomas@gmail.com. Chat books with her on Twitter @dos_twinjas where she joins her partner in crime to tweet about diversity in books and media. Be sure to visit her official site (in progress). www.gltomas.net  And you can check out her debut release under her shared pen name G.L. Tomas on Amazon here!

Red Umbrella 2The Cuba I Know

by Christina Diaz Gonzalez

Cuba. A land I’ve never seen with my eyes, but have felt in my heart. A place my parents and grandparents would describe in their stories as an island with the most beautiful beaches, rolling verdant hills and, if you believed my grandmother, a place where the sky was a little more blue. I was born in a country only ninety miles north of that seemingly magical island, but those ninety miles were filled with so much pain, heartache and stolen dreams that it was an abyss that my family could not, would not, cross. Yet, part of Cuba, the piece my family carried inside them to the United States, was ever present within the walls of my home.

The Cuba I experienced while living in a small, Southern town was the one my parents and grandparents chose to share with me. It was in their stories of love, loss, and sacrifice that I learned about their struggles to have a good life in Cuba and how it (along with basic freedoms that I would always enjoy in the U.S.) had been taken away from them after the communist revolution. It was this tearing apart of lives that left scars that would permeate through generations. These are the scars that are re-opened every time a dissident is jailed, a blogger beaten, or another balsero drowns trying to cross those ninety miles to freedom. It is the pain of what was left behind, what can never be recovered, of childhoods lost, and dreams turned into nightmares that my family made sure I understood.

And yet… Cuba still beckons all of its children (and the children of its children) with a siren song of love, family and culture. Those were the aspects of Cuban life I experienced on a daily basis and that became ingrained into my identity. Cuba was revealed to me in the Spanish language that we spoke at home and in the sayings like “le ronca el mango” and “por si las moscas” which never made sense in English, but completely summarized a feeling or situation. It was felt in my soul through the music of Celia Cruz, Benny Moré and La Sonora Matancera that was so often played on our old record player. I could savor Cuba in the foods that were prepared by my mother and grandmother (arroz, frijoles negros, and picadillo were staple dishes) and the pastellitos and pan cubano that my extended family would bring up from Miami whenever they came to visit. The lessons of Cuba could be seen in the value placed on education (because “no one can take what’s inside of you”) and in the smaller cultural ideas such as never being allowed to go to sleepovers, never swimming right after eating for fear of the dreadful patatú, and never placing my purse on the floor. This all formed my understanding of what it is to be Cuban.

Moving Target 2And now, fifty-five years later, it is that understanding that is reflected in my life. On a large scale, it is most easily seen in my writing through books like The Red Umbrella (the story of a Cuban girl who is sent to the US through Operation Pedro Pan) or Moving Target (an action/adventure story that features an American girl of Cuban descent who becomes embroiled in an ancient mystery dating back to biblical times). But the legacy of Cuba can also be seen in the smaller moments of my personal life such as when my children make Cuban coffee with espumita or I prevent them from jumping into the pool after having a big lunch for fear that there may be something to those patatú stories.

This is my Cuba. My heritage. A heritage that will not be forgotten, but will continue to be passed to the next generation who will hopefully see what my grandparents could not…a free Cuba with a democratically elected government. Until then, I will keep my purse off the floor…por si las moscas.

author_highresChristina Diaz Gonzalez is the award-winning author of The Red UmbrellaA Thunderous Whisper, and Moving Target. Her books have received numerous honors and recognitions including the American Library Association’s Best Fiction for Young Adults, the Florida Book Award, the Nebraska Book Award, a Notable Social Studies Book and the International Literacy Association’s Teacher’s Choice Award.  She speaks to students across the country about writing, the importance of telling their stories and the value of recognizing that there is a hero in each one of us. Visit her website at www.christinagonzalez.com for further information.

This concludes our series on Cuban American children’s and YA writers. We hope you loved reading these guest posts as much as we loved hosting them!