My Cuba Visit

I visited Cuba this past summer in July. The beginning of this trip began with a sort of impossibility- an Americana sailing off to the island that had been closed off to Americans for decades. Before Obama’s presidency ended, he lifted the embargo on Cuba and gave me the opportunity of a lifetime… until the new president would once again declare Cuba was off limits. Fortunately, my siblings and I had already made a boarding reservation and could technically still travel to the island so we boarded the plane to Havana and did not look back. We were having the opportunity of a lifetime!

I was excited to see the architecture and art, the classic American cars, the beaches, and dance salsa. As a Puerto Rican, I was sure Cuba would feel like another ‘home’ because of its’ relationship to Puerto Rico and geographical location in the Caribbean. When I visited the Dominican Republic four years ago for a college service-learning trip, I remembered thinking- wow this island looks so much like Puerto Rico. But, what I felt in Cuba was unlike the experience I had in the Dominican Republic.

Geopolitics and history informed my visit much more than I anticipated. I landed in Havana and awaited my taxi driver along with my siblings. We talked about how it felt like we traveled back in time opening a time capsule from the Cold War Era. Hopping into an old American car I was reminded of a past where U.S.-Cuba relations were better, to say the least. Very quickly, due to the lack of air conditioning in the taxi, I noticed that I didn’t have the amenities I was used to. My American privilege was not to blame for this exactly. I visited Puerto Rico countless times and, as I said earlier, I have visited the Dominican Republic and was no stranger to vacationing in simpler fashions, but taxis in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico did have air conditioning. It seems so mundane to think so much about a taxi ride without a.c. in ninety-degree weather, but it prepared me for the week ahead.

Once the drivers knew my siblings and I were Puerto Rican, they gave us a warm welcome- almost as if they were welcoming a Cuban home to their island. It’s a feeling remember having when I land in the San Juan airport and random staff or passengers welcome me ‘back home’. This concept of home is so strange to since its directly connected to my identity. I was born in the United States to Puerto Rican immigrants who raised me with Puerto Rican traditions and culture, so I felt more Puerto Rican than American. I didn’t eat turkey on Thanksgiving- we had lechón. I didn’t celebrate Christmas on Christmas Day- we celebrated the night before, on Noche Buena, and waited until midnight to open presents. My first language was Spanish and for most of my childhood we only spoke in Spanish at home. So, I strongly feel that Puerto Rico is home in my heart. Maybe, that has something to do with being a child of diaspora- constantly feeling like you’re not home or do not belong y que la isla te está llamando.

Puerto Rico is home for my parents because they were born there. The United States is undoubtedly my home based on my birthright, but when I’ve been welcomed ‘home’ in Puerto Rico I can’t help but question what it means to really return to Puerto Rico, or if it can be a second home for me. Could it be that I’m longing for my ancestral home? One of the drivers connected us by saying we are all hermanos. Boricuas y Cubanos are family, he said, because Puerto Ricans fought for Cuba’s liberation and Cuban armies were going to make their way to Puerto Rico. He said, “los boricuas y Cubanos son miembros de dos alas y un pajaro”. He was referring to Lola Rodriguez de Tio’s poem, “Cuba y Puerto Rico son de un pájaro las dos alas,” which meant that our relationship, and the greater Puerto Rico-Cuba relationship, was not only historical but it was also familial. The relationships my ancestors created long ago made us welcomed visitors- even hermanos during our visit in 2017. Those words sang in my heart because I felt it, too. There was something really special about being in Cuba and I had only been there about an hour. We talked about the formation of our flags and that they are inversed because they are the flags of one bird. He assured me that one day Puerto Rico will have their shot at independence, even though that is not something you can promise.

By day two, I grew accustomed to perpetual sweating, frizzy hair, and the heat. I also learned many restaurants run out of food and supplies, so we usually didn’t go to the same place two days in a row. Finding a place to eat in Havana was mostly an adventure- we gave ourselves ample time to walk and find a place before we continued our itinerary for the day. When our local guide took us to a restaurant in the campo, we finally tasted delicious Cuban morro, bistec encebollado, and yuca. In the struggle to find food everyday, I thought about my privileged American way of life. Aside from the beautiful beaches and lovely walks throughout various parts of Havana, my favorite part of the trip was dancing salsa and watching Cubans dance salsa. They don’t dance “on 2” like Puerto Ricans and New Yorkers do, which is the style I’m trained in. Los jardines, a fun dance club by the coast of Havana, was a place where dance troupes performed and battled each other on the floor– a place that showed me that once again Puerto Ricans and Cubans were connected.

The phrase “Cuba y Puerto Rico son de un pájaro las dos alas” memorialized my trip to Cuba- various taxi drivers, waitresses, and people mentioned the phrase when they learned about my heritage and cultural background. You see, this relationship between Cuba and Puerto Rico crystallized something beyond comradery for me in Cuba… it provided me with a sense of community that I could be a part of. Needless to say, I came back from Cuba five pounds lighter, with less desire to use social media due to my internet cleanse, and with a deeper appreciation for the simpler, beautiful things in life- my family, friends, and the beautiful earth around me.

 

 

A Reflection on Michelle Cliff’s Work

I recently came across Michelle Cliff’s work because I am composing my doctoral exam fields and was advised to add Michelle Cliff’s texts to my reading lists. Although, I haven’t read much of her work, her collection, The Land of Look Behind, profoundly impacted my scholarship and my academic and creative thought. In her preface- “A Journey into Speech” Michelle Cliff wrote about her difficulty with writing this book, since she struggled to “competently” and intellectually write about her personal life. She claims her dissertation provided her with “an intellectual belief in [her]self that [she] had not had before” and simultaneously this intellectual belief in herself, she writes, was “distancing me from who I am, rendering me speechless about who I am” (11).  So much of my academic work relies on what I or my family have lived through- it is the reason why decolonial and feminist practices and ideologies influence and shape my research, my thought, and my goals. Yet, I too struggle with speechlessness.

I entered my doctoral program right after I obtained my bachelor’s degree, so I struggle with this feeling of being an outsider- of knowing and not knowing at the same time. In her essay, Michelle Cliff states, “I could speak fluently, but I could not reveal’ (12). It is hard for me to communicate in my academic and personal work how much academia has made me feel like I do not belong because I feel like I carry my ancestors and family with me in every single classroom, meeting, abstract submission, and academic space I occupy or endeavor I approach. And, this weight makes me I feel like I have so much more to prove because my Caribbean diasporic descent, my class, my gender, and my ebonics resonate with strangers far more than my intellect or character. Like Michelle Cliff, my light skin does not save me from the colonial ghost that haunts my island, my family, and myself. She writes about the legacies of colonialism in her homeland of Jamaica and how the oppressors have become middle-class Jamaicans who interpolate and perpetuate colonialist, racist, sexist logic.

Her writing helps me make sense of the world around of me and my position as a subject in it- witnessing, surviving, and analyzing. Her words provide with clarity and a humbling way to  helps thinking about the ways in which my Puerto Rican family internalizes and continues to perpetuate cultural logics and myths produced by U.S. hegemony. Michelle Cliff wrote, “one of the effects of assimilation, indoctrination, and passing into the anglocentrism of British West Indian culture is that you believe absolutely in the hegemony of the King’s English and in the form in which it is meant to be expressed. Or else your writing is not literature; it is folklore, and folklore can never be art” (13). This passage resonated with me the most because as a child, my siblings and I were ostracized for not speaking the proper form of Spanish and for naturally code-switching between Spanish and English. As a young teenager, I mimicked ‘perfect Spanish’ speakers and felt ashamed to speak in my native tongue in front of strangers. In Nuyorican poetry, I felt my experiences were legitimized and real. The colonial ghost that is implicated in Cliff’s work, and notable in many diasporic writers like Junot Diaz, Julia de Burgos and so on, has haunted me for so long because, like my mother and father, I inherited erasure and myth as truth.

In my own decolonial project, which is ongoing and evolving, I will think of Michelle Cliff. Part of Michelle Cliff’s decolonial project, as a writer and as a historian, is to obtain wholeness and produce work within fragmentation, to recover from erasure, to be herself outside of her family and society’s expectations. As a Puerto Rican, I can not read Michelle Cliff’s work without thinking about the colonial ghost in Puerto Rico- past and present- and of my responsibility as a scholar and graduate student to produce scholarship and testimony in the service of undoing erasure, of seeking justice.

Michelle Cliff  states, “To write as a complete Caribbean woman, or man for that matter, demands us retracing the African part of ourselves, reclaiming as our own, and as our subject, a history sunk under the sea, or trapped in a class system notable for its rigidity and absolute dependence on color stratification. On a past bleached from our minds. It means finding the artforms of these of our ancestors  and speaking in the patois forbidden us” (14). No longer am I ashamed of the pieces of myself I was taught to hate, and my goal is to help my family, my friends, and future students participate in the decolonial project Michelle Cliff has showcased to us in her writing. Her decolonial love to herself and her nation rejects racial violence, sexual politics, anti-blackness, gender roles, femininity, and oppositional politics. For me, Michelle Cliff’s legacy is carried in the lesson of testifying… she bore witness to her experiences as a Caribbean lesbian woman in the U.S., London, and Jamaica and etched her story into our lives as an example of obtaining wholeness in fragmentation-forever.

 

References:

Cliff, Michelle. The Land of Look Behind. Ithaca: Firebrand Books, 1985. Print.

 

 

 

A little, or a lot, about me.

cropped-dsc_13221.jpgMy life was encompassed by the pride I had of being a Latina woman, although then I didn’t know what that meant. Growing up in a predominantly Hispanic/Latino enclave in Newark, NJ I was accustomed to my peers looking like me and speaking the same language I did …except for the handful of Blacks and token Asians. Spanish was my native tongue and seemed to be there when English failed me. The first syllables and enunciations that leaked from my mouth were en Español. At the bodegas, the owners would always treat the Latinos with more respect and friendliness because we were all the same. We were all in the same struggle. Still, I didn’t know what that was either until I got older.

It annoyed me how the white teachers would always mispronounce my name and give it this ugly sound. They made my name sound distasteful and not beautiful. In Spanish it was so poetic and enchanting to me. During my adolescence I always wanted to change my name to a more American name – something simpler. Why couldn’t I just be named Ashley or Jessica? I’ve attended award ceremonies and have had my name mispronounced while the other kids just laughed. It really took a toll on my self-esteem when I was younger. I think my mother caught on because she asked me if I even liked my name. As I gained maturity and lived through more experiences, I realized my name was a part of my cultural identity and gave me this infinite membership to the Latino community. My name is my culture.

It was only in high school where I was exposed to different cultures and ideas. My classmates were from all over the world – Portugal, Spain, China, Brazil, etc. They were the ones who were so nationalist and proud of their countries and didn’t care if they were not culturally American because they had another country they could return to. The way a person looked was important as well. My curly hair was never deemed as beautiful and was a big insecurity of mine for quite some time. They laughed and mocked saying that my hair had African qualities because it was so bad to have associations with Blackness, which I didn’t really understand either. Ever since middle school, I always wanted to straighten my hair and my mom wouldn’t let me. She’d yell at me for trying to damage such beautiful hair. I was so jealous of the people of European descent who inherently came out with straight, uncomplicated hair. As an ethnic person, you don’t know what you’re gonna get in the hair lottery. The way I learned to love my name is the way I learned to love my hair. I couldn’t let these oppressive ideas win.

As a child, I was ignorant and felt safe in my little, Latino bubble. This bubble would also deem me as un-American, whatever American meant anyway. My entire life I struggled with my identity, as do many immigrants or the products of immigrants. Siempre estaba confudida.[1] I was born here… in the United States. But even if I wasn’t, if I was born in Puerto Rico like my parents, I would still technically be born in the United States. That’s the more confusing thing though. Puerto Ricans are only Americans when it’s convenient, and then we’re ‘foreigners’ when it’s convenient too. Although we have automatic citizenship in the United States, it does not mean we do not encounter racism, discrimination, and other forms of oppression. We have suffered here, too.

All immigration experiences are different, though. I learned that throughout the years.  I cannot fathom the statement that a human being is illegal. I didn’t understand the concept of ‘illegal’ and ‘legal’. Those classifications anger me. High school exposed me to a lot of things I didn’t know existed. When my best friend pulled me aside to tell me she was in the process of getting her green card, I was so dumbfounded. She explained it all to me. I was confused because I could never consider her illegal or have her deported one day. Her parents arrived here legally with working visas and overstayed their time here. My parents just caught a plane here and were fine never worrying about deportation or trouble with employment that required a social security number.

Before I entered high school and learned about different cultures, identities, and immigration experiences, I went to Puerto Rico for the summer. I was so excited to be with the people I proudly associated myself with and was ready for what Americans portrayed Puerto Rico as on the television and internet. When I arrived in my mom’s barrio, I couldn’t help but notice all the poverty. Now I understood why people left such a beautiful island, what is deemed as paradise by tourists. It was a great summer and I left with the label – gringa. It upset me that my cousins would label me as white and American when I was like them. Damn my extremely light skin when all my cousins were caramelized by the sun. I’M PUERTO RICAN damn it! They weren’t only referring to my skin color though. It was this other language I had, my style of dress, my materialism, and “wealth”. I was obviously not wealthy but they really believed I was because of my Americanness.

That’s when it hit me – I was neither one nor the other. I was both. I was a part of this assimilated group of people that classified with two cultures…two identities. As I got older, the more I embraced this dual identity. It was sorta empowering to pick and choose when I would be more of one or the other. In certain situations I could pretend I didn’t speak Spanish to benefit me or I could utilize my Spanish and pretend I didn’t know English. It’s like the characters in “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents” utilizing English in the Dominican Republic to gain respect and power.

The immigration process is a difficult thing to understand, especially since people like me do not have first-hand experience. I’m just a byproduct of immigration. Every group goes through a different process and no migration process is alike. One thing I do know for sure is that we all struggle here somehow trying to strive towards that American dream. We are all trying to do better than what our ‘homes’ can give us. I have done my share of assimilation and picking with cultural traditions I want to follow according to the day or event. My name is Keishla, pronounced Kay-shla. Let your tongue let go of the L gently, not abruptly. I am a light-skinned Latina woman with curly ass hair that throws people off. They sometimes think I’m Greek or Spanish or Lebanese. I say I’m not either one of those things…I am a Puerto Rican woman from New Jersey. So, maybe, just maybe, identity shouldn’t be as problematic and self-conscious as we make it. Instead of struggling to choose one, maybe we should choose both because in reality we are neither here or there. “Mi corazon esta ni aqui ni alla”.

[1] Translation: I was always confused.